On a lovely autumn day in England’s Lake District, we visited Wray Castle, overlooking Windermere. Under blue skies, views of the surrounding hills were clear, not a cloud in sight. The castle, now open as one of the National Trust’s many properties, was busy; families, couples, children, and cyclists, setting out to explore the grounds, or sitting in the sun.
I wanted to see the property, which was never open to the public when I lived in the Lake District. It squats above the surrounding woods like something from Spain or Syria, from medieval days. but it has a solid modern history. Built in 1840, Beatrix Potter stayed there when she was sixteen, and the cousin of a founder of the National Trust lived there.
It played a key role in the foundation of youth hostels in the Lake District, and was one of the first youth hostels to open in the Lake District proper, listed in the first youth hostel handbook of 1931.
A small group of youth hostel enthusiasts had spotted the potential for a youth hostel when the National Trust took over the Victorian Gothic castle. 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, with Miss Yeo as warden, and at first paid no rent.
Those who had established the hostel at Wray formed an “Interim” Committee for what they expected would become a Lakeland regional area.
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…”
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.
They held more meetings as a provisional committee in Kenneth Spence’s home in Ambleside. They wrangled about accommodation offered at another early youth hostel, at Barrow House on the edge of Derwentwater.
They thought that, though the owner 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” but, despite this determination, the hostel at Wray closed in 1932.
By then the Lakeland region of YHA was firmly established, able to move on from its beginning at Wray Castle with an increasing number of hostels under its remit. It took away the equipment used at Wray Castle, and though in 1950 there was some discussion about a hostel opening there again, nothing came of it.
Today, looking up the lake you can just make out the youth hostel at Waterhead, a symbol of the success begun in the castle at Wray.