The changing places of youth hostels
On a flying visit to Cumbria, we managed a night at the hostel in Keswick. We stayed in a balcony room with a view of the town’s Fitz Park, and the river that, in recent years, has flooded twice.
Twice the flooding river wrecked the hostel’s ground floor and twice the space at the heart of the hostel has been reshaped, so much so that you can say those floods, by causing so much damage and by forcing refurbishments and improvements on the property and its layout, have made the hostel a brilliant place to stay.
On the upper floors rooms, en-suite, double, private and traditional, single sex dorms, are available to suit all tastes, while the modern version of an old traditional “common” room, with reception and bar on the ground floor, gives the place an open, relaxed and welcoming feel.
You can buy a meal, order coffee or drink local beer.
The self catering kitchen, the speciality of YHA hostels, is an alternative hub for socialising, where you can cook your own meal, care for your own diet or get cooking tips from other guests.
Socialising has always been important, and central to, the idea of youth hostels. It used to be said that in a youth hostel a steelworker could sit down beside a bishop, and today Keswick shows that YHA continues to put that idea and notion of friendliness and commonality at the heart of its hostels.
The hostel at Keswick has been around since 1933 when it opened in a former hotel. Though not the longest established, an honour that goes to the Coppermines hostel above Coniston, it is one of the oldest in Cumbria with Black Sail hut in Ennerdale.
The building, like many hostels adapted from hotels, family homes or mansions, met the requirements for a youth hostel at the time, with little conversion. To keep down costs and for ease of use, little change was made.
Kitchens became hostel kitchens, lounges became common rooms and any big room made a dining hall. It was an era of rough simplicity, of make do and mend, that prided itself on keeping cost to the bare-boned minimum.
At Keswick, space was awkwardly used, with a long lounge upstairs and a self catering kitchen at the back of the hostel, both away from the main reception and dining areas.
For years YHA had known other arrangements worked well. Down the road from Keswick, the hostel Borrowdale, purpose built in the 1930s, had a more sensible arrangement, of kitchen and self catering kitchen opening into a big, friendly common room.
That design can be seen in other purpose-built, architect designed hostels of the time, like Holmbury St Mary, but the lesson of simple, effective design did not spread to many hostels. Adapted buildings, awkward layouts, cramped unsuitable rooms, long corridors and draughty halls became instead the norms of youth hostels.
Not until the arrival of the new millennium, did YHA start looking afresh at its design of hostels. As well as early hostels like Holmbury St Mary and Borrowdale, hostels in Europe, mainly in the Netherlands, showed how a different approach to social spaces could bring success.
It was an approach where purpose and design were evident.
Reception desks doubled as bars. Common areas were dining rooms, lounges and social spaces rolled into one, where guests relaxed, read, played games and talked.
The relaxed approach was popular in Europe, especially as hostels abandoned formal dining rooms and meals served at set times.
Bars and meal sales brought additional income, vital to organisations struggling to fund the changes that new tastes, new fashions and a new generation of young people demanded.
YHA took up the idea when it opened a new hostel in central London in 2008, on the edge of Soho, which became one of the most successful hostels in Britain.
Changing attitudes to beer, wine and coffee helped the change as people wanted those kind of services from the places where they stayed.
Even so, it has taken time (some would say too long) for the association to abandon separate resection desks, lounges and dining rooms for an approach that rolled all those into one, to rediscover old ways of doing things in new ways and to recapture the commonality that was an essential of hostels when they first opened nearly 90 years ago.
While we were at Keswick I learned a new way of making porridge, involving honey, raw oats and a microwave, and a working party was busy with painting and deorating, providing a modern take on an old tradition, showing that youth hostels are still alive to their old ways of doing things in new ways.
Fashions, tastes and the essentials of what people like have been shifting as we have become more open and less deferential along the way, and gained a taste for beer and wine, since youth hostels began. That’s history and youth hostels mirror that too, even when floods force those changes.
More about the history of YHA Keswick in one of YHA archivist, John Martin’s inimitable hostel profiles which you can download below. And a profile of YHA London Central.