It’s natural, for anyone living in a city or town, to look beyond roofs, to bounding hills at the end of streets, where you, on railway or road, might go.
Youth hostels began in Britain’s towns and cities with a dream of going far, of a walking tour or a bicycle ride to an unseen, unknown place for a weekend or a holiday.
The Peak District is such a place. A necklace of cities, towns and villages, of ugly mines and industry and wretched housing, surrounded its slopes and hills and moorland.
No single city dominated. It was a draw for many. Manchester, Stoke, Burton, Derby, Nottingham, Chesterfield, Sheffield and many other towns, small and large, are within easy reach and, really, it’s not a single district, but two, divided and distinct, where limestone uplands meet the moorland roots of the Pennine hills.
Echoing those divides, into White and Dark Peak, with no single urban base on which to set itself, YHA also divided the district among regional groups.
A group formed in Manchester on 7 February 1930, the second to form in Britain, with HP Weston, secretary of the Cooperative Holidays Association (CHA), as chair of the Manchester and District Regional Council.
Weston was a driving force for the early youth hostels association. Involved with the first group on Merseyside at its beginning, he also become a member of YHA’s first executive committee.
He used CHA resources to assist youth hostels when he could, providing equipment for a hostel at Llangollen in 1933.
The Manchester and District group looked south and aimed to extend hostels into the Derbyshire hills, through Whaley Bridge to Thorpe Cloud and Dovedale.
Early reports of its plans for hostels appeared in the press in January 1931 and its first hostel opened in time for Easter that year, high up in the Goyt valley, at Errwood Farm near Buxton, a primitive hostel where an early visitor remembered the wind moaning around her bed.
Another hostel opened at Town Head farm at the top of the village of Bonsall, near Matlock, with a small hostel further north in Hope accommodating 15 men only, opening in June.
YHA members were also able to use an eight bed barn, run by the British Fellowship of Youth, at Flagg, near Buxton, on a reciprocal basis, but it was available to conducted parties only.
Flagg and Bonsall had closed by the following year when hostels opened in Matlock, at Hartington, not in the present site but at Pool Hall with high airy rooms and views up the Dove Valley.
A hostel in Ilam Hall also opened. That one would soon close and then re-open two years later after Sir Robert McDougal, the flour manufacturer, bought the hall and gave it to the National Trust to be a youth hostel. Hostels came and went quickly in their early incarnations.
A YHA map from 1931 showed a second regional group for Derbyshire. The group took time to establish itself and, when it did, based itself on Derby, calling itself the North Midlands Regional Group.
Cooperating with the Manchester group, the newcomers took the hostels at Hartington and Matlock, leaving the Dark Peak and Hope Valley to Manchester.
Both groups jointly ran a hostel at Derwent Hall which had been abandoned because of a dam being constructed on the Derwent river. Once the dam flooded the valley, the hostel would be lost.
The North Midlands group opened new hostels in the White Peak establishing a chain that traversed the district from north to south.
By 1938 the Manchester region had opened a hostel in Castleton to add to the jointly run Derwent Hall. Further south, the North Midlands group had hostels at Hartington, Ilam, Ashover and Ravenstor in the Peak District.
They were big hostels in large halls which were giving the group a reputation for running “mansion” hostels, large and ideal for accommodating school groups for which the group was also gaining a reputation.
Both groups opened hostels beyond the confines of what would become the Peak District national park and the shape of the areas they covered changed.
Manchester opened hostels into the Pennines and further north, linking through to Lakeland.
Hostels like the one at Gisburn tended to be used mostly at weekends, often in places that were not in recognised holiday country. By 1938 the group rarely mentioned ambitions to run chains of hostels.
The North Midlands group opened hostels in South Derbyshire, Staffordshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire. It seems likely that many of these hostels, placed further apart than walkers might want and not in obvious walking country, drew cyclists.
A hostel at Lichfield was 35 miles from Ilam Hall and 28 miles from Charnwood. A hostel briefly ran close to the A6 near Chorley, convenient for cyclists on their way to or from the Lake District.
A complete scheme
Manchester was aware, almost from the outset, that “the immense population of the membership area of the group does not permit of it being successfully developed without the foundation of sub-regional groups”. 
The first such groups were based on the districts around Blackburn and Bolton. Others followed based on Cheshire and Derbyshire, Manchester and Salford, North-East Lancashire and South-East Lancashire.
The North Midlands group had brought into operation “a complete scheme of sub-regional groups” by 1935 though left no details of those groups in its annual reports.
Their sub regional groups at the time appear to have focused less on opening and running hostels, more on educational and social activities. They brought members together in their home towns and on weekend trips.
A group based on Derby undertook a study of international drama and 15 of its members visited and presented English plays in Germany in 1937.
The Manchester and North Midlands groups and the way they developed show the youth hostel movement adapting to landscapes and cultures, finding ways and means of carrying out aims that had been determined nationally and internationally.
They reshaped themselves to adapt to the many different towns and cities out of which their members came, found new ways of working, opened new styles of hostels and spread them over greater distances, abandoning the idea of hostels within walking distance of one another.
The chain of hostels they began in the Peak District stopped at the foot of Kinder. It was left to journalist and campaigner, Tom Stephenson, with his dream of a long distance path all the way to the border with Scotland, to extend the chain up the Pennines.
When national parks came into being, the Peak District became the first, cementing the place of hostels in the district and making the amalgamation of the two youth hostel groups into a single Peak District region inevitable.
When that happened, the old North Midlands group annexed its older neighbour in Manchester and shifted its base to Matlock where YHA’s headquarters are today.
Sources and images
All sources and images courtesy YHA archive from the Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.
- Manchester and District Annual Report 1931-32
- 1935 North Midlands Annual Report