I dreamed of running ‘my own’ youth hostel. When a couple of youth hostel jobs in the south-west of England came vacant and the region was looking for new wardens, I applied.
A gang of us, prospective wardens in our mid 20s, toured the empty properties. We picked them over and smelled the damp, before subjecting ourselves to interviews with a small, friendly and sympathetic committee in Bristol.
They offered me the job at Steps Bridge in Devon. I was already in love with the place. Halfway up a hill, above a river, in a woodland clearing, the clump of wooden huts looked over tree tops toward far-away Exeter.
The River Teign cruised down from Dartmoor, smooth as glass. At the foot of the hill it snagged for a moment on an untidy weir, plunged into a pool and then shouldered its way under the old stone bridge that gave the place its name. From the youth hostel veranda, in the quiet and gaps in the wind, the constant rush of water was loud.
In the 1920s huts of every description littered that corner of woodland against the river. They included a tea house serving traffic coming up the main road to Dartmoor. Only the hostel and a few ruins remained from that craze for living in the countryside before the second world war.
People living near the hostel told me a local doctor had bought an old army hospital hut and transported it into the woods. Settling it on brick piers and a wooden platform high above the road he took his family there each summer. They camped amongst the trees, having a holiday. The doctor travelled down the hill to visit patients when necessary.
His summer house became a youth hostel in 1935, complete with a hand pump for water. The buildings survived requisition and, after the war, additions and extensions were made; another low hut, two lean-to buildings, an extension and an outside toilet. A ram pump replaced the hand pump until mains water arrived.
YHA classed the hostel as ‘simple,’ the most elemental type of youth hostel. It had three outside toilets for 24 people, and two misnamed ‘washrooms,’ for men and women, which were, in fact, two rooms with bare concrete floors, with no baths and no showers. Everyone carried hot water from a tap in the kitchen out to the ‘washrooms’ and washed in plastic basins.
People from round the world visited. Travelling on their own or with a friend or two, they climbed the path to the youth hostel perched on the side of the hill. They loved being ‘away from it all’ and ‘out of the rat race.’ They hitchhiked, caught trains or buses, walked, cycled or drove miles to be there.
They loved being so close to nature that, from bed in the morning, they could watch squirrels in the trees and hear bird song. They loved the friendliness of a place so small that, by the end of a night, everyone who stayed knew everyone else. They exchanged stories and made sorties down to the pub. They handed each other advice about places and destinations and made plans made to meet up again at other youth hostels. They moved on to the next youth hostel, up on the moor, or down to Cornwall. Some had stopped on their way to Edinburgh, York or London using their youth hostel handbook as a guide to the world.
They loved the youth hostel’s simplicity, its three bedrooms with bunk beds where they slept. Inside the main house, in a common room with three tables, they ate the meals I cooked. If they preferred, they warmed baked-beans, burned toast, grilled bacon and fried eggs to black lace in a self-catering kitchen. Each morning, everyone folded blankets, swept floors, cleaned windows and scrubbed out the kitchen before they left.
Goodbyes were sometimes long affairs. It was one of those places that RS Thomas, the Welsh poet, said we find and then spend the rest of our lives looking for. On quiet evenings, guests sat on the long veranda that fronted the building. They leaned back in chairs and studied the distant hills, listening to the river, talking among themselves. Some went into the woods or up the river to the moors. In the woods they found badger and deer.
I exaggerate. Not everyone loved it.
For some the hostel was not cosy. On Wednesday nights, the youth hostel in Exeter closed so the wardens there could have a night off. With no other youth hostel nearby, people who would rather have stayed in the bigger city hostel struggled up the hill to my hostel perched in the woods.
They could hardly believe that anywhere without hot water in a bathroom, let alone without showers, could exist. Outside toilets were beyond belief.
In summer the woods swarmed with ants. They streamed through the hostel in long lines. They bit ferociously. Guests wrote letters of compliant about them to the office in Plymouth.
Grass snakes and slow worms found their way inside too. They horrified people who had never seen a snake and knew no difference between the harmless and the deadly. Confident none were poisonous, I swept the intruders out the door with affected nonchalance. In winter, when the hostel closed, deer wandered through the woods, their footsteps stirring frosty mornings. I could watch them from my bedroom window.
After two seasons at Steps Bridge, when Caroline I had met and we had married, realising the cost of running the place, I was no longer so sure about its idyllic nature.
I worried that those who loved its simplicity were a minority. I fretted the hostel could not afford its upkeep, with less than 2,000 overnight stays a year. It seemed impossible that it could stand the cost of installing showers and more hot water.
The hostel was beginning to slide on its platform. The pillars on which it was built were cracking. I checked them constantly, watching nervously how they leaned.
The hostel needed money and lots of it to keep itself balancing there. At times I worked frantically. I plotted and planned improvements. A working party of volunteers and youth hostel enthusiasts from Exeter beat back woodland that had crept too close to the buildings. They cut down everything that stood nearby, including my washing line. We painted bedrooms. Caroline made new curtains to hang at the windows.
All that scope for improvement, for running things better, made the work enjoyable. Making somewhere look better brought a sense of achievement. Thorough cleaning and a coat of paint transformed the building.
I could have wondered how it all got like that but I was impatient. I had no time for thinking about the past or understanding what made youth hostels like they were. I wanted to see it all changed. I wanted people to feel more comfortable, more welcome, less constrained by rules. I wanted youth hostels of which we could all be proud.
This is an extract from Open to All – how youth hostels changed the world.
Chapters from my personal experience of youth hostels over nearly 40 years, from working at hostels in the Lake District to managing YHA’s communications through the crisis of foot and mouth, intersperse chapters of history based on extensive and original research in archives, including YHA’s archive at the Cadbury Research Library at the University of Birmingham.
Image of Steps Bridge courtesy of the YHA archive.