Magic travels

In the summer of 1929, seven young friends from Liverpool went to Germany. They went to find out about youth hostels.

The journey worked magic and changed their lives. One started a youth hostel organisation for Britain and introduced the term youth hostel for these radical new places to stay, and another became one of the first youth hostel managers, though she would be called a warden.

It’s the kind of magic travel and adventure can work.

They travelled by train down to London and on to Harwich for the cross-channel ferry to the Low Countries, Holland and Belgium. The route was one of the few, before air travel, hovercraft and tunnel, of crossing to Europe.

For slim, boyish and curly headed Tom Fairclough and his friends a revolution had begun in Germany, a revolution that had nothing to do with Hitler and everything to do with new ways of living, and a new style of accommodation, especially for young people, called Jugendherbergen or youth hostels as the British came to call them.

In Liverpool Fairclough had heard about them and determined to find out more. He was an office clerk and fortunate to have a job that gave him a modest, steady income. He had served in the first world war and returned from the trenches with a zest for the outdoors. In his leisure time he was the catering secretary for his local walking group. 

Fairclough had heard of “the remarkable welcome that awaits trampers at the Youth Shelters in Germany.” (1)

He wrote to a Mr Walter Simon in Berlin, who put them in touch with a local leader in the Rhineland. In Germany, they made every effort to sell the idea of youth hostels to pioneering enthusiasts from other countries. They made all the arrangements for Fairclough to tour the beautiful Rhineland countryside. They organised leaders, travel and accommodation in hostels and in private homes where needed.

He was an office clerk and fortunate to have a job that gave him a modest, steady income.

Six others took part in the trip. He went with Connie Alexander, Miss C Banks, Miss JA Shepherd, Miss CD Hall, Dr D Beilenson, and Mr MC Lowenthall. The hostels in Germany required membership of their organisation so all seven took membership of what Fairclough called the ‘Verbands fur Deutsch Jugend-herberge’ at 5/- each.

They took the cheapest way to Germany, leaving by train from Liverpool at noon on a Saturday. They arrived 36 hours later in Cologne on the Rhine. They stayed in Deutz, on the right bank of the Rhine. The youth hostel, an old converted cavalry barracks in the inner city, could accommodate 300 and was busy most of the summer.

Idwal Cottage, where Connie Alexander was warden later.

Fairclough and his friends paid charges up-front and took their beds for the night in dormitories shared with others of the same sex. They made up their beds with light-weight sheets which they hired. Others carried their own. It all kept the costs down and made youth hostels cheap places to stay.

Choice extended to the food too. The youth hostel kitchen sold meals or they could prepare their own, in kitchens provided for self-catering. Meals were simple and cheap. Those cooking for themselves might have only had sausage and bread.

After eating, people gathered in the common room. They met other boys and girls, young men and women from different towns, cities and countries. They sang together and entertained themselves.

It all kept costs down and made youth hostels cheap places to stay.

They went to bed early and woke the next morning early too. After washing in cold water, breakfast followed. Directed by the house-parents they swept, cleaned and prepared the hostel for that night’s guests.

In youth hostels receptionists didn’t greet guests. Boot-boys didn’t carry bags. Domestics weren’t there to clean and clear. The simple, distinctive style of youth hostels made a special atmosphere of camaraderie, of working together and common ownership. And it kept down costs.

Fairclough and his friends travelled on to Bonen, which Fairclough called Bannen, for the next two nights. They visited a silk factory. They tramped with their hosts. They joined in folk-singing and found their hosts eager to learn their songs too.

On the Wednesday they watched a play about William Tell in the open air, as part of a huge gathering, before travelling on to Hagen for the night. They thought Hagen was a poor hostel compared with others they had seen.

From there they went to Weilberg in the Lahn valley, between Westerwald and the Taunus mountains. A new leader joined them. They swam in the river. They sun-bathed and toured a historic castle.

At Hofheim, close to Frankfurt on the south of the mountain range, they stopped for two nights. The scenery captivated them. They wandered in the woods and heard old folk stories below Grosser Feldberg, the highest mountain in the Taunus.

They joined in folk singing and found their hosts eager to learn their songs too.

They spent their last Sunday in Frankfurt and went tramping in the low mountains of the Odenwald, “a vast tract of gloriously wooded country.” (2) They stayed in Jugenheim and then in the old city of Heidelberg. Its university and castle impressed them. Heidelberg’s youth hostel was one of the most up to date and comfortable they experienced. 

From there they returned to Frankfurt where they spent an afternoon in bathing costumes, becoming sun-baked. They were at an apple-wine-house for the evening.

In later life, Tom and Ena Fairclough.

From Frankfurt they went to Wiesbaden and to Rudesheim where they took a steamer through magnificent Rhine scenery. In Cologne their journey ended, back where they had begun.

Fairclough was pleased. They had managed the entire trip of a fortnight for £12. Their adventure had fostered international friendship and had shown them that German people were a great and hospitable nation.

“The warmth of the welcome we received was one of the most pleasing features,” he reflected. He hoped to support efforts to build youth hostels “not only to take our own Youth out into the beautiful places but also to foster this wonderful international movement so well established in Germany.” (3)

Their adventure had fostered international friendship and had shown them that German people were a great and hospitable nation.

Connie Alexander stood with Fairclough on the deck of the ferry coming back to England. Later she recalled it was a bright summer Sunday morning as they approached the English coast. Their thoughts and conversation turned to all that they had heard and seen. “I remember saying pessimistically “Isn’t it a pity there are no youth hostels in England?” To which Tom replied, “There is no reason why there shouldn’t be.”” (4)

Tom Fairclough’s optimism never left him. “He lost no time in gathering together all the forces he could, to bring the idea to the notice of all his rambler friends and influential people.” (5)

Less than six months after returning from Germany, with the support of others, Tom Fairclough began the Merseyside branch of the British Youth Hostels Association, before there was even a British youth hostels association.

After one of the first youth hostels opened, at Idwal Cottage in Wales, Connie Alexander became its warden.

Nearly ninety – 2020 will be the 90th anniversary of the founding of YHA.

This was an edited extract of Open to All – how youth hostels changed the world.


  • (1) Taylor, The Pioneering Years, Appendix 1
  • (2) Ibid
  • (3) Ibid
  • (4) The Youth Hosteller July 1965
  • (5) Ibid.

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