This is an extract from Richard Schirrmann, the man who invented youth hostels.
When Richard Schirrmann moved to Altena, a small town surrounded by the Sauerland’s wooded hills, in 1903, life for the newly married 29-year-old teacher was full of promise. The Sauerland is an outdoor paradise for those escaping the industrialised cities of the Ruhr. In summer there is walking and, in winter, skiing.
“Heavens,” he wrote. “What a change. From the fumes, dust and reeking air to a clean little town ringed about with wooded hills.”
Tall, slim, long-legged and with an athletic frame, Schirrmann was a strong walker and natural athlete. He could, a biographer claimed, walk 45 miles in a day. He spoke “a vivid, pithy German, full of unusual turns of phrase, and with an infectious enthusiasm which made his whole face light up”.
In Altena he joined the local walking club, teaming up with working parties to mark long distance paths through the Sauerland with coloured flashes of paint, splashed on tree trunks or stones. He preferred solitary walking but he led tours for an Altena group of the club.
He also enjoyed walking with his pupils in the woodland and hills around the town, where they filled their lungs with clear fresh air, where their eyes escaped the tiny print of books to focus on space and distance, on meadow and woodland.
He believed that not only were the outdoors and fresh air good for their spirits, but young children learned best in the natural world. At his previous school and at college he had begun developing ideas for a wandernde Schule, a wandering school.
Convinced a teacher couldn’t teach just by standing in front of his pupils, using only words and speech, and examining them afterwards to find out what they had learned, he wanted his pupils to really learn, to feel, to understand and explore the world, to become better people.
Young children learned best out of the classroom. In the natural world, in small groups, learning together, they could really experience and understand nature and geography. Pupils and parents would remember Schirrmann fondly and they would wish that all teachers were like him.
But in the paradise of Altena, Schirrmann’s enthusiasm rapidly ran into disappointment. He and his recently married wife discovered they had little in common and very different tastes. His trusting, optimistic nature had brought him into difficulties it would be difficult to escape. S
chirrmann described the marriage as one made out of pity and it caused unhappiness, leading to separation and, finally, divorce, twenty-six years later.
Compounding his predicament, the head teacher of his new school banned Schirrmann from taking the children out of school during school time.
But Schirrmann was a rebellious, determined man. He took them instead on free afternoons and weekends, going further and further afield. When he wanted to take a longer trip, in the school holidays, going out for several days, his headmaster quoted regulations, which had already been broken, and refused permission to the walking mad teacher.
Aged 29 his plans and dreams had run into the ground.