A ship-shape history of Bristol youth hostel

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The original warehouse centre before modernisation. Photo courtesy YHA Archive at the Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.

On a visit to Bristol, last week I skipped past the youth hostel. I was late and didn’t have time to stop in what is still one of the my favourite city hostels. I’m as fond of the hostel as I am of the city and even more so now I’ve been reminded that Bristol is the port from which Jim Hawkins set out to Treasure Island.

Opened in 1989, the hostel was the first of its kind, an urban study centre at the heart of a dockland regeneration. It was also a state of the art city hostel with smaller rooms, showers, luggage storage, a lift and 24 hour reception.

With it, youth hostels joined a wider fashion for regeneration, particularly in old ports and docklands. As Britain lost an empire, cities gave up their old docks for new ports. Bristol abandoned its ‘floating harbour’ for docks at Avonmouth and Portbury and reshaped the old docks for new purposes.

Youth hostels came late to development plans for cities. Despite connections with Abercrombie, the architect who drew plans for cities like London and Hull in the aftermath of war, youth hostels had not played much part in development schemes. A youth hostel at Milton Keynes was an exception.

Neither did architects design many youth hostels after a brief flurry in the 1930s. Holland Park, Helmsley and Patterdale youth hostels were some exceptions. For the rest, YHA relied on adapting and reusing existing properties. Though moving into an old house made sense environmentally, the resulting hostels were often too small for their purposes, unsuitable and awkward.

They could be unpopular too. As surveys found from the 1960s onwards, people loved the atmosphere of hostels but disliked uncomfortable spartan facilities. They disliked dormitories that were too big, too lacking in privacy and too often dirty, cold and uncomfortable. Discomfort in a hostel was not fun.

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The youth hostel at Bristol set about changing that. The local MP, William Waldegrave, appealed for funds for a youth hostel in September 1986. Converting an old grain warehouse, on the edge of the harbour, into a youth hostel took almost three years. The inside was completely transformed and the hostel opened for its first guests in July 1989.

Bristol City Council provided funding to which the then Department of Education and Science, and the English Tourist Board added.

The hostel was designed to be everything that youth hostels were not which caused problems at the outset. The hostel shared the ground floor of the building with a tourist information centre having the prime waterfront side.

Though the hostel had a contemporary, welcoming feel, it lacked a cycle shed which upset traditional users. There had been battles over facilities including a self-catering kitchen, another totem for traditional users.

It survived the complaints and prospered. The idea that youth hostels could play a key role in community regeneration caught on. Other hostels in dockland developments followed, at Rotherhithe in London, then one in Manchester at Potato Wharf and the hostel at Liverpool. At Kington and Leominster in Herefordshire, hostels were part of the regeneration of market towns.

Today the tourist information centre has gone and the hostel has turned its back on Princes street, where the original entrance had been.

The hostel shows the far sighted thinking of all its original planners. Not only have other hostels followed its lead with smaller rooms and better facilities, its location is second to none.

When it opened all around were derelict wharehouses. The hostel had only the Arnolfini, an architects’ practise and a hotel, for neighbours. The rest was dereliction.

Today the area bustles with crowds. There’s a tranquil marina, museums, and a cinema nearby. Water ferries come and go. At night, bars and restaurants are crowded and lively.

On my last visit we ate in an Asian fusion restaurant in an old shipping container and stopped for coffee in another. It’s hard to believe that at the heart of this lively night life was once dereliction.

I also learned that ship-shape and Bristol fashion supposedly comes from the way that ships docked alongside each other in Bristol’s old tidal harbour!

You can read a full history of Bristol youth hostels in one of John Martin’s profiles here Y950001-Bristol YHs Profile 2018-01-01 [p] copy. These profiles are a wonderful snapshot in time and make no claim to be authoritative or definitive histories. John welcomes corrections and additions from anyone with more information to add.

The full profile for Bristol is here as a pdf  Y950001-Bristol YHs Profile 2018-01-01 [p] copy

Some of John’s other profiles for youth hostels are Malham, Black Sail, Idwal Cottage, and Patterdale.

One thought on “A ship-shape history of Bristol youth hostel

Add yours

  1. The original steel staircases made for a noisy stay and the wavy walls were frankly bizarre. I did have a fascinating evening people watching the queues for the nightclub opposite and how you could get VIP entry

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