Continuing the story of Hilary Hughes, based on the log book of her cycle tour in the South of England in August 1936, a fascinating glimpse into the lives of two young women in 1936, when they were alone in the world, unaided, for a week.
Leaving Nether Wallop that morning took time.
Until this point, Hilary and Margaret had been cycling in a westerly direction, from their homes outside Portsmouth. Their exact route isn’t clear but they had passed through Eastleigh to the New Forest, before heading north west towards Nether Wallop. Now they turned east, moving towards Winchester, turning for home.
After a good breakfast of eggs, shredded wheat, coffee, and the last of their bread, they went to the petrol station and settled for the goods they had bought. The Roper brothers who ran the hostel delayed them by demonstrating tricks. The brothers clearly enjoyed running the hostel, and meeting guests.
Along their tour so far, Hilary and Margaret had been staying in hostels run by private individuals. Mrs Annerau at East Meon had been a supporter of YHA, and Miss Nunn at West Wellow had connections with the Holiday Fellowship, on whose behalf she had run her guest house initially.
The Ropers had a more commercial interest, with the hostel an adjunct to their petrol station. Private owners took financial benefit from running hostels and also contributed enormous value to the pioneering YHA. Their hostels gave initial impetus to the development.
Hilary and Margaret’s destination that night would be different. They would stay in a hostel run by YHA with a paid warden on site, the kind of hostel that became YHA’s staple model,.
A better day
Up at the petrol station Hilary had an “awful argument” with an Automobile Association (AA) motorcyclist about her the way she used her compass. The AA, founded in 1905, by 1934 had a membership exceeding 100,000, covering one in three cars in the UK. 
Patrolmen, some on bicycles, and some on motorbikes like the one Hilary had her argument with, helped keep cars on the road. Members could telephone for assistance from wooden roadside boxes.
A boy in shorts weighed their bicycles and told them it was no wonder they were going so slowly. At long last they escaped distractions, paid their bill and left.
With only had 20 miles to cover that day, they took their time. Going through Stockbridge they bought food which they ate, and lay about on the grass in the centre of the village. The weather had improved since the previous day.
They met the AA scout again, criss crossing their route. While they rode 20 miles he covered 200 on his motor bike. They had a long chat at one meeting, peace now established after their awful row.
The old mill
Hilary thought the road from Stockbridge to Winchester, going up, and down like a switch back, very uninteresting. In Winchester they found the hostel straddling the River KItchen, at the lower end of the town, down a little side street. As they were before the opening time of 5pm they went in search of milk.
In the hostel, they signed the house book, a ritual on arriving in a hostel that last until into the 1990s. Guests entered their names, whilst the warden recorded their sex, the category of their membership, and any other items to be paid for such as meals. The book was a register, and financial account for each guest.
They made their way up dark, steep steps into the common room that ran the length of the building. Each end was curtained off to form two dormitories, one for women and one for men.
In the women’s room, they came across Gladys, a girl they had met two days before at West Wellow, sleeping on a camp bed. People staying in youth hostels often met again and again, as they followed similar routes, staying in the same hostels.
Hilary and Margaret climbed a ladder to another room, with six double tier bunks. They chose bunks under the window, and to stop them falling out of the top bunks pushed the others against theirs.
It was their first experience of the bunk beds which became the standard for youth hostels. Until then they had slept on camping beds. The mill, full of cranium threatening beams, dated back to the 1740s, on the site of a 15th century mill, the timbers of which contributed to the building.
By 1930 the mill had been abandoned, and was bought by public subscription to save it from demolition. The purchasers passed it to the national trust. The trust focussed at that time on the preservation of landscapes, and nature, and had little interest in old buildings like the mill.
The first national secretary of YHA realised the potential of using properties surplus to the trust’s needs, ands arranged to lease the mill from the trust. He paid for the building to be made ready for use as one of the first youth hostels in England, opened in time for Easter 1931.
For Hilary and Margaret the hostel was noteworthy for its bunks, for electric light, and because it was also the first they had stayed in run directly by YHA. Its warden, a Scot with a delightful accent, and a very pleasant wife, was a paid employee of the organisation. Run by YHA the hostel did very well, Hilary considered.
Hilary and Margaret cooked that evening’s feast of chops, potatoes, plums, and custard. Hilary writes with relish about their food. Maybe it was her age, maybe it was a result of the energy all their cycling consumed, but her relish for her food shines through her diary.
Travelling light, they were always on the lookout for where their next meal was coming from as they went from place to place, hostel to hostel, and meal to meal.
While they cooked a man “with a funny shock of curly hair and spectacles” was cautiously frying a steak. In the common room they met him again, hacking at his steak with a knife.
They washed their supper things in the river running below the hostel, dropping a bucket attached to a chain into the old mill’s sluices, full of roaring, very clear water.
Then, in another first, they paid 3d each for hot baths, their first since they left home five days before. Hilary felt much cleaner after hers, until Margaret pointed out “rudely” that it looked as if Hilary had sat in a puddle of tar.
When Hilary undressed she could see that her khaki shorts were smeared in soot while her other grey shorts had oil on them from mending Margaret’s bike. Brown from her wet leather saddle had stained them when it rained. To Hilary’s embarrassment, and annoyance, she had no choice but to wear one of her dirty shorts.
They read for a bit in the common room, and went to bed early. They managed to make their beds, balancing on the bottom bunks.
Once in their beds, they listened to the muffled roar of water through the sluices below but, before they could fall asleep, voices from the hostel disturbed them.
Two late arrivals scrambled up the ladder dragging cycle bags after them. They were sunburned, untidy girls incongruously dressed in bathing costumes, and shorts, miles from the sea. It was eleven o’clock at night, long after closing time at the hostel.
It looked to Hilary and Margaret as if they were about to sleep with two lunatics. But as the new arrivals undressed, eating chocolate biscuits, and apples, they entertained them with the stories of their adventures.
Mad but jolly
They had cycled from a hostel on the Isle of Wight, which they thought had been filthy, and taken a ferry to Portsmouth. They planned to stay at East Meon but, hearing how good the hostel at Winchester was, they had pushed on.
One of their lamps failed. They went wrong in the dark, and got lost, until some boys brought them to the hostel where the “awfully decent” warden had let them in, despite the late hour.
Hilary and Margaret screamed with laughter at the two “utterly mad, but jolly girls”. When they realised they might have been keeping others awake, they quickly stopped talking, and turned out the lights.
Happy to sleep now with the two lunatics, they could reflect on the end of an easy, enjoyable day in a comfortable hostel with, despite the age of the building, more conveniences than any they had stayed in along the way. The next night they would be back in their homes.
The next morning, no one had fallen out of their bunks… The story of Hilary and Margaret’s tour continues. https://duncanmsimpsonwriting.com/2023/02/08/inspiring-adventures-day-five/
Image and all quotes from Hilary Hughes’ log book (Y691019) from the YHA archive, Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.
1. AA figures from https://www.theaa.com/about-us/aa-history 24 January 2023.
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