Youth hostels and the Road to Wigan Pier

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Rudyard Lake in 1935, a year before Orwell’s visit, photo courtesy YHA Archive

I’ve always admired George Orwell. His beautiful prose is like a window pane. I studied his essays in sixth form and bought his collected essays and journalism that same year. I still have copies of those four volumes. Who couldn’t help but a love a man who wrote five rules for writing plain English and added a sixth, to break all the previous rules rather than write something barbarous. Those are rules I like.

At the end of January 1936, with money in his pocket from his publisher, he left London to study the condition of the unemployed in the industrial north of England. Along the way he stayed in youth hostels.

He paid a shilling for the night at Clent, near Stourbridge, Worcestershire. It was a one-storey wooden building, with a corrugated iron roof, purpose-built on a site leased to YHA. It had opened for the summer of 1934. Two dormitories flanked a central common-room and kitchen. A  huge coke stove kept the hostel very hot. Orwell paid 2d for gas and cooked his own food.

The warden’s son, a fat youth, played table tennis with Orwell “out of kindness” until the writer fell into bed, exhausted. He had walked sixteen miles that day from Stourbridge. The next morning he talked with the warden who kept chickens and collected glass and pewter. Orwell seemed to enjoy his stay though he never said so.

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Clent youth hostel, undated, photo courtesy YHA Archive

A day later he went to Rudyard Lake, perhaps because of its connections with Kipling, the writer, whom he alternatively loved, loathed, and enjoyed. Kipling’s parents had picnicked at the lake, a beauty spot, before they married and named their son in honour of the place. The visit to Rudyard might have been Orwell’s tribute to the writer he wished he could honour with a salute of guns.

He found the hostel about one mile from the lake with difficulty. Cliff Park Hall opened in June 1933 as a youth hostel. Orwell thought it was “a most peculiar place”. It was like a draughty barracks he thought in a fake castle. Apart from three or four rooms it was empty, with miles of echoing stone passages, no lighting except candles and only smoking oil stoves to cook on.

A family built the hall in 1811. The North Staffordshire Railway bought it around 1900 and ran it as a hotel and golf course. YHA opened the hostel in 1933.

At night Orwell was terribly cold. He was so cold when he woke that he couldn’t do up any buttons and had to thaw his hands before he could dress. Ice had choked the lake overnight and his second experience of a youth hostel was less satisfying than the first. He walked 10 or 11 miles to Macclesfield where he caught the bus to Manchester.

Orwell later wrote the fiction for which he became famous, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four. But his earlier writing provides marvellous social commentary, particularly The Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in London and Paris.

In other articles of social documentary, he offers us a picture of what made youth hostels attractive in the early 1930s. They were cheap. At a temperance hotel in Stourbridge, which he had expected to be cheap, he had to pay 5s for bed and breakfast, four times the price of his stay at Clent.

The price of a night in a youth hostel was about the same as a night in a cheap lodging house. They were the lowest and cheapest accommodation but, as Orwell observed anyone who stayed in a lodging house, had to choose between an easy-going pigsty or a hygienic prison.

Youth hostels were neither. They offered cheap lodgings in the countryside where there were neither lodging houses nor temperance hotels. Youth hostels for a shilling a night must have been heaven, even if in winter there was no one else staying in them.

Orwell never went back to youth hostels after those two nights. Maybe it was because he didn’t have much time for socialists, fruit juice drinkers, sandal wearers and Quakers and youth hostels had their share of those.

Maybe it was because the YHA office refused to cash a cheque for him when he arrived in Manchester after the night at Rudyard. Given that he was dressed like a tramp the refusal might have been expected. He pawned his scarf instead.

Whatever the reason, he never went back to youth hostels. He grew ill with TB, the war came along and he wrote the books that he is best known for.

Youth hostels dropped from his life. He’s the only great writer I know who wrote about a youth hostel stay and he left valuable vignettes of two youth hostels in their pioneering days, reminders that youth hostels could already be cold, spartan and hard, four years after their founding, already well on their way to acquiring a reputation for discomfort which it would take them years to shed.

George Orwell’s six rules of writing:

  • “Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  • Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  • Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.”

You can read Orwell’s account of his hostel visits in Volume One of his Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, published by Penguin 1970. You can still pick up copies second hand.

The hostel at Clent closed in 1957 when YHA could not extend the lease and sold the building to a scout group. The scout group moved the wooden hut to another site.

Having bought the hostel at Rudyard Lake in 1958 and made various attempts to modernise it, YHA closed and sold the hall in 1970.

Thank you to John Martin for information taken from his historical listing of all youth hostels in England and Wales. You can find the full listing at http://www.calmview.bham.ac.uk/GetDocument.ashx?db=Catalog&fname=YHA+Historical+listing+of+all+youth+hostels+and+associated+accommodation+Y900003.pdf

I wrote about Orwell’s visits to youth hostels in Open to All, the definitive history of youth hostels in England and Wales, available from Amazon. It’s the story of how youth hostels battled to shed their image for cold, hard living, to be seen as the modern clean comfortable places they had become.

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