Recreating journeys

Three cyclists set off from Glasgow in October, recreating the journey taken by three sisters in 1936. 

Along the way the sisters encountered friendliness and hospitality, met and made new friends, had punctures and accidents, and the sun burned them until they were red as lobsters.

Many others took similar journeys and some, like Mary Harvie, left diaries and accounts of their trips. The archives of YHA (England and Wales) and Hostelling Scotland hold many of these accounts.

Their travels emphasise the sustainable nature of youth hostel travel then, their enjoyment and adventures and an authenticity that can come from such low impact travel.

Low impact

The subject fascinates me. Travel to youth hostels had to be low impact and sustainable. Young women like Mary Harvie could only visit youth hostels on foot or by bike, under their own steam. In England and Wales that was the rule but, aside from regulations banning the use of motorcars, most could barely afford a bicycle, not a motor car.

Hostels in those early days were sustainable. Locally run, many were locally owned, rooted in the communities to which visitors came, bringing income to communitites and people in hard times. They reused old buildings, kept prices as low as possible so anyone could stay, encouraged health and well-being, and the conservation and protection of the natural world.

Sustainability in early youth hostels fascinates me especially at a time of global warming, when tourists overburden beautiful places like the Lake District, Devon and Cornwall, threatening to overwhelm local communities, and when cities like Amsterdam and Barcelona consider bans on tourist accommodation. 

The benefits of travel

These events menace the idea of travel and the benefits it can bring but there’s also a lot we can learn about how youth hostels promoted sustainable travel at their beginning.

Sustainability is not a term those early youth hostel travellers would have used but as we try to find our own ways of creating sustainable tourism, it’s a term which offers a framework and a way to learn from youth hostels and the experience of young women like Mary Harvie and her sisters.

In one of the ironies of the history of travel in Europe, youth hostels were one of the ways the travel we enjoy today was opened to all of us, not just the privileged few, an opening that now threatens all our journeys.


You can read about the diaries of Mary Harvie.

An article about the cycle trip is here

The image above shows Hilary Hughes and friend; they cycled through the New Forest and surrounding area from their homes in Portsmouth in 1936. Image courtesy the YHA archive at the Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.

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