“I think that Beauty, The Strange Necessity – as Rebecca West once called it – is something that matters profoundly to humanity, and that unless the race of man perishes from the earth, it will increasingly value that Grace, will seek it, and will ultimately attain it.”
Clough Williams-Ellis became famous for designing and building Portmerion, the village he created on the north Wales coast, inspired by villages he had seen on the Italian riviera. He deserves to be as well known for his attitude to beautiful places and his efforts to preserve and increase access to lovely buildings and places.
In 1930 he saw youth hostels as a sign of hope in dismal times. Thousands of young people tramping into the countryside and seeking knowledge of beauty in nature encouraged him. He believed that they would push back the urbanisation of the countryside and the destruction of traditional villages and that they would learn to love natural beauty as he did.
He believed people were meant to live in happy beautiful surroundings and he wanted a new architecture that didn’t detract from but enhanced their surroundings. He wanted colourful, beautiful buildings that echoed the landscape. He was a founding member of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England and the Council for the Preservation of Rural Wales and was influential in the creation of national parks and particularly Snowdonia.
Youth hostels fitted with his ambitions. He had already begun building Portmeirion when he designed a small youth hostel for a site two miles from the main Mold-Ruthin road, at Maeshafn in Wales.
The simple wooden structure of unusual design made an immediate statement. It aligned youth hostels with modern architecture, in a colourful style, linked to the arts and crafts movement and to Clough Williams-Ellis’ ambitions.
The building was Italianate and Mediterranean. Blue doors in the yellow walls of a central common room opened into two dormitories, one for men on the south side and one for women, on the north side. He divided each dormitory into four cubicles for cosiness and suspended stout canvas bunks in the cubicles.
His design was as far from the large, purpose-built hostels of Germany as it was possible to be. His hostel was small where those of Germany were big.
The building cost £900, far more than anyone expected though at £45-55,000 in today’s money, it no longer seems that expensive. Private money, from the Liverpool shipowners, A Holt and Co, paid for the building, not the public authorities that were building youth hostels in Germany. Their contribution to youth hostels was yet to come.
The youth hostel opened at Whit 1931, one of a clutch of hostels that were the first to open in Britain that year, and an official opening followed in June when Williams-Ellis was there.
In her diary Bertha Gough, an early participant in the beginning of hostels on Merseyside, recorded that 52 people stayed on after the opening and, although it was a warm June night, they were all cold in the bunks. Some slept two in a bed for warmth.
The youth hostel at Maeshafn was, over time, messed around with and altered, had a balcony added and taken away. Its windows were replaced and its shutters removed. A room was added as the hostel struggled to adapt to change and demand until it closed and was sold in 2006.
As the first purpose-built hostel in Britain, it marked an important milestone in the first years of youth hostels and, at the time, was a hopeful sign of the kind of hostels the association planned to build. Others followed showing that fashionable architects and good, colourful design and architecture are not new to youth hostels.