Street – Britain’s oldest

I first went to Street youth hostel nearly 40 years ago, for an interview for the job of manager, or warden as we were called then. When I was offered the job at Steps Bridge, in Devon, I went there instead. 

I loved the time I spent at Steps Bridge but, ironically, it’s no longer one of YHA’s hostels, while the hostel at Street still is.

It’s Britain’s longest established hostel, having been open since 1931.

This year YHA invested £300,000 there, making the hostel thoroughly modern, showing how an old idea stays alive and thriving, and confirming the enduring legacy of a special group of YHA’s early members, the Quakers.

I went back to Street earlier this month. The hostel is a curious Swiss chalet, built of brick and timber, high above the village with panoramic views of the surrounding countryside, including the dramatic outcrop of Glastonbury Tor a few miles north.

Two sisters, Ellen Clothier Impey and Catherine Impey, built it in 1914 as a retreat.

In 1922 Catherine Impey gave the house on Ivythorn Hill to a local consortium of Quakers, who ran it as a rest home for employees of the local Clarks shoe factory. Clarks was one of many successful Quaker businesses, like the Cadbury and Rowntree chocolate manufacturers. I grew up wearing their shoes, when I wore shoes, and still remember their logo was an image of Glastonbury Tor.

Quakers were natural supporters of youth hostels. Many were outdoor enthusiasts, because they believed in the benefit of outdoor exercise to health and well being. They were committed to wider education and were often generous philanthropists and active social workers.

Several Quakers were influential in YHA’s early days. One, Jack Catchpool, became YHA’s first national secretary, the equivalent of today’s chief executive.

An old friend of Catchpool’s, Paul Sturge, set up a YHA group in Bristol. Sturge and Catchpool studied together at Woodbrooke, the Quaker college, and were comrades in the Friends Ambulance Unit during the first world war.

When they were hunting about for property to open and hostels, the Bristol group found the Impey sisters’ chalet and leased it in time for Easter 1931, making it one of the first to open in Britain.

Others that opened in those first years have since closed. From the hostels that opened in 1931 Idwal Cottage in Wales, Bridges in Shropshire and Coniston Coppermines in Cumbria are still open.

Hostels opened and closed with amazing frequency in those early years. So many have opened and closed that YHA has, over the years, offered accommodation at more than 1,000 properties, at one time or another.

But Street has remained through changes, extensions and modernisation, but still leased by YHA from the local Friends group.

In the latest round of improvements at the hostel, all bedrooms have been redecorated, furniture replaced, and the number of toilet and shower facilities increased. The hostel now offers camping pods and bell tents in its grounds, increasing the number of available beds from 28 to 46.

I love the way that, though the layout of bedrooms seems very similar to the way it was 40 years ago, the ground floor has been opened up to provide a welcoming space, where everyone can meet together, cook and chat.

YHA has rethought the use of its spaces and at Street shows how much it has learned in recent years. Gone are the pokey, closed-in rooms of older hostels, so that Street has become a reinvigoration of the old idea of hostels as meeting places for the world.

For those who like to sleep outdoors, Street has bell tents and camping pods, with another wonderful self-catering kitchen for those who are camping. Street is a self-catering hostel, offering no meals and no bar as many others hostels do. Traditionalists may like that!

The hostel offers the best of the modern YHA within the lovely framework of an old and historic building, fulfilling the ideal that many Quakers had, for youth hostels to become meeting places for the world.

All images copyright Duncan M Simpson, except the black and white image of Street, which is courtesy the YHA Archive, Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.

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