Youth hostels, travel and distance

Travel among youth hostel members in 1938.

Youth hostel people travel. They travel a lot. 

At their beginning in 1930, travel was the point of youth hostels, their membership a club of travellers who walked and cycled within England and Wales and further, who journeyed miles. 

They travelled and they travelled a lot; at least I thought they did until, looking for information, I turned a page in YHA’s annual report of 1938 and found a complicated table. 

Columns and figures showed me the number of overnight stays by members of each regional group in all the regions of the entire association throughout England and Wales. 19 regional groups made up the Youth Hostels Association of England and Wales,

There were regions in every part of England and Wales (Scotland and Ireland had their own associations), among them a tiny group in Cambridge, three for parts of Yorkshire, enormous groups on Merseyside and Birmingham, and a big one covering London and its surrounds.

That table of detailed numbers, originally drawn by hand with a pen and ruler I expect, carefully totted up in a time before computing and spreadsheets, showed me that the journeys youth hostel members made in the earliest years of the movement were very different to my expectations.

Map of YHA Regions

The majority stayed in their own region

During 1938, seven years after the first youth hostels in England and Wales opened, 259 YHA members from the Northumberland and Tyneside region went from the north east of England to the far south west where they would have found 22 hostels where they could stay. 

Others also travelled to Devon and Cornwall that year from all of YHA’s regions. The biggest number of members, almost half of those staying in the south west, came from the region that surrounded London, confusingly named the London region though it encompassed more than just the capital, in a swathe of southern England. 

Despite numbers travelling to the hostels of the south west, those in Devon and Cornwall didn’t reciprocate: none travelled from the south west to Northumberland that year. In fact, members in Devon and Cornwall didn’t travel far. The majority stayed in the hostels of their own region, recording more than half their stays in those hostels.

Members of the Lakeland region showed the same tendency; they recorded 62% of their total stays in their own region.

Members of the region based on Birmingham recorded most of their stays (72%) in their own region or in the hostels of the neighbouring regions. For the Manchester region the figure was 76%, for Merseyside, with its hostels in North Wales, 78%, for the south coast below London the figure was 73% and 85% for members of the West Riding group of Yorkshire. 

Local and regional

This pattern of local and regional loyalty continues with the majority of members not travelling far from their home regions. Those members from Northumberland who went to the south west were the exceptions.

Few from Northumberland travelled as far as the Peak District and even fewer travelled to the hostels of the London region or the south coast. 

Even for recognised areas, like Lakeland, the ability to pull members over a distance was weak. Despite its assumed renown, only 52% of stays in Lakeland’s hostels were by members from beyond the region and its neighbouring areas. 

Only 41% of members visiting Merseyside’s hostels in North Wales came from outside the immediate areas. The hostels of the south west of England and those in south Wales were unusual in that they drew members in great numbers from far away, presumably because they offered scope for longer touring or seaside holidays.

More local, more self sufficient

A pattern of local and regional travel emerges. The majority of members stuck to the hostels of their own or neighbouring regions. A few members travelled great distances. Most did not.

The causes of these patterns may be found in factors such as cost of travel, length of holidays and transport links. 

But factors internal or unique to YHA may also have influenced these patterns of travel.

By looking at the regions themselves it may be possible to discover how much the diversity of the youth hostel movement, and the work and relative strengths of its regional groups, influenced travel. 

The figures seem to show a time when tourism was closely linked, by short distances, to the hinterlands of towns and cities. It’s a style of local or regional travel, very different from the national and global destinations to which we aspire today but one which reflects some of the lessons we learned from this year’s pandemic, of the benefits of the intimate and local.

YHA may have been more self sufficient and more localised than its apparent status as a national and international movement indicates, and those 259 stays made in Devon and Cornwall by members from Northumberland may have been more exceptional than I realised.


Image, on the way to Radgoed, near Corris, in Wales, 1944, courtesy YHA from the collection of photographer Laurie Landon though, on this occasion, the image is of Laurie himself.

Written during the period of the COVID pandemic, I’ve relied on records available to me from my collections of reports or in digital records.

The main source for my analysis is pages 24 – 25 YHA Annual Report 1938.

The map of regions is from 1947.

Calculations used in the above are available here: https://duncanmsimpsonwriting.files.wordpress.com/2020/11/overnight-and-hostel-visits.pdf

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