Bonny in its best

The youth hostels at Maeshafn and Holmbury St Mary had proved too expensive for the new YHA, and its executive committee determined it would lease or buy property rather than build from scratch.

The experience and expense did not end architect-designed, purpose-built hostels, not for a few years anyway. But those that followed haven’t always had the recognition of the other two. Maybe that’s because their designs were less ambitious or because they better disguised their modernity with a subtle vernacular feel. So here’s a look at some of those that followed Maeshafn and Holmury in the 1930s…

YHA Borrowdale (Author photograph)

Early architect-designed hostels often proved short-lived. A hostel, in an arts and craft style, at Chelwood Gate, near Haywards Heath in Sussex, opened in 1934 but it seems to have been a project of the Manor Trust, with little input from YHA, and the hostel never re-opened after being requisitioned for the war.

Another tranche of architect-designed hostels were more enduring. At Bellingham, Northumberland, in June 1937 on land leased to YHA by the Duke of Northumberland, a simple building in red cedar opened. The architect, John Dower, prepared initial plans but a more simple design was substituted to keep down costs. Looking at the construction that resulted, it’s difficult to see the hand of any architect.

The next year, 1938, turned out to be a busy one for architect-designed hostels in the north of England and for John Dower. Three hostels opened that year, two in the same month.

“…it could give people living in those areas a chance of escape and leisure…

First, a purpose-built hostel opened at Langdon Beck, County Durham, in time for the Easter holiday. Stephen H. Clarke designed the hostel in stone and timber, on land leased to YHA by local landowner and YHA supporter, Lord Barnard. 

Some of the hostel’s funding came from the Special Areas Act 1934, set up in the wake of the Great Depression, which identified South Wales, Tyneside, West Cumberland and Scotland as areas with special employment needs. YHA was able to access funds as it could give people living in those areas a chance of escape and leisure. The fund enabled YHA to open seven other hostels.

Photos show the hostel had an uncomfortable mixed design, with a brick building at the centre between two extending wings of wood construction. It looks bleak and uncompromising, and a fire in 1958 took hold and destroyed the building after which volunteers built a new hostel in its place.

The next two hostels were the work of John Dower, who had done the initial plans for the hostel at Bellingham.

YHA Eskdale – courtesy YHA Archive

Dower became an important figure in the national parks movement, after he wrote the 1945 report which was instrumental in the development of national parks in Britain. His marriage to Pauline took him into the Trevelyan family, as Pauline’s father was Sir Charles Trevelyan and her uncle G.M. Trevelyan, YHA’s first president.

The Trevelyans were generous benefactors of early youth hostels, giving land and financial support on many occasions.

Dower’s hostel at Eskdale opened in July 1938, built in local stone at a cost of £4,000, again partly with government funds from the Special Areas Fund. It’s an imposing building in its valley location. In later years a porch was enclosed, a wing to the rear extended and a classroom built. That the building has changed so little is testament to the strength of Dower’s original design.

“The building with its vernacular feel succeeds beautifully…

In the same month Dower’s next hostel opened at Malham, near to his home at Kirkby Malham. He designed the hostel to mimic local farmsteads and it’s the more attractive of his designs. The building with its vernacular feel succeeds beautifully and today it’s easy to miss that it is modern or purpose built, as it fits so easily into its surroundings.

Additions have been made to the hostel with less successful buildings which detract from Dower’s original design but, in their defence, youth hostels are practical places and the extensions have ensured the hostel’s continued success.

John Dower also planned a hostel for land at Cambo near Wallington, the Trevelyan family seat, but that hostel never materialised and John died tragically in 1947. Pauline and their son, Michael, continued the family connection with countryside affairs and YHA. The hostel at Malham remains a memorial to one of YHA’s foremost architects.

Friends and family at the dedication of the the hostel at Malham to the memory of John Dower in 1948. (l to r) Arthur Raistrick, Professor GM Trevelyan, Arthur Dower, Michael Dower, Pauline Dower and H Warwick. (YHA Archive)

In April the following year, the last of YHA’s architect-designed hostels to be built before the war opened at Longthwaite in Borrowdale, Cumbria. The cedar weatherboard and shingle construction has a slight vernacular look. The Special Areas Fund again contributed to the hotel, designed by architect, Joseph Peascod, and built by F. Green of Keswick in three months. 

It remains a lovely building with a homely feel, “bonny in its best moods” as Harry Chapman, regional secretary for Lakeland region described it.

Its additions have been sensitively managed. Its interior works well. The lounge, bar and dining area at the centre of the hostel hark back to Holmbury St Mary and look forward to more modern hostels, creating a welcoming communal space.

“London required the skills of an architect to create a hostel on an historic and very public site damaged during the London Blitz in 1940…

War intervened soon after Borrowdale opened and halted the construction of architect-designed hostels. A post-war shortage of materials and builders, and the priority given to housing, meant YHA had little opportunity for grand hostel schemes. 

With plenty of suitable property in big, old buildings available to buy for knock-down prices, because no-one else wanted them, YHA opened no more purpose-built hostels for nearly twenty years, until a prime site in London required the skills of an architect to create a hostel on an historic and very public site damaged during the London Blitz in 1940 but that’s a story for another time.

If you’d like to find out more about the history of some of the hostels mentioned in this post, you can download the pdf profile for Malham below and 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.

3 thoughts on “Bonny in its best

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  1. All this is most interesting,……my wife and I ran a number of hostels in the 60’s namely ….Winchester,Scarborough,Staindale,Lynton (N.Devon) and Alfriston……..Do you have anything covering these hostels………..Best wishes Mike and Valerie Sach

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