We were definitely youths when we first went hostelling, to the Lake District after our O Level exams. It was a badly-planned trip that saw us one day walking three miles along a main road, and the next hiking 12 miles over one of England’s highest mountains and down a terrifying ridge. We’d never walked in the hills before, nor stayed in hostels which, in those days, were firmly shut till 5pm, you weren’t allowed to arrive by car, and every guest had to complete a household task. Such as polishing the stairs as Esthwaite Hall, where everyone walked around in socks.
Fast forward many decades, and I’m the one who still loves hostelling, often arriving by car these days to find warm, comfortable accommodation, a well-stocked bar, and jolly staff whose expectation of household help from guests is restricted to using the correct recycling bins.
Most recently I stayed at one that was purpose built, had comfortable sofas in the open-plan living space, USB ports by the pillow and free Wi-Fi, all for £15 for a bed in a dormitory designed for four – though I had it all to myself.
Hostels on the market
The guest demographic was fascinating: groups of older walkers, solo visitors, families with young children, from China, the USA, Germany and Holland. But none that might be described as ‘youths’, which is why the YHA, formerly the Youth Hostels Association, switched to the acronym officially some years ago.
They are struggling financially, however, and recently announced that 20 hostels would have to be sold. Among them are Hathersage in the Peak District, Patterdale in the Lakes, and three others in the North West which are already independently run: Kendal, Alston, and Witherslack Cycle Barn.
The YHA is a registered charity, part of Hostelling International, which has more than 700 hostels in around 600 cities as well as countryside locations, including London, Sydney, Melbourne, Shenzhen, and New Delhi. All Youth Hostel Associations operate as not-for-profit organisations with the aim of helping young people travel and discover the world.
Traditionally, YHA accommodation offered exceptionally cheap beds for the night, often with basic facilities and shared dorms. In more recent years there have been moves to modernise the provision, with improved facilities and family rooms becoming available.
However, up against competition from budget hotel chains and AirBnB, the YHA has faced criticism for being too expensive for what it offers. Popular hostels in central locations are being saved at the expense of more remote locations, though there’s a hope that those on the market now will be bought and run as independent hostels.
That’s a challenge which was taken up in the Langdale valley in the Lake District ten years ago when Elterwater hostel was put up for sale. There was widespread consternation at the time at the YHA’s decision amid fears that it might be converted into a private residence and lost to travellers. But Christine and Alan Thomas, who had spent many happy family holidays in the Lakes, and were initially thinking about retiring to the Lake District, came up with a better – and slightly crazier – idea.
“We were winding down professionally and looking forward to retirement,” says Christine, who worked in finance and had no prior hospitality experience. “It was certainly not on our agenda to buy and run a hostel.”
But their hearts won over their heads, and now the Thomas family and their long serving team are planning celebrations to mark ten years as an Independent Hostel. They have not been easy years. The building was in need of considerable care and attention, and investment to bring it up to modern standards and meet the family’s eco-goals. Just as things were starting to run smoothly, along came the pandemic, and even when hospitality opened up again, at first travellers were reluctant to embrace the shared nature of the hostel experience.
Now, with normal hostel life resumed, the Thomas’ are supervising a big building project to create modern staff accommodation, while consolidating their place as a favourite for groups and families, solo travellers, and international visitors.
They were awarded third place in a national contest which celebrated the best of outdoor culture when Elterwater was the only English hostel in the top three, behind Scotland’s Torridon and Loch Ossian hostels. It was singled out for friendly and helpful staff, great home cooking, and a fantastic location. Along the way they have been supported by the Independent Hostels UK organisation which, with more than 320 members, is the largest network of hostels and bunkhouses in England, Scotland and Wales.
Beyond simply providing a place to stay, the Thomas’ and their hostel team have invested in many green initiatives to run a sustainable business, and are involved in the community through sponsorship of junior events at Ambleside Sports, as well as launching and hosting the increasingly popular 23 Before Tea fell running challenge, which takes in 23 mountain summits around the area in a continuous route.
“Since rescuing the hostel from closure, as a family we have taken great pride in the project and invested significant time and money into the building itself. We now have a variety of room sizes, from two to six people (our maximum dorm size) as well as an ensuite family room, and new showers, but this is really just the fabric of the building. We’ve learned that what matters is the guest experience, which really comes down to the work led by Nick Owen, our manager, and regular staff Charlie Spiller and Andy Hunter, who have been longstanding members of the team here at Elterwater.” – Christine Thomas
Guest expectations have changed considerably in those ten years, says Christine, but they still get many repeat visits, from school and family parties, groups of runners and walkers, and overseas visitors who have become friends.
“The continuity of staff, and their knowledge of the area, enables them to help every guest make the most of their stay. They have a passion for what we are trying to do, and they have their own love of the outdoors. So no matter whether you are a regular or visiting us for the first time, an experienced fell runner or more of a café and museum enthusiast, they will make guests feel at home and be happy to answer any questions.”
She points out that the independent sector, which is facing exactly the same issues as those experienced by the YHA, is largely managing to adapt and survive:
“In the ten years here we’ve made many changes but we are still very firmly available to those independent travellers looking for budget accommodation, for whom the hostelling movement was founded.
“The business appears to be recovering from the pandemic, but we are constantly looking at innovative ways to encourage visitors, and also to operate sustainably. In this respect we are way ahead of many hospitality providers in the Lake District. If there are enterprising people willing to take a new direction, buying a former YHA hostel could be a hugely rewarding experience, for both them and their visitors.”