Inspiring adventures

It almost seemed silly how easily it began. Someone took a photograph. The pair mounted their cycles, and pedalled off. Not far up the unpaved road, they dismounted and walked to the top of the hill where they paused, and waved. Then, for anyone watching, they disappeared, alone, and unaided.

Hilary Hughes and Margaret Taylor had planned their departure for weeks, dreaming of the moment they would slip free.

The photo taken, before they left shows, two optimistic young women with rugged bikes. Margaret leans while Hilary stands astride hers.

They smile for the camera. Their bikes, with step through frames, new, maybe bought for the journey, are robust enough to have been investments in the future.

Free

Bicycles set their generation free. They beam with pleasure, ready for their adventure.

The two sixteen years olds are dressed for cycling, and hot weather, in shorts that came almost to their knees, blouses, short white socks, and sensible-looking, sturdy shoes.

Advice at the time suggested they should carry with them waterproof capes, in case of rain, changes of clothing, “necessary underwear and nightwear”[1], handkerchiefs, toiletries, bathing costumes and towels, and slippers or shoes for the evenings. Some food was also recommended.

Everything was packed in panniers, each one weighing about six pounds, which they thought they could manage. They would have to do their own cooking but Hilary was confident. She was a Girl Guide and Margaret “knew lots of cooking”[2].

They carried a Bartholomew’s half inch map, standard for cyclists of the time, and youth hostel membership cards.

They had paid a shilling each to join the Youth Hostels Association (YHA), founded six years earlier, and would pay 6d each night for a bed in a single sex dormitory, somewhere to wash and cook, and for the company of any fellow members who happened to stay at the same time.

East Meon

The afternoon was warm, and the sun hot. Beyond Hambledon, a village in Hampshire, surrounded by woods and fields with a cricket club claiming to be the oldest in England. In search of shade they sat under a hedge from which they picked hazel nuts.

It was a leisurely afternoon in sunshine, one of those days which makes England special, when cold, wet weather, and rain appear impossible.

They stopped on a bridge to watch boys playing at building dams. They passed an old but still working mill, and watched the River Meon at another bridge.

Margaret, the more observant, spotted the big YHA sign beside the Warnford Road, near Exton. They had arrived at East Meon youth hostel, a high roofed modern house, newly built, with a low wooden hut behind it.

No choice

Overcome with shyness they dashed past without stopping until they realised they had no choice but to turn back. They had nowhere else to go.

They had arrived. They had reached the only place where they could stop for the night. They simply had to go in. They returned, pushed the gate open, and wheeled their bikes up the uneven track that went round the side of the house.

A woman, described by Hilary as fat, emerged from the house. Mrs Annerau, who ran the hostel, showed them where to leave their bikes.

She was a supporter of the organisation, and had offered to share the premises with YHA. Hilary and Margaret would sleep in a nearby hut which youth hostel volunteers had built to house the common room and cooking facilities.

Travels without a map

At a shop run by Mrs Annerau in her house, they bought milk, sardines and chocolate for their supper. Back in their room in the hut, they found two girls washing in enamel basins.

Hilary blurted a volley of questions at the pair which neither was able to answer. They apologised. They were Dutch, and spoke little English.

In the common room three boys were “assing” about at a dartboard and one boy was eating. He also was Dutch, named Franz, and he helped light a stove for Hilary and Margaret so they could cook their meal.

Hilary makes no mention of what they actually ate beyond the sardines, milk and chocolate they had bought. Washing up was done in cold water.

They joined Franz in the common room and helped him with directions. He had been in England for almost a fortnight and, with three days of his trip left to go, he was on his way home.

He had been to London, the Lake District, and Stratford-on-Avon, all without a map, getting directions along the way from road signs, and people he met. He rode a massive, weighty bicycle all hung about with gadgets.

Crude and unsophisticated

Jean, the warden’s daughter, joined them for a walk with Franz. Jean was a Girl Guide like Margaret and Hilary so the girls had lots to talk about.

The movement figured large in their lives. On camping trips they had learned skills like cooking and the confidence which brought them to this place.

On their return to the hostel they washed in cold water from the well, and prepared for sleep. Their camp beds were uncomfortable.

Much at the hostel was crude and unsophisticated. Water that had to be hauled and carried from a well, a long way down a field. They had camp beds to sleep on, and camping stoves to cook on, and the room was stuffy.

Dusty and hardened

For a long time Hilary could not sleep. She had too much to think about, the places they had seen and the people they had met. She had cycled more than eleven miles since leaving home.

Ahead were six more days, five more hostels, and many more people. She would visit the New Forest, and the ancient city of Winchester.

She was launched, and hoped that soon she would be as dusty, and travel hardened as two cyclists she had glimpsed earlier that day. She would become like them. She was on her way to being an adventurer, on the road.

Hilary’s journey helped inspire a love of nature and many more adventures over many more years, recorded like the first trip of August 1936, in handwritten loose leaf books and folders, a few with small pasted photographs.

She trained as a horticulturalist, and worked for many years at the Royal Horticultural Society, and at different research stations.

Her love of travel, kindled on that first youth hostel trip never left her. She remained politically aware throughout her life and loved meeting people. She could hardly pass anyone without stopping to talk.

Owing much to youth hostels, she left a legacy to YHA, and a full collection of her holiday logbooks is in the Cadbury Research Library at the University of Birmingham.

References

Thanks to YHA’s volunteer archivist John Martin, who provided digital copies of Hilary’s diaries.

Biographical details kindly supplied in conversation with Hilary’s friend, Mary Brodie.

[1] Youth Hostel Handbook 1936

[2] From Hilary’s journal Y691019

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