Self help and an Essex village
The story of the youth hostel at Castle Hedingham, and how it came about, is a story of self sufficiency and self-help, typical of early pioneering youth hostels.
In a village on the Essex border in pretty countryside, for those who liked cycling on lanes and quiet by-ways, Castle Hedingham hostel was special. For visitors on bicycles, arriving from Europe on ferries into nearby Harwich, the village and its hostel was a convenient stop on a route that often included Cambridge.
I first went there in the early 80s and, though the combination of a house, like an old Essex farmhouse with a red tiled roof, and a more modern purpose built structure was intriguing, I never guessed its history.
Only when I was researching my latest book did I discover the story behind the hostel and learn how self sufficiency created the hostel.
In the late summer of 1936, the grandmother of an enthusiastic member of the Youth Hostels Association had taken a house with a large and unused malting for which she had no use. It was a “long narrow empty place which had been used for innumerable purposes since its malting days – toffee making, skittles, and other odd pursuits”*
After the secretary of one of the YHA’s early regional groups visited the property, he reckoned the unused malting could make an ideal hostel. The end of the building had space for a common room and kitchen, with enough room left over for two narrow dormitories, with doors and windows added.
Enthusiastic working parties came every weekend from Christmas to Easter 1937. Most of them came from Cambridge. Some cycled the 30 miles in treacherous weather while others begged lifts.
Each weekend from two to 32 were busy on site. Girls broke down unsafe walls. Men laid concrete floors. They dug steps, mended broken windows, and painted woodwork while freezing in the cold.
They hung new curtains, and built wash-benches. When the hostel opened for Easter 1937, they had painted all the rooms in a bright modern scheme, with white walls, orange curtains, and blue blankets for the beds.
A professional builder added plumbing and drains, and the whole effort cost £150.
GM Trevelyan, YHA’s first president, came from Cambridge down to Hedingham, to celebrate their success, and officially opened the hostel.
In 1947 YHA added the house to the maltings to make a bigger hostel and in 1971 rebuilt and modernised the old maltings. The hostel was much loved but marginal, lucky to be fully used about half the time, for the next 20 years.
People’s tastes were changing and YHA needed funds to bring its hostels up to date, and to meet the higher standards people wanted. Self sufficiency was no longer a virtue and, when people wanted more comfort, Hedingham was the kind of hostel YHA could no longer afford. It sold the property in 2008.
The story of the hostel, and how it began, shows how enthusiasm and self help drove YHA in its early days, and it shows how much volunteers can achieve. There are plenty of other stories like this, and the self help ethos spread to hostels in Europe too. But the days of that kind of self help seem to have slipped from YHA after the 1950s, with a few exceptions.
The loss of those days is sad, like any loss. But, if we can keep those ideas, and that history, maybe those days can come back again, in a different form maybe, but still, maybe they can come back again.
Images courtesy YHA archive at the Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.
*The Rucksack magazine, Easter 1938