Youth hostels conquered the world. When travel was beyond the pockets of many and impossible for many young women, even if they could afford it, youth hostels opened the world.
Youth hostels taught the world to travel, to journey, not to have a holiday, not to tour, but to travel using your own resources.
Youth hostels introduced independent travel for anyone. With a rucksack and guidebook, anyone could travel the world, meet people, make friends and fall in love. Before the internet and budget hotels, youth hostels introduced ideas that resonate with many travellers today, ideas like simplicity, health and sociability.
Conquering the world, youth hostels have grown up. Today’s youth hostels boast bars, restaurants, en-suites and free wifi. You can find them in all shapes, sizes and kinds. They are in cities, in towns, in the wilderness, in castles, mansions, mills and converted hotels.
Official youth hostels are no longer the only kind. Private individuals and chains, backed by venture capital, run hostels. There are more than 56 hostels, official and independent, in London alone. Companies, like PGL, run adventure centres. Local authorities run their own centres, for schools and groups. The Independent Hostels guide lists over 400 bunkhouses, hostels and camping barns.
The values of youth hostels make them special and to understand those values you have to go back to where they began and their origins in Germany in 1909.
A German school teacher invented the hostel idea. Richard Schirrmann wanted young people to learn in the outdoors because he believed, out in the natural world, they learned better than they did, in a stuffy crowded classroom. He took his pupils out walking, learning biology by studying flowers, geography by walking alongside rivers and geology by looking at hills and valleys.
He took them on longer and longer hikes. Caught in a storm on one trip he sheltered with his students in a school.
While the youngsters slept, he dreamed of hostels in schools all across Germany where, with desks and chairs pushed aside, young people could stop for a night, sleeping on mattresses on the floor.
At his own school he tried the idea, helped by the school caretaker and his wife. At the end of each day they turned their school into a temporary hostel, where young people could stay. The idea caught on and it worked so well that, after so many people came to stay, he opened the first permanent youth hostel in Altena in 1909.
Others followed. By 1920, 700 youth hostels had opened in Germany. Other people in other countries, after staying in Germany’s youth hostels, went home and opened hostels in their own countries and the idea spread through Europe.
As a simple idea, youth hostels adapted to local conditions. In Poland, they were part of a national movement.
In Holland, a foundation opened youth hostels. In Britain, philanthropists and young people, fired with enthusiasm for taking holidays in the country and with hopes of travel to other countries, opened youth hostels. The idea crossed the Atlantic and youth hostels opened in Canada and the USA.
The first youth hostels were simple affairs. When Jack Catchpool, first secretary of the Youth Hostels Association in England and Wales, was looking for suitable buildings he wrote that any building would do, “some rooms in a granary, or other outbuilding” would do.
“A dormitory for men and another dormitory for women or two or three separate rooms would be required. A further room, very simply furnished, which could be used as a Commonroom, where facilities could be provided for simple cooking completes the requirement of the Hostel.”
That simple approach allowed youth hostels to spread with remarkable speed through countries and among nations.
Youth hostels started when the idea of people working together, in an association, to achieve an aim was common.
Today we rely on individual effort and entrepreneurs to start a business or look to the state to begin an effort to improve lives. Then people were used to working together to bring about education, like the Workers Education Association, or travel, like Workers’ Travel Association.
Many of the organisations which started youth hotels were charities and had, at their hearts, ideals of education and well-being for young people. They encouraged travel for young people, making it possible to see other places and experience other cultures and landscapes.
At first, young people walked from hostel to hostel, getting healthy exercise as they travelled. Youth hostels took them out of cities into fresh air, sunshine and exercise.
From travel and the exploration of the world came ideas of meeting others from different backgrounds, and from other places and cultures. It was said of the first youth hostels in Britain that a steelworker could sit next to a bishop. So youth hostels became meeting places for the world.
Youth hostels were never only for young people. People of all ages were always welcome at youth hostels and they were always open to all, except for a couple of regions, like Bavaria in Germany, where preference was given to young people under 26.
Youth hostels were part of a voluntary movement. They were voluntary organisations. When people wanted a youth hostel they often found a building, painted and decorated it, or built it if necessary and, after they had found beds, furniture and equipment, they opened the hostel themselves.
Before and after world war two, young people around Europe co-operated in opening youth hostels. They opened a hostel in coast guard buildings on the west coast of Ireland, and in disused buildings near Paris.
They built one from scratch in Norway and, when war ended, reconstructed youth hostels across Europe, in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Norway and France. In India a working party including diplomats and politicians opened a youth hostel in a ruined Mughal pavilion in Delhi.
Youth hostels were determinedly international. From 1932, working together, they created an international federation to share ideas and to work together in the hope of creating peace among nations.
Self-help was an essential feature of the first youth hostels. The voluntary ethos continued to keep down costs as those who spent a night in a hostel helped with housework, tidying, cleaning and polishing in part payment for a night’s accommodation. The work gave everyone a stake in hostels with those who stayed in hostels also running hostels.
Sharing kept costs low and made the new way of travelling and taking holidays affordable. Shared single sex dormitories were standard as were common rooms and self catering kitchens where guests cooked their own meals, socialised and made new friends.
Out of all this, low prices emerged as a defining feature of youth hostels, their costs kept as low as possible to encourage travel for young people, their central value the monetary value for money of low cost, budget accommodation.
Youth Hostels by the 1970s were popular around the world but, by then, societies were changing in the boom which followed world war 2.
The voluntary ethos was becoming less valuable. Fewer people gave their time and many preferred paying for what they wanted from their higher wages and salaries. Youth hostels relied more and more on professional staff.
People aspired to higher standards of living. They wanted more privacy, more comfort, and they wanted more freedom. Less willing to accept the rules and orders of older people, youth hostels, still sticking to old rules, began to seem old fashioned and out of date.
Forced by changing times, youth hostels adapted. Sometimes change happened too slowly and guests turned to private youth hostels, which offered a more relaxed stay, with bars and activities. Australia established a reputation for new relaxed hostels that idea returned to Europe, bringing change to the old idea of hostels.
Official youth hostels, with large and expensive property portfolios, sometimes struggled to meet the demand for higher standards, greater freedom and longer opening hours. But they too have adapted and modernised. In many places they’ve done so by selling out-of-date properties, raising the cash they need for modernising.
Today youth hostels have conquered the world. Whether private or official, run by a charity or owned by venture capitalists, youth hostels continue to offer something of that original ethos and those values.
Those hostels which are part of the Hostelling International network, like the YHA in England and Wales, where I live, are more likely to have that ethos and the values which make youth hostels special for anyone of any age.
Hostels, official or private, independent or part of a chain, still have at their hearts the original aims of the school teacher from Germany who invented youth hostels.
They are still places where the world meets, where we can learn from each other, from other nations and other cultures, where we can improve our health and well-being in the outdoor gym, and places where we can still do that at a budget price.
The values of the founders of youth hostels are still alive today.