Youth hostels are about travel and, at their start, that was travelling on foot, from place to place, from one hostel to the next.
A chain or chains of youth hostels had been the dream of many when they first entertained the idea of hostels; the dream of leaving the place where you lived and walking, walking down the road, across a stream or river, walking until you stopped that evening in a youth hostel, hungry, thirsty and weary, where you had not had to carry your own bed and camping gear and where you did not have to pay a fortune to stay.
Or by cycling, although bicycles weren’t mentioned much at the outset, because cyclists already had chains of their own accommodation, in bed and breakfasts, offered to members of the Cyclists Touring Club.
Youth hostels had big and expansive dreams and, like most dreams, it is worth examining more closely their practical reality. Was it true or only partially true that chains of accommodation were central to the idea of youth hostels. Did those who opened the first youth hostels really want to create chains of accommodation for walkers?
A dream of chains
Or did they simply want to find places where they and the friends, or young people, or children could escape from dire, dirty and unhealthy city living.
What was on their minds and did the idea of one youth hostel linking with the next and another, drive the development of early regional groups. Were youth hostels about a local escape, about people escaping a city into a local or regional hinterland or was it something greater, a nationwide chain where anyone could stay?
The idea is worth examining to understand its importance to the early success of youth hostels and in the light of the current pandemic, when so many of us have discovered the pleasure of exploring the intimate local landscapes in which we live, even more so.
Chains set them apart
The desire for chains of accommodation separated youth hostels from their predecessors. The Co-operative Holidays Association and the Holiday Fellowship, often closely linked to the youth hostel movement, established themselves in centres.
Guests went to a centre, a house, where they stayed for a week or longer, venturing out, taking walks and excursions, exploring the place, studying its nature, getting to know other guests and returning each day to the same place.
The Workers Travel Association sent their guests to houses in the same way and the Scouts and Guides sent young people to camps.
The aim to create chains of youth hostels, so that users could “tramp” from one place to another, made youth hostels different.
When the British Youth Council set out its aims for youth hostels in 1929, it secretary wrote “We need in Great Britain a network of simple shelters …”  and Jack Catchpool, first YHA national secretary wrote “We are endeavouring to establish chains of youth hostels at distances of about twelve to eighteen miles apart …” 
Listings by routes
Early YHA documents mentioned chains. The 1931 national handbook explained that clearly: “Our object is that the young should walk or cycle. Our method is to supply them with cheap accommodation”. 
The handbook had a map of “Regional schemes completed or under construction” and “Regional schemes proposed”. Each scheme completed or under construction showed the hostels on a route or chain and the handbook listed youth hostels by routes.
In the fourth edition of the 1931 handbook, the route for the Snowdon Circuit had six hostels, the Lakeland route had five and the Yorkshire Moors two, but some routes had only a single hostel, such as Bath for the Cotwolds and St Athans Holiday Camp for South Wales.
The handbook marked an ambition for routes, circuits and chains so that young people could walk or cycle, using cheap accommodation. That ambition drove the opening of more youth hostels, so many with so many choices that, by 1938, the handbook had given up listing hostels by routes and the map of schemes, proposed or completed, had gone too.
The handbook categorised hostels by the regional groups that operated them, but the ambition for users to walk from one hostel to another remained and each hostel now gave the distance in miles to its nearest neighbours, trumpeting the success of the idea of simple friendly chains of hostels.
That success depended on and was the result of the individual efforts made, the individual steps taken and the single minded obsession of the many individuals working, at regional or local levels, to open hostels across the country, to make and complete chains.
Understanding how youth hostels worked in the regions, away from the central office, has to be the next step in exploring the story of youth hostels and their simple friendly chains because in the regions the idea succeeded or fell.
Image from YHA Archive at the Cadbury Research Library, Clent youth hostel.
Note on sources
- British Youth Council letter, 1929 Y712001-1929
- Catchpool, letter Y713001-1930-5
- 1931 YHA Handbook, 4th edition Y430001-1931-4 Handbook