Guide to the UK's independent hostels, bunkhouses and camping barns
Updated: Jan 10
by Rhiannon Batten
A few weeks ago I wrote a feature on new developments to look out for at the Youth Hostel Association. Now I'm turning my attention to the UK’s indies, many of which can be found via the Independent Hostels UK network. Among an eclectic range of independently run hostels, bunkhouses and camping barns across England, Wales and Scotland, here are some of the most significant new developments to check out over the coming months, from brand new hostels to stay at to hostels that are launching wellbeing courses and home-cooked readymeal services.
New hostels Tapping into the European trend for boatels (floating hotels and hostels), the Kyle Blue opened in Bristol at the beginning of the year. A smartly reconfigured Dutch barge (apparently it once served as the green room for guests on Richard & Judy’s TV show at the Albert Dock), it’s now moored up in a peaceful spot on the city’s Wapping Wharf, handy for visits to the SS Great Britain and to Cargo, a collection of restaurants, cafes and street food stalls set in former shipping containers. Geothermally heated, inside there is a custom-built kitchen plus decent showers, a large lounge area (wifi is free) and a range of bedrooms, including doubles, dorms and family rooms.
In Manchester’s Northern Quarter, the 200-bed Hilton Chambers branch of Hatter’s Hostel re-opened in February after a major refurbishment. Now featuring 15 private rooms (decorated with local artwork) and 20 dormitory rooms (each with en-suite bathrooms and memory foam mattresses), it also offers guests free breakfasts. The building is also home to a new all-day deli, diner and cocktail bar, West Corner, overseen by ex-Hawksmoor chef Romin Farahini, where the focus is on produce sourced from local suppliers including Barbakan Bakery, Out of the Blue fishmongers, Gornall’s Dairy, The Butcher’s Quarter and Heart & Graft coffee roasters.
Further north still, a cluster of 18th-century buildings by the sea in Portsoy, a village on the Moray Firth, have been restored and turned into The Sail Loft bunkhouse. A former sail-maker’s loft, Georgian house and two cottages, the four-star hostel can sleep up to 25 (and store bikes for the same number), in a range of dorms and family rooms. It also has an open-plan kitchen and dining area and a lounge with a woodburner. Thoughtfully designed for families as well as independent travellers, high chairs, travel cots and toys and games can all be borrowed. For grown-ups there’s a barbecue area and, for an extra charge, you can have dip in a stylish wood-fired hot tub while stargazing (the Northern Lights have even, occasionally, been spotted from it).
On Mull, Achaban House poshtel and bunkhouse is also new this year. Spread across a 19th-century manse and a neighbouring cottage, a mile from Fionnphort, its six en suite hostel rooms sleep 14 while the bunkhouse sleeps a further eight. Beds and bunks are dressed with white bedlinen and pretty woollen throws and, outside, there are six acres of grounds for children to let off steam in. Fionnphort is also handy for ferries to Iona and boat trips to Staffa and the Treshnish Isles.
In Glencoe the iconic Kings House Hotel (currently undergoing a major overhaul) has recently opened a bunkhouse in its grounds. A sleek timber building, designed by Scottish architect, Ben Tindall, it is likely to become a popular stopping off point for walkers tackling the West Highland Way.
In the country’s capital, Safestay Edinburgh is also within its first year of operation. Right in the heart of the city’s Old Town, this large (272-bed) hostel has been significantly renovated, having previously operated as the Smart City Hostel. While its bedrooms and dorm rooms are fairly basic all are en-suite and the reception area, with its exposed stone walls and wing-backed arm chairs, has a buzz about it. As well as hostel essentials like lockers and cycle racks, there’s also a bar and kitchen.
Over in Northern Ireland, the Hutt Hostel re-opened earlier this year following a renovation and extension. Set right by the sea in Newcastle, a hub for adventure activity enthusiasts in Co. Down, it’s also a useful base for anyone planning to head out into the Mourne Mountains for hiking and biking.
Back south, in the South Downs to be precise, the 20-bed South Downs Bunkhouse opened earlier this year. Converted from a beautiful old brick stable block on Houghton Farm, bunk rooms here are chic and bright with memory foam mattresses, thick plaid curtains and solid timber doors. A spin-off from the owners’ farm B&B business, this is run with the same hands-on care.
And in Wales, Fishguard’s tiny Hamilton Lodge (it sleeps just nine) has just had a refurbishment, in its trademark homely style.
Greener hostels Holidaying in the UK’s hostels is a pretty low-impact way to holiday but if you’re looking for accommodation with a deeper commitment to sustainability, over a quarter of the hostels and bunkhouses in the Independent Hostels UK network have a dedicated green ethos; many also offer discounts for guests arriving on foot, by bike or on public transport.
Two to watch include The Old Brooder Bunkhouse, outside Lavenham in Sussex, and BB’s Bunkhouse on the north coast of Scotland. The Old Brooder is in its first year of operation and takes a whole-farm approach to conservation. Joiner-made oak beds, colourful kantha bedspreads and patterned kitchen floor tiles give the 20-bed, exclusive-use property character while energy is solar- and sustainable timber-powered, there are 20 bikes for guests to borrow and guests can help themselves to a herb garden. Groups can also sign up for eco-adventure activities and country skills courses.
When BB's Bunkhouse, a new barn conversion, opens later this summer it will be the most northerly hostel on the Scottish mainland. In the village of East Mey, on the North Coast 500 route, its heating will be air-source and solar-powered. Sleeping up to 10, the nightly rate will include a home-cooked, locally sourced breakfast while homemade veggie readymeals will also be available to buy.
Other green hostel developments this year include those of Outdoor Alternative, in Anglesey, whose eco initiatives include the installation of an electric car and charging point, Badrallach Bothy, near Ullapool, which plans to start running nature-based wellbeing courses, and Helmsdale Hostel, in Sutherland, which is currently closed for the installation of renewable energy heating and water systems.
Not-so-new new hostels Finally, with the announcement that the YHA has, this year, cut ties with some of its affiliate partners (notably rural camping barns), there is now a new crop of fully independent hostels joining the flock. Among them are the The Elenydd Wilderness Hostels, in the Cambrian Mountains; its 20-bed Dolgoch property is a pretty whitewashed farmhouse overlooking spectacular scenery, that’s completely off-grid. Hot water and lighting are solar-powered and heating is via a wood-burning stove.
Just remember to book early. A boom is coming for hostel accommodation according to Keith Legge, the outgoing chief executive of the Scottish Youth Hostels Association. Legge recently declared that hostels have come full circle in the digital age. A growing number of guests “don’t want fluffy towels and TVs in their rooms but are more interested in authentic experiences, protecting the environment, in fitness, well-being and adventure”, he stated, even if what they are escaping from these days “is not factories and coal mines but their computer screens and smart devices.”
More information: Independent Hostels UK