Youth hostels, Abercrombie and the Greater London plan.

Version 3

Youth hostels and design get a lot of attention today and I’ve been writing about why we shouldn’t be surprised by finding good design in hostels.

Architects have a long history of getting involved in youth hostels and one of the first in Britain was Sir Patrick Abercrombie. He’s best known for planning London after the second world war.

Abercrombie suggested decentralising the city into four rings with a suburban ring and a green belt of countryside surrounding the inner core of city. Outside the green belt he planned new towns like traditional country towns; two of these, Harlow and Crawley, were built on sites Abercrombie proposed.

But before all that he was a supporter of youth hostels.

After visiting Germany in the summer of 1929, a young man, Tom Fairclough, and some friends formed the first regional group in Liverpool. They grasped the need for purpose built, architect-designed youth hostels they had seen in Germany. They also wanted expert advice. They realised their own enthusiasm and dedication would not be enough.

They were walkers. They worked as clerks, teachers and secretaries. They knew nothing about architecture or design, nothing about the kind of buildings they needed for youth hostels or how they might go about getting them.

They involved builders and architects to give them essential, specialist advice. A Liverpool architect, PJ Clarke, offered professional support and a cheque for £300 to the group. One of the group, Rev HH Symonds, knew Patrick Abercrombie, Professor of Civic Design at Liverpool University’s School of Architecture and invited him to join the search for hostels.

Abercrombie would have found the enthusiastic members of the Merseyside group attractive. They, like him, loved traditional landscapes and country towns. Their aim of encouraging a love of the countryside would have encouraged him. The founders of youth hostels believed they could be of “great service to all lovers of the English countryside by maintaining the freedom of footpaths, by preventing the destruction and disfiguration of natural beauties…”

People wanted escape. Many men sought peace in the countryside after the mud and death of the first world war. Some believed that they had fought for an ideal countryside.

A rural dream fired them, not towns and cities. For some space and land was an appropriate reward for all they had suffered. Memories of the countryside had inspired and consoled them in the trenches. They longed to escape the dirt, poor housing and overcrowding of metropolitan Britain, if only for a weekend. People were also rediscovering the places of Britain, of England and Wales. Popular books by JB Priestley and HV Morton and Trevelyan’s histories encouraged them to get out of the metropolitan landscapes that confined them.

GM Trevelyan courtesy YHA
G.M.Trevelyan historian and first YHA president (YHA Archive)

Not all who dreamed of a countryside, open to all, were walkers. Speculators built suburbs in countryside on the edge of towns and cities.

A growing network of roads chewed up rural peace. Towns and cities lurched into the countryside. Small factories, petrol stations, roadside cafes and tea rooms sprang up. Pylons and advertising hoardings littered the way.

The uglification and destruction of the countryside was not inevitable. Little restricted the expansion of cities into the countryside.

Abercrombie was one of the growing band demanding greater efforts to preserve and protect the countryside. Planning regulation could limit, control and even improve the spreading ugliness.

Involving Abercrombie, a well known opponent of the destruction of the countryside, added credibility to the new venture of youth hostels.

He was a founder of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England and its first honorary secretary. It aimed to limit urban sprawl and ribbon development. Today it works locally and nationally to stand up for the countryside: to protect it from the threats the countryside faces, and to shape its future for the better.

Abercrombie’s involvement in youth hostels gave assurance that youth hostels and their users would not damage the countryside. Youth hostel members, at their first conference at Digswell Park in 1930, earnestly implored the new organisation to do all it could “to foster… a proper regard for the amenities of the countryside.” It should take steps “to prevent the disfiguration of places of natural beauty by the erection of unsightly buildings.”

Abercrombie had another involvement with hostels when Colwyn Ffoulkes, a colleague working in Abercrombie’s practise, planned a simple wooden building, like a plain, little chapel as extra accommodation for the youth hostel in the church rooms at Llanfihangel Glyn Myfyr on the Denbighshire / Merionethshire border. In 1931 the little hut could sleep 15 on triple tier bunks.

But an innkeeper protested that a youth hostel was incompatible with rural life. The vicar refused continued use of the church rooms and the hostel closed. YHA dismantled the wooden dormitory and moved it by lorry to Idwal Cottage.

Since then it has been there. It’s been a dormitory, a wet weather refuge, a cycle shed and a store. Now it’s restored to use as a sleeping shelter for seven, called the Anglesey hut. You can hire the hut for a night and sleep in one of the first architect designed hostel buildings.

Read one of John Martin’s profiles of  the hostel at Idwal and some more about the hut Y950001-Idwal YH Profile rev2015-10-01

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