One of a pioneering era

Len Clark 1916-2019

A friend introduced Len Clark to youth hostels and walking in the countryside. Len remembered him as an amiable and rather romantic communist who took him to the Surrey Hills.

They spent a night at the newly built youth hostel at Holmbury St Mary in 1937 and began Len’s interest in youth hostels and the movement that dominated the rest of his life.

Len Clark connected YHA with its founding figures. From left to right, standing) Richard Schirrmann, Elizabeth Schirrmann, Jack Catchpool, Len, and Tom Fairclough. 1959.

At home in Hendon, the full time organiser of the local community centre, which aimed to house local interest clubs, from roses to rabbits, folk dancing to political discussion groups, suggested Len start a youth hostel group. Len obtained a list of all the Youth Hostels Association’s (YHA) members in his part of London and wrote to them all, no data protection then, and began a YHA group.

He and the group made their way into the countryside to youth hostels, most popularly to Jordans, a hut in the Chiltern beech-woods above the historical Quaker Meeting House. They were a very cheerful group, one of the many that underpinned the growth of YHA and its startling democracy.

the hey day of a thriving and localised self-sufficiency…

Members found hostels, furnished, equipped and opened them. They ran hostels through regional groups and decided policy at an annual conference. It was the hey day of a thriving and localised self-sufficiency, which Len witnessed at first hand in those pioneering days.

He particularly remembered Herbert Gatfliff’s romantic presentations of accounts for the London region. Gatliff would go on to be a force to be reckoned with, the founder of the Hebridean hostels trust and a defender of small and spartan hostels.

He became an inspiring figure for Len, never far from the centre of power, always ready to hold organisations to account with probing questions.

Gatliff understood that YHA had to be an efficient business but that youth hostels also offered “something spiritual”. Through him, Len connected to some of the founding figures of YHA, like GM Trevelyan, YHA’s first president, and HH Symonds, a countryside campaigner from the first YHA group on Merseyside.

By the time of the outbreak of war in 1939, Len had “made his way into the pacifist camp”, persuaded that war was not the answer to Hitler and the Nazis. He registered as a conscientious objector but he was allocated to a non-combatant unit, not the full exemption from military service his conscience wanted.

YHA had to be an efficient business but also offered “something spiritual”.

Herbert Gatliff

Refusal would have landed him in jail, a decision he felt he could not take with his father’s health failing at home. He joined an administration unit and, though his contribution to the war was limited to typing and writing reports, he later expressed shame at his decision. He was always a harsh critic of his own conduct.

By good fortune for YHA, military service landed him in some outstanding and beautiful parts of the country, including Wales, where he and other youth hostel members formed a club and “had great walks on the ridges of the Black Mountains” . They stayed at the hotels at Crickhowell and Capel-y-ffyn, which he had lobbied to open.

When war ended, back in London, Len involved himself in the London region, which gave him a taste for the heady democracy of YHA. These were exciting years for YHA and the countryside.

Len was in parliament to witness the passing of the act which ushered in national parks. He had been a founding member of the standing committee of national parks which became the Council and then the Campaign for National Parks.

He joined YHA’s national executive in 1948 with Gatliff and met Isobel Hoggan, one of a handful of young women on YHA’s committees. They married in 1952 a year after Len had become YHA’s national treasurer. He held that post until his election as national chairman, the senior officer of YHA, in 1958.

Len was in parliament to witness the passing of the act that ushered in national parks.

At home, three sons were born and the family moved from to Guildford and then to the Surrey Hills, where they lived for 30 years at South Munstead. Len and Isobel were by now Quakers, having moved from the churches they had tried.

YHA had become an established part of national life, introducing thousands of young people to the countryside each year and playing an influential role in the preservation and protection of the countryside. But it was also becoming slower, more traditional and no longer the radical organisation it had once been.

Its old fashioned rules were often out of date and it no longer kept pace with the views of young people. Members lobbied impatiently for change. When some urged YHA to drop the rule against travel by private motor car, and argued against the hypocrisies and pettiness with which the rule was enforced, Len found himself caught up in the squabbles and feuds of YHA democracy.

The national executive tried to drop the ban on cars from the rules but traditionalists with loud voices, familiar with YHA democracy, fought back and insisted on the rule’s retention. No one spoke for those members who used youth hostels but didn’t engage with committees, or the nineteen year olds who arrived each summer, from within England or further afield.

He joined the Ministry of Transport’s Landscape Advisory Committee as a “cyclist and walker”.

Faced with an expensive emergency meeting and a split in the association, Len and the executive withdrew the proposals. The following year’s national council confirmed the rule against cars. It was an unhappy end that put off the inevitable for another ten years, until the early 70s, when the rule was finally dropped.

Len’s time as chairman came to an end, though he was elected to the honorary role of vice-president in 1963 and continued to play his part in YHA affairs for five decades, attending almost every national council meeting and continuing to hold YHA and its officers to account.

He remained an inspiring figure within YHA, as he expanded his involvement with wider countryside affairs. He joined the National Trust’s council in 1961, following Trevelyan, YHA’s first president, and Gatliff, to the trust’s estates committee. He joined the Benson committee, which began modernising the trust’s structures and bringing in changes, including the appointment of a paid director-general.

In 1975 he joined the Ministry of Transport’s Landscape Advisory Committee as a “cyclist and walker”. As part of the committee, he took part in inspections of proposed schemes for by-passes, drafting reports on roads and their impact on the countryside.

By now he was travelling the length and breadth of the countryside on a motor scooter, getting to know better the intrinsic beauty of the English and Welsh countryside, especially those parts that had not been accorded any recognition. As part of the committee, he tried to ensure that the landscape was preserved as a seamless garment. At the very least he sought to minimise the damage caused by roads.

With his passing YHA has lost one of the last of its pioneering generation.

Whenever he was able to, he stayed in youth hostels, becoming a well-known figure, arriving or departing on his motor scooter, wobbling away to some or other meeting, to support the many causes in which he was involved.

He continued to fight for countryside issues and for the importance of beautiful places in national life, never giving up on his belief in the fundamental contribution of the outdoors to a richer life for all. He was part of the campaign to create a national park on the South Downs, one of the remaining goals of the national park movement.

He was never afraid to ask awkward questions or to put organisations on the spot. When he perceived YHA moving away from its countryside roots he resigned his vice-presidency in 2007.

Isobel died in 2016 but Len continued to entertain visitors to Broadwater Lodge, always eager to hear about the doings of the organisations in which he had played a part. He died shortly after his 103rd birthday.

Len connected with figures from the hostel and countryside movement, with youth hostel founders like Richard Schirrmann, inventor of the youth hostel idea, Jack Catchpool, first national secretary of YHA, and Tom Fairclough, secretary of the Merseyside youth hostels group, YHA’s founding group. With his passing, YHA has lost one of the last of its pioneering generation. There cannot be many more like him.

Quotes are from Len’s own writings, invaluable reading for anyone with an interest in countryside matters and youth hostels. Len’s books are available on

Photo courtesy Carol Holding, from the University of Lancaster Library.

2 thoughts on “One of a pioneering era

Add yours

  1. Hi Duncan

    Thank you for Len’s obit. I’ll certainly include it in the LC section of the internet if I may.

    Northumberland trip going very well. Lovely weather – gorgeous cool clear morning yesterday at Once Brewed. Last night at Berwick, looking reinvigorated with Keith Webster in charge for a couple of years. Especially good to see the neighbourhood centre concept in full flow.

    Newcastle now for 2 nights. Wonder how well it’s moulding itself to the YHA ethos.



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