Winds of change ruffle youth hostels

Institutions can't tread water. M&S was obliged to modernise or sink, and the YHA is also having to adapt and bang its drum louder. Steven Russell pulls on his backpack to sort youth-hostelling myth from reality

Steven Russell

Institutions can't tread water. M&S was obliged to modernise or sink, and the YHA is also having to adapt and bang its drum louder. Steven Russell pulls on his backpack to sort youth-hostelling myth from reality

BREAKFAST is virtually done and dusted and the young Sheppard sisters skip off to play, fuelled by chocolate spread and other delights. Judging by the spring in their steps, they're enjoying their half-term break despite the weather turning the county into a paddling pool.

Home for three nights has been a family room at the youth hostel at Blaxhall - the village school in a previous incarnation - between Snape and Tunstall in rural east Suffolk. The Sheppards have been to Sutton Hoo, bolstered the Dunkirk spirit at soggy Framlingham Gala, visited Dunwich and Minsmere, and are taking in Orford Castle on the way back to the capital.

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“We often go walking, but we've done more mooching,” smiles mum Rowena. “It's been that kind of weather, really.”

The north London family are born-again hostellers, leaving the city behind two or three times a year for a revitalising taste of the countryside. Easter found them in the Lake District; a couple of weeks ago they were in the Peak District with a group of people from the girls' school. Summer proper will bring a trip to Cornwall, to meet up with relatives.

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The Sheppards are just the kind of folk YHA needs if it is to secure a bright future.

Rowena and Peter hadn't stayed in youth hostels until they had children. Footloose and fancy-free, they tended to head off to the Greek Islands or somewhere in the UK and worry about accommodation when they got there. But, as parents, securing a place for youngsters to rest their heads - and, importantly, eat at the critical moment - is a priority if you prize your sanity.

Hostels fit the bill perfectly: easy to book, more flexible and informal than most hotels, and good value. Unfortunately, not enough people know about them - hence a multi-million-pound renovation programme, a sharper management focus highlighting tools like “key performance indicators”, and a major national advertising campaign with enticing pictures and slogans such as “Our unbeatable locations haven't changed. Our accommodation has.”

A couple of years ago the closures were announced of 32 of the less successful properties to generate the money to spruce up the rest.

On the plus side, the first batch of 11 hostel upgrades - costing nearly £2million - was ready for the 2008 season. A further investment package of £13.5 million has been approved, and by early 2009 the organisation will have unveiled three new properties: a £4.3 million flagship hostel in central London, and facilities in Eastbourne and Lewes.

Modernisation initiatives began to show fruit in 2007, says YHA. Although the number of overnight stays remained static at about two-million, the financial performance was better. Guests spent more during their visits, mainly because of improvements in the standard of hostels and the food on offer.

The organisation also admits its advertising campaign is designed to challenge negative perceptions, as well as raise the profile of YHA.

Peter Sheppard admits wryly that before his family virtually stumbled upon hostelling, “I don't think it really had a profile.”

Rowena adds: “When I was a student I did the InterRail thing and stayed in youth hostels, but just hadn't thought about them since. It was my sister, who had children slightly before we did, who kind of found them and said 'You should try this.'”

They're glad they did.

Life's much easier than staying in a hotel, they feel. “It's such a family-friendly thing to do, and the staff are always friendly and tolerant of small children running around,” says mum.

Hostel guests generally have the choice of self-catering or buying food cooked on the premises. That flexibility is important when you have youngsters whose refuelling requirements don't coincide with restaurant opening times, or who are going through a picky phase.

The Sheppards often chose to prepare their own food when Imogen and Lydia were younger - the girls are now nine and six - but nowadays enjoy mixing and matching.

“We've eaten dinner here, so I've had a break and haven't had to cook for the family. The food's been fantastic - home-cooked, fresh food. I think one night there wasn't anything the children wanted, so they (the staff) cooked something different,” explains Rowena. “So, perfect, really.”

Those misconceptions and historical hang-ups are hard to dispel, however. Ask people about the “Youth Hostel Association” and they'll offer images of earnest bearded men in shorts, chores to do before you can leave, sweaty socks on radiators, and official distaste for those travelling by car.

“Another misconception is that all the rooms are large dormitories, which isn't the case now,” says Stephen Denton, Blaxhall's relief manager - though unless guests have made special arrangements in advance, they will likely share a room with people of the same sex.

When he stayed in hostels in his younger days, big dormitories were the norm. Two years ago, when his mum hired the hostel at Poppit Sands in Wales for her 60th birthday party, he realised things had changed considerably.

That experience, in fact, inspired him to seek a job with YHA. He started in the spring of 2007.

Another myth: you don't have to do chores, though you are expected to tidy up after yourself.

Doris Bader, group manager of the East Anglia region, says helping to wash the dishes and cleaning the toilets died out in the late 1980s. Mind you, it was cheaper then. In London, where she worked at the time, you could stay for £3.50 a night - somewhat subsidised by doing your bit domestically.

That Y word is anachronistic, too. Hostelling is not the sole preserve of the youthful. Cambridge last year welcomed an 86-year-old cyclist who was pedalling round the country (and who for some reason always requested a top bunk . . .)

It's the nice people she meets that prompts Kathy Ashley to say she loves her job. She's the Blaxhall housekeeper - jack of all trades, she laughs - and has worked there for about three years.

Kathy used to teach line-dancing at the village hall and was asked by a former manager if she fancied working at the hostel. It's handy, since she literally lives over the fence.

This rural spot welcomes quite a lot of folk touring by bike, many families, and numerous school groups - mostly from London.

“They're always good children and really nice,” says Kathy. “They never want to leave. Well, it's so different, isn't it, town and countryside?”

The pace slows towards the end of September, but that doesn't mean it's time to put up the shutters. Families regularly book the hostel for Christmas, with relatives from around the country congregating in east Suffolk. “Last Christmas I had a family of 40 here. They were a really lovely family.”

The festive revellers tend to leave on the 29th or so, and are soon replaced by another family group ready to see in the new year.

“They've got a big kitchen and the lounge - everything they need. There's no hassle for them, is there? It's like a home from home - sort of.”

Kathy's regular tasks include stripping beds and remaking them, cleaning the loos, and vacuuming. The sheet-sleeping bags (being replaced by regular sheets any day now) go off to a laundry, while the duvets are washed in-house.

Cooking is not really part of her role but, what with the hostel being so busy at the moment, it's been all hands to the pump. Kathy says she's not that keen on cooking, finding it boring, but Steve reckons she's proved a stalwart. The previous evening she took care of it herself; the menu including soup, garlic bread, lemon sole, bangers and mash, chips, peas, veg, salad, rhubarb crumble, and ice-cream medley.

YHA says it's “serious about our food” - partly because eating and drinking together is an important social experience, and partly because it's been shown that improved quality, choice and availability sees more customers eating on-site; and that's good for business.

The organisation's philosophy is to serve the best of what's available on the doorstep, cooked to order: fresh fish in Cornwall, for instance, or prime beef in the Peak District.

Blaxhall aims to use as much local produce as possible; its meat, for example, is supplied by Revetts of Wickham Market and a fish-seller calls every Friday.

Steve's done a lot of homecooking during his time here, starting from scratch, helped along the way by Kathy and seasonal assistant John Turner, and having the food ready for 6pm.

A lot of hostels nowadays have licences to serve alcohol. (Blaxhall has applied for one, but in the meantime guests can bring their own.) By its very nature, hostelling draws people who are responsible and reasonable, but staff keep an eye on things and are ready to step in should someone overstep the mark.

“We don't allow people to have merry-old sessions and get tanked up,” says Steve, who had to tell a man in Conwy, Wales, he'd had too much. “That's not what we're about. It's lovely to have a glass of wine or beer with a meal, but not to drink to excess.”

Hostels, he says, are invariably sociable places, with strangers chatting happily - though if he had his way he'd keep TVs out of the lounges, because they discourage conversation. The dining room is far better, he reckons, because people don't linger too long on the more formal chairs!

Tucked in a corner of the reception desk is a clue to why he finds YHA work rewarding. It's a handmade purple card from a pupil in London and reads “Dear Cooks, I'm very sad we are leaving but I hope we will come again. Thank you for the lovely food.”“This is what we like: when people appreciate it. Something like that makes the job worth doing.”

He's been relief manager at Blaxhall since the start of May but, by the time this article appears, will have moved on to Ilham Hall in Derbyshire for a fortnight, followed by Exeter and Chester.

Steve's had various jobs - he's been a roadie and worked in the marquee business, for instance, and lived abroad for 10 years - but he's taken with the YHA philosophy and atmosphere.

He'd love to end up as permanent manager of a hostel the size of Blaxhall's - but back in his native Wales.

“Can't get the rugby over this side, see?” he grins. “I tend to support the Ospreys back in Wales, or Llanelli, but I can't even get it on telly over here. Here, we've only got the four channels. And I can't get my rugby!”

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BLAXHALL youth hostel occupies a building that until the summer of 1962 was the local school.

There used to be larger dormitories, thinks Steve Denton, but accommodation has changed over the years. There was a major extension project in 2000, for instance.

Today, Blaxhall might be one of the smaller hostels, but it can still sleep 40 travellers: there's one two-bedded room, two rooms with four beds, and five with six beds. Money's not wasted on frills, but the rooms are bright, clean and homely.

One room has en suite facilities, and there are separate loos and showers for the rest. Guests can either buy meals from the hostel or use a large self-catering kitchen to prepare their own food. There's also a drying room to deal with the effects of the British weather, and a field study centre for groups to use.

The hostel has benefited from YHA's ongoing modernisation programme, with the decorators there early in 2008 and the guttering and roof also given some tender loving care.

Hostel history

It all began with German schoolteacher Richard Schirrman

He opened the world's first youth hostel in Germany in 1909

Schirrman wanted to enrich the lives of young people in industrial cities by helping them enjoy the countryside

The Youth Hostels Association of Great Britain was formed by rambling, cycling and youth organisations

In 1930 it became the YHA (England and Wales)

It today operates more than 200 youth hostels

There are more than two-million overnight stays a year

About 500,000 visitors come from overseas and 750,000 are young people under 18

YHA has an annual turnover of £32.9 million

There is a hostel at Castle Hedingham in Essex, a 16th Century building, but this is due to close on August 31

Another Essex hostel is a 600-year-old former maltings at Saffron Walden

There's also a variation on the theme - a new wooden, self-catering-only “bunkhouse” - on a working farm at Brantham, on the Suffolk/Essex border

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