One for the hills, and history

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Idwal Cottage in Snowdonia is a favourite of mine. Its location is perfect, its facilities great and its history unrivalled.

It’s located among marvellous hills. They’re big – technically mountains – and the challenge of climbing them rises in your face, with no long treks to get among them.

They’re big and ugly and they are the hills which turned Sir Chris Bonington to climbing. The first team to conquer Everest practised on them, staying at the Pen-Y-Gwryd hotel.

In 1933 H.H. Symonds, countryside campaigner and a founder member of YHA on Merseyside, called Idwal Cottage “A wonderful climbing centre 1000 feet above sea level at the head of Nant Ffrancon… “.

He went on to describe the hostel as “unequalled, with Tryphaen [sic], the Glyders and Carnedd Llewellyn rising straight from the door”, all of them peaks over 3000 feet. The surrounding area has eleven other 3000 footers.

They give the hostel an atmosphere shared only by other hill-walking hostels like Borrowdale and Eskdale in the Lake District. Add to that its history as one of the first hostels in Britain – it opened in 1931 – and Idwal Cottage is a special place.

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The hills drew people straight away. Soon after the hostel opened there was resentment of the number of climbers using the hostel; “the danger of Idwal becoming no more than a climbing club” as Reg Taylor recalled in his account of the early years of hostels in North Wales.

But, he admitted, “in fact there has always been a balance of interests. In summer the climbing types slept contentedly in tents on the lawn, leaving the hostel beds for the walkers and cyclists. In winter they moved indoors, or most of them did… Idwal had an open verandah with two two-tier bunks, and great was the competition to sleep there, summer and winter.”

You can still camp in the grounds but the veranda has gone, incorporated in building work that took place in 1959, to extend and modernise the hostel.

Richard Schirrmann, the man who invented hostels, officially opened the hostel after that work in May 1959, on his second visit to England and Wales before he went on to the official opening of a big new hostel in Holland Park, London.

Idwal Cottage is a small hostel and provides no meals but the self catering kitchen is great and it makes an excellent place for meeting and making friends among your fellow guests.

The managers, Saskia and Jeroen, add to the atmosphere with their relaxed and friendly welcome. And the hostel’s bar meant we didn’t have to travel in search of a pub. Though we did make a visit to the Pen-Y-Gwryd hotel for the atmosphere there.

Hostels in the hills, like Idwal, epitomise what hostels are for many people, the people who love Black Sail, who love remote hostels like Skiddaw House and Loch Ossian. Not all hostels are like them but they remain the ones that many people love more than any others.

John Martin has written a history of the hostel, one of his wonderful detailed illustrated hostel profiles, and you can read it here. Y950001-Idwal YH Profile rev2015-10-01

You can read my account of last year’s walking trip in Snowdonia here: Over the hills

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