Opinion

Youth hostels are a muddy, joyful miracle. Losing them to Brexit and the cost of living would be a tragedy | John Harris

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Just over a month ago, a news story broke that spoke volumes about our crisis-ridden times, and the great wealth sitting undisturbed while some of our most vital organisations and institutions find themselves in dire financial straits.

It also took its place among a range of developments – from our polluted rivers, to the ongoing controversy about the legality of camping on Dartmoor – which highlight how the opportunity to enjoy green and open spaces is being spoiled, restricted and neglected. In this instance, though, beyond coverage in the Guardian and Telegraph, and a brief flurry of noise on social media, what was afoot seemed to attract very little attention at all.

The Youth Hostels Association of England and Wales (YHA) has announced the sell-off of 20 of its 150 hostels, and identified a further 30 for possible offloading over the next three years – which, in total, would mean the loss of a third of its properties. Its spokespeople blame “pandemic shutdowns, the cost of living crisis and steep inflation”.

Insiders also talk about how Brexit has hugely reduced the number of school trips to the UK from Europe, thereby hitting a crucial part of the YHA’s revenue. Priority, it insists, will be given to buyers who want to run the threatened facilities as independent hostels, but many will unavoidably be turned into spacious – and very expensive – private homes: yet another symbol of a society that has succumbed to the proverbial fate of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

The Choudhury family from London, who visited Borrowdale hostel in the school holidays.

The list of hostels that will initially go on the market is heartbreaking. Among the places that may soon not have a hostel are Patterdale in the Lake District, the Peak District village of Eyam, Poppit Sands in west Wales, and the Somerset town of Minehead, which serves both the south-west coast and Exmoor national park. The YHA will also soon depart from Cheddar in the Mendip Hills, Kington in Herefordshire (on the Offa’s Dyke path), and the Yorkshire village of Haworth – the home of the Brontë sisters, where the market value of the local hostel is a cool £950,000.

There is a clear element of “use it or lose it” to this story, and I write as an enthusiastic and grateful user of what the YHA provides. With my two kids, I have stayed in hostels in East Sussex, Dartmoor, the Bannau Brycheiniog national park in Wales, Cumbria, the New Forest and many more places besides. We have slept in their bunkbeds and wooden camping pods, left our soaking boots and cagoules in their “dry rooms”, and happily whiled away our evenings in places where, despite the availability of wifi, the usually obligatory phones and iPads often feel like unnecessary distractions.

Over the last May half-term holiday, we walked 70 miles or so of the Cleveland Way, which began at the cosy hostel in the Yorkshire town of Helmsley – one of those now being sold – and ended in Whitby, where the hostel offers an abundance of affordable accommodation in a mansion house dating back to the 16th century, nudging the ruins of the town’s abbey. Amid endless blather about the “tourist economy” and our modern tendency to think of our environment as so much real estate, the fact that these places exist sometimes feels almost miraculous.

The YHA is a charity that exists to “help all, especially young people of limited means, to a greater knowledge, love and care of the countryside, and appreciation of the cultural values of towns and cities”. Its facilities may mostly be associated with rural places, but there are also hostels in most of our big urban centres, which offer much more affordable accommodation than most hotels – or, for that matter, Airbnb-type rentals.

Ninety years after its foundation, use of the association’s facilities – and formal membership – is open to people of all ages, but it maintains its focus on young people by offering discounts at the lower end of the age range, and hosting the kind of school trips that make up a huge chunk of hostels’ human traffic.

Older readers may have memories of somewhat spartan places where residents had to bring their own bedding, and nightly “chores” were compulsory. Some of that spirit endures in hostels’ gently communal culture, the expectation of a bit of conversation with one’s fellow residents, and the obligation to always clean up after yourself. But in other ways, hostels have modernised. Old-fashioned dorms are still widely available, but they sit alongside private rooms. There are duvets. A large number of YHA facilities offer menus that include such up-to-date wonders as Quorn katsu curry and gluten-free pizza. One crucial constant, meanwhile, remains: the universal self-catering facilities that make hostels such an affordable option.

Losing a single one of these welcoming, inclusive places is a tragedy. But if so many disappear, a portal will be closed that connects cities with the countryside, in both directions. Communities will lose priceless spaces that, in emergencies, can be put to crucial uses: during the pandemic, for example, 47 YHA hostels were given over to housing homeless people, families escaping domestic abuse and key workers.

To cap it all, an aspect of education that is already falling away will be put in even more jeopardy. In April this year, a report by the National Foundation for Educational Research found that, amid endless education cuts, half of school leaders reported cutting down on trips and excursions, with the figure rising to 68% in the most deprived schools.

Old boots used as wall art at YHA Borrowdale.

Right now, the YHA is in the midst of a £1m fundraising campaign titled No Child Left Behind, which is aiming to meet the costs of school trips for 10,000 kids from some of the most disadvantaged parts of England and Wales. But if so many hostels eventually close, how will such laudable aims be realised? At Eton, Harrow and all the rest, skiing trips and tours of the classical wonders of Greece and Italy will go on, but opportunities for kids to travel from, say, London to mid-Wales, or to briefly leave Bristol for Cornwall, will be even more restricted.

In the context of the billions that pour into some people’s pockets, the YHA’s shortfalls look like small beer: maybe a consortium of wealthy philanthropists could step in and help it avoid the worst. Looking ahead, I wonder whether people in government are sufficiently aware of what hostels do, and how they could be given sustained help.

After all, hostels offer a tried and tested antidote to a lot of modern problems: the way that rural and urban parts of the country have become so estranged from one another; the fact that we all spend too much time staring at screens; the sense that many people understandably think of hiking or mountain-biking as distant and impossible pastimes.

And in that sense, their crisis amounts to yet another example of our grim talent for national self-harm: one more bundle of cuts, far more serious and sad than anyone in power seems to acknowledge, let alone understand.

  • John Harris is a Guardian columnist

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