A fashion for England

In 1932 YHA aimed to make touring affordable by creating circuits and chains of hostels especially for young people like Hilary Hughes and her friend Margaret who toured through Hampshire and the New Forest that year. [1] They were part of a fashion for travel, to discover Britain, which arose after the first world war.

C.E.M. Joad, a broadcaster and philosopher with outspoken views on the countryside, described how “By train, charabanc, motor car, motorbike, bicycle or on foot … town dwellers set out into the countryside … clutching a map and possibly a compass”. [2]

Newspaper articles and books inspired them and the first youth hostel magazine published that year had a column on books including guides to “tramping” in Yorkshire and on the moors of North Yorkshire.

One book in the list jumped out at me.

Edward Thomas has a reputation today not just as a poet but as a nature writer, and his books have never been out of print. The inclusion of one of them, the Heart of England, “a book of watching, a calm, enchanted gazing on the heart of England”, [3] showed how little our interests have changed between then and now.

But more exploration and a lot more reading has also shown me that books like Thomas’ also illustrate more profound changes in our landscapes, in our towns and cities and in the ways we take our leisure than I might have expected.

Clutching a map

H.V, Morton in 1927 at the start of his book, In Search of England, echoed Joad. “Never before have so many people been searching for England… [4]

“More people than in any previous generation are seeing the real country for the first time. Many hundreds of such explorers return home with a new enthusiasm,” he declared. [ibid]

A journalist and travel writer, Morton toured England like a magpie in a motor car, discovering heritage and history, and culture more than nature. He chatted up women and visited towns and cities, and left a picture of a rural England of fields and romance.

He regarded Liverpool and Manchester as in some way not English, unlike the older cities of Bristol, Worcester and Gloucester, and he concluded that as long as “one English field lies against another” there would be something for a man to love. [5] He’s an imperialist of his time.

Nothing compares

S.P.B. Mais was another popular travel writer, a journalist and broadcaster, and another chauvinist to a modern eye. He contributed an article to the first issue of Rucksack magazine.

Working closely with railway companies he produced book-length guides and ran special excursion trains from London for walkers, some to the South Downs to watch the sun rise. On one occasion, when 40 walkers were expected, 1440 turned up.

He claimed that there was nothing to compare with an English spring, with the first sight of lilac and laburnum, of woods carpeted with anemones and bluebells, and everywhere he describes walks and landscapes, like“Arundel Park … filled with deer”[6] and “the flats of Glynde … [and] the long ridge of the Downs…” [7].

Loss

Reading Thomas, Morton and Mais reminded me how much has changed in our lives. Since their time, the Second World War has wreaked terrible destruction on towns and cities. Bristol, Coventry, Exeter, Plymouth and many others described by Morton and Mais before the blitz, would not be recognisable today. A swathe of what they described with appreciation has gone.

Tourism has also changed. With no heritage industry of stately homes, no theme parks and no national parks, Morton and Mais focused their journeys on historical sites, towns and churches. “The way to see Cornwall,” Mais claimed, was “to make the churches your main objective.” [8] Today that claim would more likely refer to beaches, stately homes or the coastal path.

The writers describe a rural landscape which is mostly lost. Thomas especially, wrote about birds, insects, flowers and a rural landscape that agricultural changes like tractors and pesticides have destroyed, notwithstanding the many acts to protect landscapes passed by parliament since the war.

The greatest monument

Despite access to the uplands and footpaths we seem more shut than ever from a rural landscape of villages, hedgerow trees, lanes, copses, streams, farms, woods and fields seen as “the greatest historical monument that we possess, the most essential thing which is England”. [9] By the evidence of these books that monument is gone.

Our predilection for and fascination with national parks and wild places gets in the way. We ignore or overlook the rural and local though there is some hope that the ban on travel during the Covid pandemic has shifted our gaze to the heart of Edward Thomas’ England. Maybe concern about our national parks and the direction agriculture is taking will change that too.

These books have been reminders of how the ways we travel and the landscapes we visit have changed since 1932. They point to the enormous changes of which youth hostels were a part, unleashed by the times and our pursuit of leisure.

Notes

  1. Hilary Hughes, album. A digital copy YHA archive, Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.
  2. Joad quoted p243 in Gardiner, Juliet, The Thirties, Harper Press, 2010.
  3. Books by the way p12, Rucksack Magazine 1931, Y500001-1932-1 YHA archive, Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.
  4. page viii, Morton HV, In Search of England, HV Morton, Methuen & Co, 1927.
  5. p280 Ibid.
  6. p170 Mais SPB, See England First, Richards, London, Fifth Edition 1936.
  7. p258, Ibid.
  8. p71 Ibid.
  9. Sir Patrick Abercrombie, quoted p 239, Gardiner, Juliet, The Thirties, Harper Press, 2010.

Image courtesy YHA archive at Cadbury Research Library Y488003 Poster Hikers 300-2 and the image of a team of horses, detail from In Search of England, H.V.Morton.

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