Black Sail and simplicity – a hostel history

Jack Catchpool, YHA national secretary, at the opening of Black Sail in 1933.

For anyone interested in social history hostels are great. You can visit hostels that played a part in a big social movement, discover another part of the hostel story or get a feel for what people valued most almost a century ago. With a bit of imagination you can carry yourself back to a time when youth hostels were a unique and special way of “showing townsmen another way to escape to the hills…”

I’ve always loved Black Sail hut in the Lake District, plenty of people do. It reminds me of a simpler kind of life, of the kind of simplicity which is a special part of hostels.

In 2018 Black Sail celebrates its 85th birthday, not quite the oldest hostel in Britain but amongst the oldest. To many it has become an archetype, a symbol of all that youth hostels are about, especially in its simplicity.

When it opened in 1933 no one would have guessed what lay ahead or imagined that the hostel would still be there 80 years later, though they might have hoped.

Early in 1933 three visitors inspected “the Shepherd’s Hut at the foot of Scarf Gap [sic]”. They walked up the track to the hut.

Richard Hall, one of the founding members of the Lakeland regional group, described the hostel for The Friend magazine, as a delightful place “16 yds long [with] three rooms of almost equal size, with fireplaces and windows in each. It requires very little to make it weatherproof…”

The hostel opened in April, thanks to a generous donation from G.M.Trevelyan the historian, Cambridge professor and YHA’s first president. It was an immediate success.

A timber annexe, added to the rear of the hostel at some point in the first few years after the hostel opened, served as basic kitchen. Accommodation was rough and ready – washing in the stream, chemical toilets in wooden huts – but that was not unusual in those early days. The warden bedded down beside the fire in the common room when everyone else had gone to bed.

Early hostels provided very simple accommodation. In 1943 Jack Catchpool, who was at the opening of Black Sail as YHA’s first national secretary (equivalent of today’s chief executive), wrote that youth hostels symbolised “a new set of values. A recognition of the all importance of the simple pleasures of life”.

Youth hostels were not “abodes of luxury.” G.M.Trevelyan said that their cheap and spartan fare had “drawn out the right type of young men and women who take their holidays strenuously and joyously, without slacking or rioting, hard walkers or active bicyclists.”

Resistance to softness was a creed for early youth hostel members. Physical hardship was seen as enhancing to life. The lack of comfort also created a feeling of fellowship and Black Sail still offers plenty of that.

With only one common room for eating in and relaxing, you’re bound to meet your fellow guests. The fact that you’ll have to walk to get to Black Sail somehow also makes food there always taste better.

An international working group helped excavate ground at the back of the hostel in 1954 for a new annexe which held a small self catering kitchen, a kitchen for the warden and a bedroom for her or him.

Other changes, like flush toilets, arrived over the years and in 2013 a major project provided improvements whilst keeping the hostel true to its roots. The simple life today includes a shower but no mobile reception and no wi-fi.

Black Sail is no longer as rough and ready as it once was but you can still imagine yourself back in those early days when you stay at Black Sail.

On a dark night little has changed. You’ll still have to pop outside for a visit to the loo and you might still see the stars as the surroundings are so dark, just as it was 85 years or more ago.

However much the world has changed, at Black Sail history comes alive.

“The demand for accommodation at Black Sail has continued unabated for over forty years…” Read more reflections on the history of Black Sail in John Martin’s incomparable profile of the hostel here. Y950001-Black Sail YH Profile 2018-01-01 copy

John is YHA’s honorary archivist and many thanks to him for allowing the use of his profile here.

Open to All – how youth hostels changed the world  has more thoughts and reflections on the development of simplicity in YHA, including a chapter on a visit to Black Sail in the late 1970s.

I am currently researching the life of Jack Catchpool, first secretary of YHA, the equivalent of today’s chief executive, and president of the international federation of youth hostels, aiming to publish his biography in 2019. His life is an inspiring story of travel, adventure and youth hostels. He worked with zest, energy and enthusiasm to improve the lives of all but especially young people in Britain and around the world.

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