A moorland chain

The common room at Wallington.

Youth hostels started slowly in Northumberland but the county should have been one of the first to have youth hostels because it was running hostels, a chain of them, in the far north east, before anyone else.
It should have been able to claim a status as the foremost group in Britain, beating the group on Merseyside to that honour, but never could.

The same applies to the idea of a network or chain of hostels. If one regional group could be expected to open a chain of hostels from its beginning, Northumberland should have been the one. But it could only claim that it had opened hostels before there were youth hostels.

Limited and primitive

At the end of 1928 a group of outdoor enthusiasts, calling themselves the Northumberland Trampers’ Guild, opened a chain of six hostels close to the border with Scotland.

Little is known about the hostels. Oliver Coburn in his history of youth hostels, Youth Hostel Story, mentions them and we know the most about the hostel at Wallington Hall, the home of Sir Charles Trevelyan.

Tall, rangy and craggy browed, Trevelyan was a keen walker, a supporter of the cause of walking on the moors and uplands of Britain. He encouraged activities for young people, including Newcastle’s youth theatre, and was a natural supporter of of the trampers guild.

He offered the guild a hostel in a corner of the hall’s grounds, in an unused granary, with two dormitories, one for women and one for men. They slept in two-tier bunks on straw palliasses and cooked on an open fire inn the common room. “Washing arrangements were very primitive and limited.” [1]

In a grand old mansion

But visitors could stay in the grounds of a grand old mansion, high on the moors, a house dating back to the 18th century, with the lady of the hall, Mary Trevelyan, as their host. In any case, indoor plumbing and poor kitchens were a fact of life for many at the time and visitors could make use of the family library.

The youth hostel at Acomb with the early YHA sign of wrought iron, photo by Edith Bulmer.

Others organised themselves in youth hostel groups and YHA formed a national association in 1930, but the guild did not involve itself in the association despite the six hostels it possessed.

Maybe they knew nothing about what was happening or maybe they held themselves aloof. Even after Sir Charles Trevelyan’s brother, the Cambridge professor and historian, George Macaulay Trevelyan, became YHA’s president, the guild still did not involve itself until 1931.

A lost chance

At a public meeting in Newcastle on 28 May 1931, they turned themselves into the Northumberland and Tyneside Region of YHA and handed over their assets of £4 10s 10d, the hostel at Wallington and Sir Charles who came with them as president of the new group.

What happened to the rest of their hostels is not known, but they were just in time to get the hostel at Wallington into the first edition of the 1931 YHA Handbook of Hostels. Because of the group’s delay, Wallington lost its chance to be the first youth hostel in Britain. That honour went to the youth hostel at Street in Somerset.

That claim can be disputed because a youth hostel had opened in December 1930 at Pennant Hall in Wales but that had closed soon after it opened and it may never have operated as a youth hostel, advertised and open to guests in a formal way, anyway. These disputes can be endless and revolve about the minutiae of terminology.

Two years later the YHA handbook listed, in addition to the original at Wallington, three more hostels for the group, at Wooler, Alnham, and Acomb, on what was described as the Cheviot route. The group planned a further route along the Roman Wall.

Along the Roman Wall

Trevelyan support was instrumental to the group and the two brothers took a lively interest in the hostels of their home county. They funded a hostel at Bavington, near Wallington, and turned up to open it.

The hostel at Once Brewed, which became Northumberland’s most famous and long-lasting hostel, was a Trevelyan family affair, the first of the hostels for a proposed Roman Wall route.

Lady Trevelyan worked with an architect on designs for the hostel, built on land owned by Sir Charles, with money given by his brother. Lady Trevelyan supposedly named the hostel “Once Brewed” because it served only tea, unlike the nearby inn, the Twice Brewed, which served beer.

Sir Charles’ mistress, Edith Bulmer, a forceful and intimidating personality, was the regional group’s chairperson though in those days she was referred to as the chairman. She and Sir Charles were socialists, concerned with improving the lives of young people, and they visited the new communist state in Russia twice.

The common room at the first YHA Once Brewed.

The Northumberland and Tyneside group found money hard to get. Government funding, in the wake of the Great Depression supported a hostel at Edmudbyers.

A model hostel

John Dower, Sir Charles’ Trevelyan’s son in law, the architect of hostels at Eskdale in Cumbria and Malham, West Yorkshire, designed a hostel for Bellingham, a market town north east of Newcastle where the Hareshaw Burn meets the North Tyne River.

But the plan was too expensive for the region and the hostel finally built was a simple wooden structure of red cedar wood fastened with copper nails. A central common room was flanked by dormitories and washrooms, with a small self catering kitchen and another dormitory in a separate building.

It was a model hostel, wardened by a succession of women who lived locally, all “equally welcoming and equally knowledgeable”. [2]

The region’s records are full of complaints about a lack of funds and grumbles that its members were too often drawn by the hostels of the neighbouring Lakeland, though evidence doesn’t support that claim. Despite its beauty and good walking, Northumberland was less renowned as a destination than it deserved to be.

The youth hostel at Bellingham.

The disappointments of a hostel at Cambo near Wallington illustrate the conundrums of the region. Sir Charles Trevelyan gave a lease for land to the group where he expected the group to build a hostel to replace the one at Wallington which was becoming uncomfortable and inadequate.

Expense and delay

The group delayed. There was no permission to build on the land and no sanitation but John Dower designed a stone built hostel for the site.

After the hostel at Wallington closed in 1955, when there was permission to build and Trevelyan had installed sanitation and water, the group had other priorities and neither could they afford the expense of building a new hostel.

Their inaction frustrated and disappointed Trevelyan who died in 1958. The land waited. No hostel was built and finally in 1971 the group handed the property back to the Trevelyan estate, now in the hands of the National Trust. No replacement for the hostel at Wallington was ever built.

The story of the region illustrates the disparities that grew up over time among the regions of the Youth Hostels Association. By 1938 the Lakeland region had opened 34 hostels whilst Northumberland could only boast eight.

The long affair

Why the region didn’t play a leading role in youth hostels remains a mystery. Despite pleas, Northumberland remained one of the poorest and least visited regions of YHA.

Despite the growth of professionalism throughout YHA, despite amalgamations and reorganisations, volunteers continued to run the region until YHA absorbed all regional groups into a new and fully centralised organisation in 1985.

But the hostel which was a Trevelyan family affair beside the Roman Wall continues today, demolished, rebuilt and modernised for a second time, in a purpose built, awarding winning youth hostel, part of a national park visitor centre, and now known as The Sill. It’s on a national trail known as the Hadrian’s Wall path.

Profiles of hostels mentioned in this article, with thanks to John Martin:

Images, courtesy YHA Archive, Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.

  1. The common room at Wallington, Y050001-Wallington 601 300-8GY.
  2. The youth hostel at Acomb with the early YHA sign of wrought iron, photo by Edith Bulmer, 1933. Y050001-Acomb 11 1933 400-8.
  3. The common room at the first YHA Once Brewed Y050001-Once Brewed A 06 400-10.
  4. The youth hostel at Bellingham Y050001-Bellingham A 602 300-8.


[1] A Wallington Estate Magazine of 2006, with thanks to John Martin.

[2] Alan Gardner 1987, Bellingham in Y900003 Historical listing of all youth hostels and other YHA accommodation.

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