Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Last Refuge

Maeshafn youth hostel 1985: Photo Sludgegulper

Re-reading Alistair Borthwicks’ closing chapter from ‘Always a little further’ published on Footless Crow this week, the author who was writing in the late 1930’s, touched upon the great socio-cultural revolution taking place amongst working class outdoor activists; essentially ramblers, climbers and cyclists, who had been liberated by the provision of hostel accommodation in the mountain areas.  The idea of youth hostels began in Germany but by the late 20’s had spread to the UK with the present England and Wales YHA emerging from a Merseyside based association.

One of its first purpose built hostels was at Maeshafn in the Clwydian limestone country above Mold.  This historic timber structure was sold in 2011 and has probably been demolished by now? Romantic that I am, I can’t help feeling that buildings like this, which are of great cultural importance should be preserved, but still when have politicians and planning departments ever attached importance to cultural factors in planning decisions?

I was a member of the YHA for a few years in the early 90’s but even then the association was living on borrowed time. What was once offered as cheap and basic accommodation for outdoor folk was rapidly losing its appeal and value. The attraction of sleeping in a single sex dorm and doing chores as part of your package was incredibly archaic and even the rise of private rooms in YHA hostels and the doing away of these chore duties couldn’t disguise the fact that hostels were of their time but not particularly attractive places to stay in this day and age. By the end of the decade, I had discovered that it was in fact cheaper to hire a cottage than stay in a hostel.

 and you get some weird people staying in club huts!

YHA hostels were getting expensive. For example, even in the late 90’s some of the bigger hostels were charging £15 a night for accommodation when you could hire a cottage for a group or family which would be considerably less.

I took a peek at what the YHA are charging in 2013. I checked out  the historic  Pen y Pass hostel in Snowdonia . Rooms from £47.50-beds from £19.50....Gosh!... I’ve just booked a old fisherman’s cottage for October, right on the sea front  for my partner and I which is £25.00 a night. That’s £12.50 each...and they allow dogs! I could book a cottage right now set in a beautiful Lakeland Valley which sleeps 8 for £130 for a three day weekend. That’s actually just a fiver per person per night. We are talking about a warm centrally heated  traditional Lakeland stone cottage with all amenities and yes ...they do allow dogs. Furthermore, there are no restrictions. You can come and go as you please. No lock outs, tippy toeing in trying not to disturb the punters or suffering the late arrivals who crash in like a herd of elephants.

That’s actually cheaper than many Climbing Clubs huts and once again, you are not suffering dorm living, bunked up with snoring farting strangers.

In common with the YHA hostels, even the more modestly priced climbing club huts are losing their appeal. A historic club hut like Helyg only sees a 40% occupancy rate. Does anyone really enjoy sleeping in a sleeping bag on a creaking top bunk? Call me soft but I’ve been there done that and bought the T Shirt.

Which brings me back to dogs? My experience of the outdoor community is that 80% of activists like dogs and enjoy their company. However, a small minority hate dogs with a passion and it is this dour element who the climbing clubs and YHA organisation bend the knee to with regard to allowing dogs to stay. Personally as a dog owner, I can’t see why a well behaved dog cannot stay in a hostel or club hut as they can in private, self catering places but then I am biased. I realise that some dogs can be a pain but that’s usually a reflection of the owner. Another good reason though to avoid huts and hostels though.

Pen y Pass Hostel in N Wales

In recent years, the YHA has been selling off many of its less popular hostels including some right in the heart of national parks. A trend which will continue as the cheaper and more attractive alternatives become more apparent to an increasingly discerning clientele. If you read a book like Patrick Monkhouses’ On Foot in Snowdonia’ you realise just how many hostels the YHA used to run. There must be less than a quarter the number of hostels now compared to the number the organisation had at its peak. I can see a time when even the bigger climbing clubs will be forced to sell off some of their huts. In the harsh economic glare and taking social and cultural changes into account, the clubs and associations are living in the past. Folk can just Google ‘Self Catering Accommodation in......’ and find cheaper and more flexible alternatives to the bureaucratic and usually rigid regimes of the climbing clubs and hostel associations with their outdated rules and regulations. An accommodation system which increasingly appears as an anachronistic reflection of a bygone age. 

Memo to Climbing club and YHA  bureaucrats.... It's not 1939 anymore! 

1 comment:

  1. too true. do you have a list of these places I wanna stay in one too.