The circuits of Snowdon

A group of enthusiasts on Merseyside claimed for itself a foremost place in youth hostel history, being the first to use the title of “Youth Hostels Association” and first to use the term youth hostel.

Having set themselves “to promote Youth Hostels” they set their hearts on establishing “a chain of hostels in North Wales” [1] “so that a walker could pass through pleasant country from one hostel to the next without undue fatigue.” [2]

Some people suggest that they may have fixed their sights on the hills of the Lake District but that seems unlikely because of the proximity of North Wales and because Tom Fairclough, one of their number, knew Wales well enough that, when he returned to his home on leave during the First World War, North Wales was the place he chose for a holiday.

The means of a holiday

He and his friends set out “to plant in North Wales a chain of country hostels, from the Dee to the far side of Snowdonia …. This will give to the young the means of a holiday on two feet – a holiday for a week, a holiday for a fortnight, or for a few days.” [3]

By the time YHA published its first handbook in 1931, the group had opened six hostels on what it called the Snowdon circuit – Maeshafn, Gyffylliog, Llansannan, Gwydr Ucha, Idwal Cottage and St Michael’s Church Hall.

The 1932 national handbook still had six hostels for the Snowdon circuit but a slightly different six: Maeshafn, Gyffylliog, Llansannan, Llanwrst, Idwal, and Rhyd Ddu.

Over the Glyders

This handbook included the distances between hostels along the route. Maeshafn to Gyfflliog was 12 miles while Gyffylliog to Llansannan was a 14 mile hike where a guest could stay in “an old farmstead … as pretty a house as one could desire”. The group chose their hostels with care, not simply for the sake of plugging a gap or opening another hostel.

Idwal to Rhyd Ddu was a shorter eight miles but that meant going over the Glyders. It was also possible to walk ten miles from Gyffylliog to Cynwyd, and from there another ten to Bala, which was 25 miles from the next hostel south at Llanfyllin, a distance surely only for the supremely fit walker or a cyclist.

The distances “quoted between the hostels [were] generally those of the shortest routes, but not necessarily the most interesting” and when “working out a walking tour” the reader was referred to the maps included in the handbook’s pages and given a helpful guide to Ordnance Survey maps “used by most Y.H.A. members”. [4]

The idea of a chain of hostels planted in North Wales worked well and quickly. The 1932 annual report for Merseyside stated boldly that “It is patent … that the hosteller uses the hostel chain to get to Snowdonia and the mountains … ” [5]

Not one but three

The group succeeded so much in its aim that by 1938 it had opened, not one, but three chains of hostels; the Northern Chain, the Dee Valley, and the Mountain Circle, made up of 14 hostels, with ambitious plans for more.

Some of those hostels continue today, in a nest or cluster of hostels around Snowdon, with Idwal Cottage of that first group from 1931 still open.

From their urban base on Merseyside, the group had opened routes to the hills in an organised methodical way. They amended their plans when they ran into obstacles and, though they did have a few minor failures, they usually chose their hostels with care, to ensure good standards of accommodation, including creating the first purpose built hostel in Britain and directly employing those who ran the hostels.

The elements of their success also included: a vision of access to the countryside and healthy outdoor exercise, especially for young people; a base in the large population of an urban centre; and a network of hostels in nearby countryside.

Driven by their vision, they showed what a small group of determined people working together could achieve; a local effort, their success built on “the continued support of Liverpool people”. [2]

As the foremost group they had set a way for others to follow and that makes it worth looking, in further posts, at how other parts of the youth hostel movement set about following that Merseyside route to success.

Times and the way we travelled changed. Few people walk from hostel to hostel anymore but if you’d like to try it, I’d recommend Snowdonia.

Photo of a crowd at the door of Llansannan hostel includes Tom Fairclough and Ena Bell who later married him. Both images courtesy of Gillian Hutchison, their daughter, from the YHA Archive at the Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.


  1. YHA Merseyside Group Annual Report 1931 Y245001-31
  2. British Youth Hostels Association, Tramps through the countryside, Y430001-BYHA
  3. 1932 YHA Handbook Y430001-1932-Oct
  4. Annual Report and Balance Sheet of the Merseyside Group 1932
  5. Chapman, CS, Merseyside Youth Hostels Y247003-38

All sources from the YHA Archive at the Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.

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