Guest writer, Linda Willmott, one of the owners of the youth hostel, on owning and running a youth hostel on the Pennine Way, the guests she’s seen and a heavy heart.
Where is Alston? We didn’t really know other than it was nearly 300 miles away up in Cumbria and there was a 30 bed hostel directly situated on the Pennine Way (we love our walking) for sale there so we had to have a look!
We went to view, and even though it was only built in 1975 so still quite a young ‘un compared to many hostels, it was looking a little jaded.
But we liked it, and the wonderful, small town of Alston so Neil and my sister Jenny and I bought it from hostel seasoned pros Val, Dave and Phil on 1st September 2014.
It was a bold decision as we didn’t really know what was involved in owning, and running a Youth Hostel. My six weeks voluntary work with the SYHA the previous year had given me a small insight, and we’d stayed in many. How hard can it be??
Rucksacks and boots
Well eight years, and a very steep learning curve on we now know exactly what is involved!! So many highs, and lows (we’ll not mention Covid) but never a dull moment, and enough amusing anecdotes on hostel life and interesting guests for a reasonably sized book!
My first overriding memory of realising what running a hostel entailed was watching some Pennine Way walkers preparing to leave in the morning with rucksacks and boots on and the prospect of another adventure.
That had been me in previous years but this time I was left behind to make beds, do the cleaning, and prepare for the next arrivals at 5pm!
Being situated directly on the Pennine Way and C2C cycle route we are predominantly an outdoorsy sort of hostel with walkers and cyclists staying, and the occasional school groups and families.
One of the highs of hostel life has to be the communal spirit it generates, and listening to guests chatting to each other about their day or their journey and experiences. We have many a Pennine Way walkers’ reunion as they meet up again with those they have encountered along the path.
One evening I looked around the dining room, and realised we had seven different nationalities staying that evening from as far as New Zealand and Japan! There were no language barriers, and I felt humbled that our modest little hostel had brought these travellers together!
The golden age
The term Youth Hostel is a bit of a misnomer! We’ve had every age from new born babies to a 90 year old chap on the return leg of his Pennine Way walk very smartly dressed in a kilt!
Those of a certain age stand in reception and reminisce about the golden age of hostelling where you had to do ‘a job’ before you left (could you imagine the risk assessments that would entail these days!) but also now want en-suite bedrooms. Whilst the younger generation ask if there is Wifi before they’ve even taken off their boots!
It is always a joy to have someone stay who is a hostelling newbie. They often arrive with a lot of preconceptions but usually end up leaving fully converted to the fact that the bunk beds (or as a small child called them double decker beds) are actually comfortable, there is hot and cold running water and the concept of a self-catering kitchen so they can cook their own food and save money! Possibly more and more people and families will see the benefits of this as budgets are squeezed?
Keeping the vibe
Over the last eight years we have had to do a lot of updating and renovation of the hostel, like a brand new roof and heating system, to preserve it for the future though it still it still retains a lot of the original fixtures and fittings from the 1970’s which keeps the traditional hostel vibe.
With heavy hearts we now want to hand the hostel over to new owners to take it into its 50th year but we are incredibly proud of what we’ve achieved despite our initial naivety, and the fact that we will always be very much a part of Alston Youth Hostel’s history!
Thanks to Linda for sharing the insights. You can read more about the youth hostel at Alston below in a profile by John Martin, YHA’s volunteer archivist, plus visit the hostel’s website, and see the property details if you fancy running a hostel of your own.