Fun, freedom and serendipity. Concluding the story of Hilary Hughes’ cycle tour in the South of England from August 1936, which gave the sixteen-year-old a hunger for unknown roads, sunsets behind unknown hills, unknown folk and little known shops, the cheerfulness of hostels, that stayed with her for the rest of her life.
The next day was short, and the end of their tour as easy as its beginning had been. After routines that had become familiar Hilary and Margaret left the youth hostel at East Meon for home. There was no hunt for food, no last minute punctures, and no one else to delay them.
“Bit by bit familiar landmarks came into view”. Soon they were puffing up the London Road to Widley, the village in Hampshire where they lived, near Portsmouth, and from where they had departed six days earlier.
The two parted with a strong handshake, and a promise of further adventures. Hilary’s first tour was over. It left her stronger, fitter, and bronzed, “with wisdom that only experience could teach”.
They had cycled 152 miles, not a vast distance and one which most cyclists would cover as easily as they had done. But maybe none of us would choose to do so on “sit up and beg” bicycles without gears. 
None of the days had particularly stretched them. Neither had they seen sights that would fill an instagram feed.
Hilary’s photos are of ponies seen in the New Forest, a humorous image of her combing her hair beside her bike, of Margaret on a top bunk at Winchester, and another of her preparing to drop a bucket into the sluice for water with which they could wash.
The photos were all black and white, probably developed and printed at a local pharmacy like Boots, days or weeks afterwards, when the film roll was completely used.
The journey seems mundane but it had inspired in Hilary a hunger for travel that would stay with her for the rest of her life.
Keen for more adventures she gazed at the maps in the central pages of her youth hostel handbook, covered in little black triangles that to her meant “food, and rest, and comradeship; the lure of the unknown road, the sunsets behind unknown hills, the unknown folk and little known shops, the cheerfulness of the hostels.”
Touring has become a dirty word today. Neither do we attach romanticism to places so close to home as the New Forest and Winchester were to Hilary. For many of us those are destinations for day trips only, if at all.
The world has changed. Many of us no longer welcome sharing bedrooms and bathrooms with strangers. But Hilary had thrived on the experience, and people remained important to her throughout her life.
She specifically loved the comradeship of hostels, and her diaries offer a glimpse of a shared, egalitarian experience in bedrooms, kitchens, and common rooms.
Youth hostel wardens, and the welcome they offered, were part of the unforgettable experience of youth hostels in those days, and also because of the hostels’ primitive facilities. Each hostel was different. The beds and furniture were all different.
Lighting and washing was rudimentary. Hilary and Margaret modestly passed over any mention of the toilet facilities at the hostels where they stayed. They had one bath at Winchester. At the rest they washed in cold water.
Food played a big part on the tour. It would today. Food is the fuel on which cyclists and walkers run. They provided all their meals for themselves, shopping along the way, and carrying all the food they could.
They cooked on camping stoves, fuelled by paraffin, or stoves fired by oil. They cooked badly with good humour, amusing not only themselves but others in hostels. They in turn were amused by the efforts of others to cook.
Shopping was difficult, more difficult than it would be today, and took more time. As Margaret complained, “bread was a nuisance”.
Shops were fewer, harder to find, and often closed. They ran out of food like milk and bread, and failed to buy milk from a farm. Food shops were not as ubiquitous nor open for such long hours as they are today.
Hilary and Margaret travelled through a landscape that no longer exists, of minor roads and lost lanes. Dual carriageways, and motorways had not barged their way across fields, streams and rivers.
Hilary never complained about cars or traffic. The number of cars on the road is estimated to have doubled during the 1930s, from one to two million, but compared with the 40 million cars on the road in 2020, cars were few enough to make travel by bicycle, with a picnic stop on the roadside, for two sixteen year olds, pleasant and enjoyable.
At the same time the countryside through which they travelled seems busier with more people about. People worked in the countryside digging ditches, and mending roads. Farmers didn’t sit in the cabs of tractors with earphones firmly fixed. Boys played in rivers and streams. Hilary and Margaret were never short of advice on routes.
The two girls tolerated casual sexism but never seem to have worried about their own safety. That two sixteen-year-old girls were on their own for six days, alone in the world unaided, without contact with their parents, and no easy means of calling home is for me the most outstanding aspect of their tour.
Fun, freedom and serendipity.
Their tour in 1936 speaks of a world in which people trusted that they would be safe. Youth hostels provided a refuge. Their tour is a glimpse of all that we have lost, and all that we have gained.
It is also a glimpse of a way of low impact travel.
They travelled from home and back. They travelled slowly. They stayed in accommodation run by local people, arranged by an organisation owned and run by its own members, in a highly devolved local structure.
Hilary’s diary shows us a kind of low impact tourism, and hints at some of what can be done to create a better kind of tourism. Youth hostels in 1936 show a time when touring was about what it should be: fun, freedom, and serendipity. 
Image from the 1936 YHA Handbook. Quotes from Hilary Hughes’ log book (Y691019) from the YHA archive, Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.
1. Hilary makes no mention of gears on her bicycle – they puffed and walked up hills – and I haven’t been able to see a sign of gears on their bicycles in the photos from Hilary’s logbook. Sturmey Archer two-speed hub gears were in use but three-speed hub gears weren’t introduced until 1938. Derailleur gears were still in their infancy and for racers only. So it’s unlikely Hilary and Margaret would have had gears on their bikes. Thanks to Jack Thurston, Nigel Pepper and others for this information.
2. Thanks to Jack Thurston, of Lost Lanes, for the phrase. See https://lostlanes.co.uk.
Thanks very much…… I wish I could turn the clock back
I think many of us wish we could turn the clocks back hopefully Hilary’s journey is also a reminder of what we could gain.