Women, history and hostels #7
Gwen Moffat wrote about a time after war, when, with “peace declared, all the excitement was over, and now there was only the bewildering prospect of demobilisation and beyond that… nothing.”
Except she found excitement in climbing, in the beauty of the hills, “swimming in winter pools with snow crusting the edges”, going hungry, living on starvation wages and discovering that “women usually survive nights of cold and exposure which are too much for their male companions.”
Youth hostels shared Gwen Moffat’s excitement and adventures too, most notably when she ran the small hostel at Ro Wen for two seasons.
Gwen was “probably the best all-round woman mountaineer in this country and the first qualified woman mountain guide” but she had also been a cowherd, an agricultural labourer, a forester, gardener, hotel maid, secretary, theatre props mistress and youth hostel warden. She never escaped into security or conventionality.
Born 3 July 1924, she had left school during wartime and lied about her age to join the army as an ATS driver but the army in peacetime was not the adventure she wanted and offered none of the freedom she expected. She deserted and went AWOL, absent without leave.
Around Idwal in Wales she discovered climbing, swimming and hostels. After returning to the army and clearing her name, she returned to her friends and the hills.
She made friends with the couple running the youth hsotel, Idwal Cottage, and went climbing with the assistant, Frances Payne, a small slight girl who had reached the same standard as Gwen.
She began climbing in her bare feet but when it rained a lot and she was stuck inside, eating her head off and not getting any climbing done, she took a job as an assistant warden at the youth hostel at Capel Curig to tide herself over.
Back at Idwal, she lived in a tent and climbed early every day, with anyone and everyone. “At weekends the same people congregated at the hostel or in tents, or slept in the doorway of the disused chapel…” p62.
The slowest ever
She travelled, staying in hostels in Scotland and on Skye at the hostel at Glen Brittle, “a tall timber building beside the road”. Hating records she and a companion tried to make the slowest ever traverse of the Cuillin Ridge, aiming to take their time, sunbathing and admiring the views. Though the weather was appalling, and sunbathing and views unlikely, they still completed the traverse over two days in their slow way.
She went to the Alps and then back to Wales. She married, lived on a boat, had a baby and, when she was alone with her little daughter, applied for work as the warden of a remote hostel in Wester Ross.
When the interviewing committee in Glasgow decided the life would be too rough for her, she considered telling them something of her life to that point but decided they would not believe her. She regretted that she had dressed up in tweeds and nylons instead of her usual climbing clothes.
Only a desperate woman
She was more successful with her next attempt to get work with youth hostels. After she ran out of money she “remembered the youth hostel at Ro Wen where it was always so difficult to keep a warden. No one wanted to live up there on a pittance – it was too inaccessible and lonely – no one but a desperate woman who couldn’t have enough of mountains.”
She applied for the job and got it, with its views across the Conway valley to the Denbigh Moors. “To the north lay the sea and to the south – the outliers of the Carneddau; Pen y Gaer, Pen y Gader and Drum, dreaming under a shining sky” and she knew she would be safe.
She worked at the hostel for two seasons, and left a vivid account of working and living in a youth hostel in the early 1950s.
Only when necessary
The work was hard. Each morning, after the hostellers left, she cleaned the house properly. She washed sheet sleeping bags used the night before. She repaired Primus stoves, storm lanterns and Tilley lamps almost daily and emptied all the chemical toilets.
She put up notices that members should use the toilets ‘only when necessary’ because of the rate at which they filled. She shopped in Conwy, carrying all the provisions and equipment for the hostel on her back from the bus stop in the valley up to the hostel.
The main draw back to the job was a lack of privacy as she and her daughter shared the common room and cooking arrangements with everyone else.
But she had a roof over her head and an occasional day for climbing. She considered herself well off, on pay of £1 a week in summer and ten shillings (50p) in the winter.
The work wasn’t all slog. She liked RoWen and would sometimes leave hostellers baby-sitting her daughter while she went down to the pub for darts and gossip. She and her daughter walked all over the mountain. They kept a cat called Mais non! and battled with rats and mice.
She went climbing. She climbed whenever she could. The outdoors was often the reason people took work in hostels. From hostels they could get into the hills.
For runners and climbers, artists and dreamers, hostels offered one of the few types of unskilled work that didn’t involve farming or forestry. They were also short term seasonal work, badly paid, but they came with somewhere to live.
Gwen worked at the hostel until she fell critically ill one day and was carried out of the hostel on a stretcher.
A sock in the soup
The delight of her writing is the matter of fact way she treats her adventures and the way she writes about youth hostels. There is nothing special about them. They offered her and other young women places to stay.
They offered shelter in bad weather, when for “days at a time the lines above the hostel stove were festooned with drying clothes. It was impossible to bake in the oven; it was crammed with smelling, scorched articles.” One night she found a sock in the soup.
They were places of rough equality where women were welcome. It was a time when youth hostels hadn’t yet settled into their prissiness, when no one was demanding too much comfort and when their users were tolerant of wet, cold and discomfort.
Gwen maintained her connections with youth hostels, with staff like Joe Gianelli the long standing warden at Snowdon Ranger, and in 2015 passed photos from her time at Ro Wen to the YHA archive.
Society and our times have changed but Gwen Moffat’s autobiography offers a sharp and brilliant picture of those times and of a woman embarking on a ground breaking career in a man’s world. It’s a book to dream with, of what might have been and what might be.
You can read more about youth hostel work and the way it changed over the years in Open to All, a history of youth hostels and how they changed the world.
All quotes from Space Below My Feet, by Gwen Moffat.
The photo of Ro Wen is one of those passed by Gwen Moffat to the YHA Archive.
The full account of Gwen Moffat’s times at Rowen and her extraordinary life are in her autobiography Space Below My Feet available for purchase here.