by Rhiannon Batten
As the YHA's grand project, The Sill in Northumberland National Park, opens, Rhiannon Batten looks ahead to the most exciting developments at the organisation this summer
To borrow a phrase from a well-known cereal, have you forgotten how good they taste? Or, rather, sleep? I spent my late teens exploring the wilder reaches of the UK courtesy of the Youth Hostels Association (England & Wales) – both on hiking weekends with friends and, sometimes, as a base on organised conservation volunteering breaks. But then came a gap year trip to South America, and a decade of dedicated wanderlust that took me from Lapland to Ladakh, Mozambique to Mali. Slowly the YHA and I grew apart.
Five years ago, however, I had two children in quick succession and, with them, a shock to the nomadic system. Not only did many hotels and B&Bs not offer rooms that would sleep four but those that did were often way beyond our budget – or the kind of places where we couldn’t relax, worrying about the disruption two boisterous toddlers might cause to other guests. Nor was it as easy to stay with family and friends since most didn’t have enough space for four extras and, again, we worried about the impact of our tribe on the calm havens of grandparents, or friends who had had their children long ago, and had settled back into a quieter routine (with homes filled with precious knick knacks at prime toddler-grabbing height and body clocks that weren’t wired for extreme early starts). Camping wasn’t easy at the toddler stage, either (this time it was knives and gas burners at toddler-grabbing height).
Rediscovering the YHA, therefore, was a revelation. It happened on a long but last-minute journey from the West Country to Kent. Everywhere we tried to book either wouldn’t take children, were full or were too expensive. Then we spotted a little green triangle on the map towards the end of our route: South Downs YHA. For £35 we got a private dorm room for the night - basic but clean – in a pretty former farm courtyard and, for another £15, a hot breakfast for everyone. The dining room also opened out onto an enclosed field so, when the children had finished their breakfast, we sat out with a free top-up of coffee while they ran around letting off steam before the next leg of our journey. Ever since then, whenever we’re plotting a journey – or someone asks me for tips on affordable places to stay for families – the YHA is one of the first places I turn to.
Best hostels for families Over the last year, having taken out membership, we’ve stayed at several other hostels as a family, including Dufton in Cumbria, with its brilliant garden and treehouse, Haworth in Yorkshire, with its atmospheric restaurant and Arts and Crafts detailing, cosy Dartmoor in Devon with so much to do on the doorstep, scruffy but sweet Street in Somerset (handy for swims in the town’s heated lido) and two different hostels in London. Later this year we’re looking forward to checking out Exford, an affiliated hostel in Exmoor, and The Sill in Northumberland (see below).
We haven’t had a bad experience yet, though subjectively we’ve preferred the smaller, homelier, more rural hostels where the spaces have a bit more individual character and where fellow guests have generally been walkers, cyclists and other families (and have followed a similarly early-to-bed, early-to-rise routine). And, while I fully understand the charity’s drive towards modernisation, I sometimes wish its older properties could be more sensitively refurbished, with real reference to the character of each property rather than having a kind of (whisper it) bland, branded uniformity stamped on them; simple can be just as appealing as luxurious if it’s done with a bit of care and charm – and speaks to the location’s distinct character.
These are minor niggles, however. With so many successful stays under our belt this past year, the YHA will continue to be one of the first places we turn to when planning UK trips as a family. Alongside many classic hostels on our wishlist for 2017 and beyond, others we’ll be considering specifically because they are being launched or refurbished as part of the organisation’s current spate of investment.
New for 2017 and beyond Recently renovated hostels include those at Treyarnon Bay, which re-opened in April after a refurb and now better reflects its position as a surfer-friendly spot, New Forest, where a general facelift has improved the communal dining facilities and seen bell tents added (complete with wood-burning stoves), Tanner’s Hatch, where the kitchen facilities have been overhauled and two new safari tents have been placed in the grounds, Liverpool where the bar has been extended and improved, Keswick which has had a major overhaul following floods in 2015, St Davids, where the former farmhouse’s layout has been changed to offer a wider range of accommodation and a new camping barn has opened, London Thameside, which has had a refurb, London St Paul’s, which has just been spruced up, and Hartington Hall, which re-opens imminently with a new kitchen.
Hostels being significantly refurbished later this year, meanwhile, include those at Swanage, Perranporth, Hawkshead, Sherringham and my home town of Bath, where the internal and external space is being reconfigured to add a new annexe of en-suite bedrooms and a car park.
Perhaps the biggest development of all this year, however, is a whole new hostel opening on 29 July in Northumberland. The Sill at Hadrian's Wall - named after a nearby ridge, the Great Whin Sill – will be part of the £14.8 million National Landscape Discovery Centre, a collaboration between YHA, Northumberland National Park Authority and the Heritage Lottery Fund designed to open the Northumberland National Park and the Northumberland Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty to more people.
Set very close to Hadrian’s Wall, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and within Europe’s largest area of protected night sky, as well as a cultural centre, business hub, shop and café, the project will include an 86-bed hostel. Accommodation here will be spread across 26 bedrooms (19 of them en suite and two of them fully accessible) and the hostel will also encompass a restaurant and bar as well as a self-catering kitchen.
Finally, looking slightly further ahead, work is set to start later this year on a flagship, purpose-built, 850-bed hostel – the largest in Europe - beside Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford. If all goes to plan it should open in early 2019.
It’s not just bricks and mortar that the YHA is investing in. Previous successful partnerships include last year’s opening of YHA Cotswolds, in Cirencester. Also known as The Barrel Store, it is owned by entrepreneurial arts Charity New Brewery Arts but affiliated with the YHA. A passivhaus building, formerly a brewery warehouse, it is decked out with handcrafted furniture, has an on-site craft shop and runs classes and workshops in everything from pottery, willow-weaving and drawing to stone-carving.
This year the organisation is partnering with British Triathlon, tapping into the growing trend for people to base breaks around outdoor challenge events. British Triathlon and its affiliated clubs will benefit from subsidised use of meeting rooms in youth hostels as well as reduced membership and accommodation rates and the YHA’s network of properties throughout England and Wales will be used to host British Triathlon's GO TRI events.
Developments in Scotland While the YHA covers England and Wales (the Scottish Youth Hostels Association and Hostelling International Northern Ireland are separate associations), it’s worth mentioning one other significant development for anyone planning a budget stay north of the border this summer.
From 17 July to 2 September Edinburgh Haddington Place Youth Hostel joins Edinburgh Metro as a pop-up hostel in the Scottish capital, making the most of a luxurious new student accommodation block over the summer break to offer 143 en-suite single rooms. Great for anyone planning a trip to Edinburgh’s festivals, these seasonal hostels are an addition to Edinburgh’s permanent youth hostel, five-star Edinburgh Central.
One more for the road There’s one more hostel on my list for 2017 - St Briavels Castle. This diminutive 800 year-old castle (it’s Grade I-listed), within the glorious Wye Valley AONB, is being refurbished later this year, with new furniture (let’s hope the designers take a tip from YHA Cotswolds and go down the hand-crafted route).
That’s not the only reason I’d like to visit, though. St Briavels was the very first hostel I stayed at and, 25 or so years on, I’d like to go back with my family in tow – and hope it inspires my two boys to some great hostelling adventures, just as it did for me.