Youth hostels often seem like an urban idea but the origins of youth hostels in the Lake District show us something very different.
They began in the Lake District in a haphazard and unorganised way after a schoolteacher, on the eastern Pennine fringe of the region, opened one hostel. Another opened on the edge Windermere and a third followed, overlooking Derwentwater, near Keswick.
They were not working together and there was at first no announcement, no grand meeting and little effort to draw support, and they had no connections with any of the large conurbations that drove the founding of hostels in other regions.
For those reasons it’s worth looking more closely at the beginning of youth hostels in Lakeland.
Frank Parrot, a schoolmaster, had visited Germany with a group from the Society of Friends and the Adult School Union in 1922. He admired the youth hostels he saw there and thought they offered “vitality and goodwill”.  Eight years later he remembered his experience and contacted the first secretary of YHA, Jack Catchpool, a fellow Quaker, and offered the Friends Meeting house in Kirkby Stephen as a youth hostel.
Parrott became the first warden and the hostel, a spartan affair, welcomed its first guest on 28 June 1931, a walker who had come over the Pennines from Barnard Castle.
The hostel at Kirkby Stephen was an individual gesture but in central Lakeland a small group of youth hostel enthusiasts had also spotted the potential for a youth hostel when the national trust had taken over the Victorian Gothic castle at Wray on the western side of Lake Windermere.
YHA persuaded the trust to allow a hostel there. The Freshwater Biological Research Board had taken the best portion of the building leaving the domestic wing to be used as a hostel. It opened in August 1931, equipped and under the control of the YHA national office, with Miss Yeo as warden and at first paid no rent.
Further north, on the edge of Derwentwater, Joseph Glaisyer opened a hostel in Barrow House, a grand mansion overlooking the lake, and when the first edition of the youth hostel handbook was published in 1931, it listed Barrow House and Wray Castle on what the guide called the Lakeland route. 
The guide listed no organisation and no regional group for Lakeland. Frank Parrott’s hostel was the only accommodation on what the guide called an Eden Valley route and the hostels at Wray and Barrow House were as much of a chain of hostels as the Lake District would have for that first guide.
The 1931 handbook went through four editions and the final one added three hostels to the Lakeland route, at Satterthwaite, Crosthwaite and Milnthorpe.
Five hostels, plus one at Kirkby Stephen, wasn’t much of a chain but those who had established the hostel at Wray had formed an “Interim” Committee for what they expected would become a Lakeland regional area.
The interim committee first met at Wray Castle on August 13, 1931 at 6.30pm. Four members, plus the warden at Wray and the visiting secretary of Edinburgh’s YHA, attended. They elected Kenneth Spence, whose wife had pushed the idea of a hostel at Wray, as chairman.
A most difficult year
Jack Catchpool, first national secretary of the association wrote to the group, affirming that “we must have a Regional Council in the Lake District” and he suggested, due to the scattered population of the area, working on “informal lines until you feel pretty clearly that you have a wide backing…” 
They continued meeting as a provisional committee in Kenneth Spence’s home in Ambleside. They wrangled about the accommodation offered at Barrow House. They thought that, though Glaisyer had come to YHA’s assistance by offering his accommodation in the “first most difficult year”, the hostel was “not of the standard desired for YHA”. Intriguingly, records do not identify the problems at Barrow House.
The committee determined to keep the hostel at Wray Castle going as “a concrete example of the Association’s work” and decided, on Catchpool’s advice, that having Miss Yeo as treasurer for the group when she was also the warden at Wray Castle was not appropriate..
No aims, no objectives
The committee held its first public meeting on 5 December 1931, “a full and curious gathering” in the Queen’s Pavilion, Ambleside.  After wishes of success from dignitaries who could not attend, Jack Catchpool spoke.
He hoped that a regional council would make Lakeland accessible to the many people “who had not our opportunities”. He drew attention to the “needs of young people in industrial towns and cities, and hoped that we who know the value of the hills and great open spaces would consider how we could make it possible to give such a chance to these young people”. 
Though the Lakeland group would not be based on no one city, they had in mind users from cities. The meeting established a Lakeland regional council and adopted a constitution, a plain document without mention of aims or objectives, with no funds, no plans and no vision for the future, beyond that which Jack Catchpool had pointed them towards.
Six delegates took their places on the council of the Lakeland Region alongside an executive committee of seven. They included members from Carlisle, Barrow and a foundry labourer from Preston, Harry Chapman, as the group now reached out to nearby towns and cities.
Chapman, who later became driving force in the group and its long serving regional secretary, remembered that when the meeting closed some of those present went off “to sample youth-hostelling” at Wray Castle. He was a cyclist and became well known for cycling enormous distances laden with supplies for hostels, and later married a young woman who ran some of the region’s smallest hostels, at Honister House and Black Sail hut.
A swift success
Theirs was a widespread, grass roots effort. “Month by month, the members made enquiries in all stable places; persuading householders and farm folk … to allocate portions of their premises for the accommodation of YHA members and the list of hostels grew splendidly. ”
The approach seems unplanned compared with the methodical approach of other groups. Those in Lakeland had in mind one aim, “the necessity of providing Hostel accommodation for the large number of users anticipated…” 
It was not possible “to insist upon a high standard of comfort, but rather to demonstrate the demand and splendid type of Hosteller” expected.
Success was swift. A year later the Lakeland region had opened 19 hostels, ten more than Merseyside. The group had not originally regarded the hostel at Kirkby Stephen as properly a Lakeland hostel but by the 1932 handbook, published in October, Frank Parrott’s hostel was included as one of the hostels of the Lakeland region.
Barrow House at Derwentwater had dropped from the handbook, whether pushed out by concern for its poor accommodation or for some other reason is not clear, though the hostel did return to YHA in 1961 only to drop out again in 2011, when it was sold to an independent charity.
A godsend to farm folk
The group followed the advice of Catchpool, to use houses owned by others while gaining valuable experience of the needs of hikers in the area, without owning or operating hostels itself.
The approach brought benefit to local farmers and hard working countrywomen, and revenue which was “a god-send which lifted them out of the poverty slot which all too often, in those years of depression, was the lot in which most farmfolk found themselves”. 
The Lakeland group took a wide view of what constituted Lakeland and gave attention to opening hostels on its boundaries, to ensure that people could travel by foot or cycle into the Lake District, building links with hostels beyond the district’s borders.
The region’s hostels spread beyond the fringes of what might today be considered Lakeland, especially on the eastern, southern and northern edges.
Chosen in haste
The group chose its hostels in haste, without any obvious concern for standards or for making or completing a chain and it based itself in a rural area, concerning itself more with accommodating visitors to the area than opening access to the hills. In this way it differed from groups established on Merseyside and in Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester and London.
The Lakeland group enjoyed great success with their ad hoc, hasty gathering of hostels, in “shared buildings, “adopted hostels,” mostly farmhouses where the accommodation was … spartan and strained, but where there was a real welcome and a good table”. 
Only the group based on Bristol came close to the Lakeland total of youth hostels, with 15 hostels open, and only the group based on London had more, with 30 open. That trend continued. In 1938 Lakeland had 34 hostels open, only London had more, with 37 open.
The opening of hostels in Lakeland shows that YHA’s first regional groups did not always have to be founded in distressed urban districts and that there was no single route to success for early hostels. And perhaps as much as anything the rural nature of the Lakeland venture, based on close and intimate local knowledge of the area, contributed to its success.
- the youth hostel at Kirkby Stephen from the YHA Archive at the Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham. Y050001-Kirkby Stephen A 02 23Jul75 360-8 phoJDThomasY
- Barrow House youth hostel, undated, from the YHA archive at the Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.
- Damson Dene, Crosthwaite youth hostel, Y050001-Crosthwaite 601 800 PC, from the YHA archive, at the Cadbury Research Library.
- Y231001 CUMBRIA MAG
- Y231401-1931 Catchpool’s defence of the hostel at Barrow House, in his August 1931 letter to the group at Wray Castle, indicates Barrow House may have been open for longer than the hostel at Wray. The 1931 handbook’s reference to Barrow House being “Open from mid-December to October 31” is ambiguous but by the 4th edition the confusion is clarified; the hostel is “Open all year round except Nov. 1st to Dec 15th. Maybe Glaisyer’s intended to have a break.Y231401-1931 LAK papers
- Y232001- The First Phase in Lakeland
- Y231401-1931 LAK papers
- Y232001-The First Phase in Lakeland
All sources from the YHA Archive at the Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.