Continuing the story of Hilary Hughes, based on the log book of her cycle tour in the South of England, a fascinating glimpse into the lives of two young women in 1936, when they were alone in the world, unaided, for a week.
1936 was a momentous year. The Royal scandal of King Edward’s relationship with a married woman was causing dismay, the Spanish Civil War was raging, and the Olympic Games in Berlin had finished with Germany winning more medals than any other country.
But none of it figures in Hilary Hughes’ account of her holiday. On Tuesday morning, 18 August, at East Meon in Hampshire a relaxed day lay ahead. She and Margaret ate their breakfast with the others who had stayed the night in the hostel: Franz, the Dutch girls, two American boys and “about four other men”.
The Americans were walking, or “foot-slogging” as they called it. Everyone else was cycling, using an assortment of bicycles, from “old bone shakers to a racer in blue, gold and silver with his name along the bar.” At first, youth hostels had looked to provide accommodation for walkers but cyclists had quickly taken them up too.
Washing up after the meal entertained Hilary as the Americans threw cups to one another for placing on shelves. Fortunately the cups were mugs, made of enamelled metal, and unbreakable.
Everyone was expected to help with the cleaning of hostels, as a way of keeping down costs, but the approach at West Meon described by Hilary seemed relaxed, without regimentation. Margaret and Hilary swept their room, before they finally left, the last to go.
Hilary, picking up Americanisms, now felt that they were “sourdoughs” and “Pards of the Open Road.” They took their time, admiring the views after some stiff climbs over hills. They lost their way but rescued themselves with their faithful Bartholomews half inch map.
Gradually they entered Eastleigh where a prototype of the Spitfire fighter plane had taken its first flight in March that year. When a sign announced a bathing pool, Hilary opted to swim in a pool which had only opened in 1932, one of the many lidos and outdoor pools opening during that time, part of the wider movement towards healthy outdoor living, of which youth hostels were a part.
Swimming at the pool was still segregated, not unusual at the time, but Hilary was in luck because the session for girls was due to start. With other girls, she waited for noon, when she had a good swim. River from the nearby river Meon, purified, fed the pool but Hilary thought it tasted horrible, and she lost her hair slide.
She emerged from the pool bedraggled which amused Margaret, and had to buy a new hair slide, and comb from Woolworths. Hilary’s diary at this point begins to reveal her as forgetful, and dreamy, dependant on Margaret’s more practical nature, though Hilary could be decisive, courageous, and forceful too, when required.
In Woolworths she found that she had forgotten her purse, left for safekeeping with “the man at the pool”. Presumably there were no lockers for safekeeping of valuables at swimming pools in those days. Margaret paid for her shopping. Going back to the pool, they put up with unemployed men shouting at them from the roadside.
Into the forest
It was a time of mass unemployment, less so in the south of England where new industries were providing jobs, but the hunger march from Jarrow would set off in October that year.
Hilary and Margaret entered open countryside beyond Eastleigh. Hungry, they sat on the grassy verge of the road to eat their meal. They settled the money Hilary owed Margaret for her shopping, before packing up. Making sure to leave their picnic spot tidy, they pushed on.
They soon entered the “ever changing beauty of the New Forest” and its “heather clad moors, ….thick woods and delightful glades”.  Muddled, and then lost on roads with signs broken or missing, they eventually found their way to the hostel at West Wellow.
It nestled amid quiet orchards just off the main Southampton – Salisbury road, in Canada, a village with a few houses and a pub today. Miss Nunn, the small grey-haired hostel warden, greeted them with a little hostility because they were early. The hostel wouldn’t open until 5pm she told them curtly, a rule of the time.
Their status as juvenile members (14-18 year olds) caused confusion. Rules from the times could be confusing, with some youth hostels not accepting juvenile members, and others offering them a reduced rate of 6d, half the adult rate. These quirks could only be revealed by a careful reading of YHA’s national handbook of hostels and its rules.
Hilary and Margaret persuaded “old greyie”, as they had privately named Miss Nunn, that they had booked and paid in advance. Later, Hilary assured Margaret that Miss Nunn was probably very nice, if a little snappy.
YHA was finding a way through booming popularity and phenomenal growth in 1936 when 262 youth hostels were open only five years after it had established its first hostels.
The hostel at Canada, called Tarryhere, had opened in 1936, moving from a smaller nearby cottage, open for the two previous years, to larger premises three quarters of a mile south west of the village of West Wellow. The old hostel had accommodated 14 but the new, larger hostel had room for 20.
Miss Nunn, more popularly known as “Nunny”, had run a Holiday Fellowship Guest House in the village itself, until persuaded to switch her allegiance to YHA. That hostel had been popular enough that she moved to the larger house, “an excellent illustration of how an enthusiastic person can build up custom with practically no capital”, benefitting YHA, the local community and herself. 
Facilities were primitive. They slept on camp beds again. Orange boxes covered in oilskin served as furniture, and wash basins were provided. Hilary mentioned no other toilet facilities but the blankets provided were lovely, fluffy ones with YHA embroidered on them.
They bought food from the hostel shop, and cooked omelettes over an oil stove. Miss Nunn was also using the kitchen as it presumably was the only kitchen in the house. With no milk, Hilary and Margaret couldn’t make coffee or custard, and their supper was disappointing.
After their meal, Margaret and Hilary rode into the forest, enjoying freedom without weighty panniers, cycling among “mighty forest oaks and beeches”. Cows along the way frightened Margaret who took to the verges to ride around them.
Masses of members
Their search for milk from a farm went unrewarded but they saw New Forest ponies. Leaving their bikes at the roadside they climbed a hill. Hilary sat with her chin on her knees, and invented all sorts of exciting, imaginary stories while Margaret picked heather until rising mist, and cold drove them back to the hostel.
The weather all day must have been warm but temperatures dropped quickly. They ran, springing recklessly over streams, bushes, and bogs to their bikes.
Masses of members had arrived at the hostel when they returned with bikes filling the cycle shed.
Hilary and Margaret, shy as always, retreated to their beds after Hilary had written up her log in the garden, despite an expectation that they would make merry in the common room.
They excused themselves. They were tired.They had cycled at least 25 miles. Their exact route isn’t clear as Hilary described no landmarks on that day. Urbanisation, and new roads have transformed the area, particularly the M3, and its junctions around Eastleigh.
Not even the sounds of a wireless, a gramophone, and table tennis, nor shouts, and songs from the room below kept Hilary awake.
The next day, breakfast was nothing, Hilary declared to her diary… Continue reading the story of Hilary and Margaret’s tour. https://duncanmsimpsonwriting.com/2023/01/24/inspiring-adventures-day-three/
Images above show Hilary Hughes, left, probably at the youth hostel at West Wellow, writing up her logbook in the garden, and Margaret Taylor, right, studying the Rufus Stone, in the New Forest.
Quotes from Hilary Hughes logbook (Cadbury Research Library Y619019-19360, except
- West Wellow Y050001
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