Purpose built hostels showed that the youth hostel movement was new, bold and contemporary, aligning its supporters with other modern movements.
But a movement is a coalition that relies on many different supporters and when the costs of purpose built hostels became obvious, against the cheapness of using existing empty properties, the desire for new, modern buildings, for the most part, faded.
YHA turned to old buildings, old mansions and old abandoned farm buildings, even hunting lodges and castles, rooting itself in old traditional country ways and in the symbols of a vanished past.
The youth hostel at Holmbury St Mary in Surrey is the most enduring example of that hunger for the new and the modern and the radical in the early YHA. Here’s a look at the hostel and how it came about.
Power stations and youth hostels are an unexpected mix, and they’re even more unlikely with motorway service stations thrown in, but all of them show how a single architect influenced youth hostels in their early days.
Holmbury St Mary in Surrey one of the prominent, early purpose-built youth hostels is still open today. Its design had so many features essential to hostels that it has endured, in many ways a model of all that a good youth hostel could be.
A 26 year-old architect, who was an early YHA member, designed the hostel to open in 1935 as one of his first projects. Money from the Carnegie Trust funded the building as part of a massive grant from the trust to the new YHA.
The hostel would show an inquisitive world what this new and extraordinary kind of accommodation was all about.
Howard Lobb designed the red brick hostel with ultra-modern long low lines and metal window frames. It sat in its idyllic setting, facing east and west among broad and gently sloping hills. Lobb designed everything for simplicity, with men downstairs, women above.
He broke each of the two large bedrooms for 24 into cubicles to give a sense of privacy. Each cubicle slept four in two bunks. Under each window, between each pair of bunks, built-in lockers provided seats.
The common room opened on a sun terrace to fit with a fashion for sunbathing and the open air. Beyond there was space for camping and games.
In the common room, with windows on three sides, was a cheerful painted frieze and a low open fire. Miss Prunella Potts painted the decorative panels of country scenes, youth hostel members and a satyr. She included the builder, the architect, Lobb, and herself in the design.
Lobb designed a second youth hostel at Ewhurst Green in brick and timber with a more arts and craft style this time, as if he was trying out different styles in his work for the new association. The young architect must have been busy, as the hostel may have been finished as soon as six months after Holmbury St Mary.
He used local hand-made roof tiles and untreated Western Red Cedar for the hostel at Ewhurst Green. Intended to be all brick, like the hostel at Holmbury St Mary, he introduced wood to save money.
Timber work was in British Columbia Pine, stained and polished with beeswax and turpentine. Potts painted a second frieze direct on to the wood with preliminary sizing only.
Sir Philip Gibbs, gifted reporter and war correspondent, knighted for his reporting of the first world war, donated the site. He used his own money, with funds from the Imperial College of Science, for the building.
A user described the youth hostel as “super modern” with showers, electric cookers and bright painted furniture. YHA sold it in 1983 and, demolished, it made way for a new house.
Lobb designed no further hostels, but his practise flourished.
During the second world war he was architect to various ministries and built many schools for county authorities.
He drew big public works in his later career. They included the Hunterston A nuclear power station in Ayrshire, the motorway service areas at Frankley on the M5 and Leicester Forest on the M1. He designed racecourse buildings at Newcastle, Newmarket, Goodwood and Doncaster.
The influence of art and artistic touchs showed in other places in YHA. Friezes and murals appeared on the walls of other youth hostels. Eleanor Farjeon, a protégé of the poet Edward Thomas, wrote a poem for the 1933 Youth Hostel Handbook. Novelist, Sir Hugh Walpole, contributed a foreword to that handbook.
Woodcuts decorated the covers of handbooks, annual reports and magazines. Youth hostels were striving to be more than functional. They demonstrated an open colourful spirit, an air of freshness and health.
But no one expected purpose built and architect designed hostels would be so expensive. In view of the high and unexpected costs of the youth hostel at Maeshafn, the Merseyside group decided they would not design and build again. They would, wherever possible, lease or rent buildings. Holmbury St Mary cost an estimated £2,500.
An early user called it “a very beautiful hostel, but rather overdone. So much money had been spent on it!”
The national executive was coming to the same conclusion. They told the Carnegie trust they believed it was wiser to get or rent existing buildings. They would adapt them to their purpose, rather than erect new buildings which might be out of keeping with their surroundings.
That decision ushered YHA into a future with a reputation for reusing, adapting and recycling old buildings, from mansions to mills and shepherd’s huts, a reputation that means people are today surprised by the idea of design in hostels.
Holmbury St Mary has survived against those odds, partly because its layout was so carefully conceived and executed. The building centres on its ‘common’ room, the cosy central space where guests meet, buy meals or eat their own, making the hostel friendly and sociable. It is a light and sunny and healthy building still.
Its weakness? Its bedrooms were too big and when sub-divided too small. It lacks the privacy of en-suites and a lack of flexibility, in its layout of bedrooms on two floors, sometimes no longer suits the variety of modern guests and their demands.
It remains a lovely hostels and one well worth visiting because Lobb’s hostel has endured along with some original features and those panels of decorative scenes Prunella Potts painted.
The story of architect designed hostels didn’t end with Howard Lobb and I’ll be back with a couple more posts on those that have followed through the years. Or you can read the previous posts if you missed those.
You can read John Martin’s evocative profile of YHA Holmbury St Mary with much more carefully gathered information and images than I had space for here Y950001-Holmbury YH Profile 2018-01-01. The YHA archive at the Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham, has a full set of all 135 profiles that John has written to date. They’re an invaluable resource for anyone researching the history of hostels.
If you have the chance after staying at Holmbury St Mary or if you’ve ever stayed there before, take in a visit to or look at the history of Franckley Services and Leicester Forest East, and wonder at the career of an architect who cut his teeth designing hostels before he turned to race courses, a power station and motorway services, all of them at the edge of architecture in their time.