It is early evening as we drive toward YHA Wilderhope, an imposing Elizabethan manor house in the middle of the Shropshire countryside, close to the historic towns of Ironbridge, and Bridgnorth. The clouds are from a Constable painting, and each rolling hill is a different colour: some rich green, others the colour of dark tea, changing every moment with the light.
The last stretch of road is a brambly mile of single lane track with blind curves. A mouse startles from the bushes and runs in front of our car. Then we come face to face with a massive delivery truck, next, a cow and finally, passing over the noisy clang of a cattle grid, we reach our destination.
“It’s haunted!” scream the kids, aged 4 and 9, both delighted and terrified at spending the night in this enormous, dark relic from the past. After checking in with the hostel manager, we clamber up a dizzying open spiral staircase to our top floor room: the Cadbury Suite. The stairs makes me feel like we are in a life-sized replica of the Fisher Price castle.
The room, with a four-poster bed, two fold-up camp beds for the kids, and an en-suite bathroom with claw-foot tub, makes me feel like a princess. That night, with bats swooping outside the window, we relegate Prince Daddy to a camp bed, while the kids and I cuddle up together in the big bed…just in case of ghosts.
What is the YHA?
The Youth Hostel Association of England and Wales is a charity with close links to the Religious Society of Friends, known as The Quakers. Among its goals is the aim of “improving physical and mental health and wellbeing” of youth who might otherwise not get into the great outdoors. Once a rule-heavy members club, many remember the YHA as a place with a lights-out curfew and single-sex dorms, where everyone had to share chores.
Over the past decade, in an effort to modernize, the charity has pumped millions of pounds into revitalizing the YHA brand to appear more like budget hotels. Each of the 150 locations offer comfortable beds, bright green duvets, USB charging stations, a restaurant, cafe or bar – and even a variety of YHA-branded water bottles, flashlights, pens and wristbands. Most significantly, the charity began offering accommodation to non-members like us.
The re-branding effort paid off. In 2014 the YHA won “best hotel” in the Guardian and Readers’ Travel Awards, beating out the Marriot and Radisson hotel chains.
A great curiosity, combined with the desire to save money (private en-suite family rooms are a fraction of the price of a hotel), we decided that on our two-week family road trip through England, Ireland and Wales, we would make a point of exploring six unique British YHA properties, ranging from historically grand to the downright quirky.
After a hearty buffet breakfast in Wilderhope, and a short ramble through a cow field, we set off to our next destination: The Peak District National Park.
YHA Ilam Hall
Ilam Hall is a gothic manor built in the 1700’s. It’s been a youth hostel since 1937. For us, Ilam holds much more adventure than Wilderhope. School holidays have just started in England, and the place is teeming with children.
Our first stop is the hostel kitchen, where I prepare some bacon sandwiches. Rules: bring your own food, labelled with name and date of departure (most hostels have pens and stickers provided), and clean up as you go.
Dessert comes in the form of a donation from another family: “we’re making pancakes with Nutella, would you like some?” and just like that, we’ve made friends.
Within minutes, our newly formed group has embarked on a woodland hike. This is how, less than half an hour after getting out of the car, I find myself clambering up a muddy hill, while Alison, a single Mum from nearby Peterborough, shouts encouragingly, “you can do it!”
For supper, we order meals in the YHA restaurant (pizza, bangers and mash, nachos) washed down with a bottle of wine from the YHA bar. By 7:30 pm, all the mummies and daddies are sipping wine in the lounge while the kids play foosball and ping-pong in a freshly wallpapered recreation room. Now, we feel like we’re on vacation!
In the morning, we hike to nearby Dovedale, crossing the famous stepping stones over one of the coldest rivers in England. The afternoon’s adventure ends at a kiosk, with a hot cup of tea for Mum and Dad and an ice cream for the kids. (One of the great things about England, is that no matter how remote, you’re never more than 5 minutes away from a hot cup of tea.)
YHA Manchester City
After so much green and pleasantness, Manchester is a culture shock for my 9-year old, who on exit from Piccadilly station, observes an altercation between a drunk man and a bus driver. The vibe at Manchester City YHA is equally as raw, as as a man old enough to be the kids’ grandfather stumbles in the door and slurs his way through check-in.
But the hostel is modern and clean. With the kids at close reach, we play a board game, order drinks from the hostel bar, and enjoy a good meal of spaghetti bolognese, before settling in for an early night.
The next morning, fun resumes at the Museum of Science and Industry, located just a stone’s throw from the YHA. Oblivious to the fascinating exhibits that document the innovation and pain of the cotton industry, the kids think they’ve died and gone to heaven when we discover that today’s free activity is “build your own fidget spinner.”
YHA Conwy, Wales
Although this is just a pit stop so that we can catch the early morning ferry from Holyhead to Dublin, we find a few moments to relax in the hostel’s dining room, where I meet Caroline from Brazil, who is travelling around Britain by train, with her husband and three young children. While we chat, my 4-year old son makes friends with his Brazilian counterpart. With a set of bow and arrows won at the fairground, they burn off the last of their energy from the day, before we return to our now familiar, bright green bunks.
YHA Manrobier, Pembrokshire, Wales
After spending some time visiting family in Ireland (Dublin, Mullingar and Galway),a four-hour ferry journey from Rosslare brings us to a place I have long wished to visit: The Pembrokshire Coast.
Set atop a cliff, YHA Manorbier , housed in a corrugated steel structure that could easily be from the set of the TV series ‘Lost‘, has a cool, surfy vibe. With check-in at 5:00 pm, we have nearly the whole day to kill, so we decide to chill out at the hostels in-house watering-hole, Skrinkle Cafe and bar.
My son, who on our travels through Ireland, has acquired a backpack full of plastic tractors, makes friends immediately with a fellow four-year old named James, and they play together happily while we re-caffeinate.
After our rest, we explore a cove called Church Doors, only 5 minutes’ walk from the hostel, down a path and a steep set of steel steps. Here, the four of us spend an afternoon on the nearly deserted beach. With impressive rock formations, clear shallow water, and soft brown sand, these pleasant do-nothing hours were without a doubt, the most enjoyable and relaxing of our entire summer.
It is in the kitchen, making supper, that we encounter our first rude hostel experience: an angrily scrawled note on a plastic container of Spanish Olives: “LABEL YOUR FOOD!”
They are not our Olives (God forbid, I would never do such a thing), but it’s clear who wrote the note. There’s a lady in her 60’s who is Trying To Read a Book, and has been shooting daggers at my noisy kids since we arrived in the kitchen. Chuckling, I’m almost relieved to find a hostel-weirdo. If I hadn’t, it would all have been just too perfect.
Our final stop is YHA Street, in Somerset, just outside of Glastonbury. It is the smallest of the YHAs, the quietest, the least modern, and for all these reasons, it is perhaps the most important.
Opened in 1931, it is the oldest YHA hostel still in operation, and despite a few new green duvets, the property hasn’t changed much at all. There is no Wifi, the rooms have low ceilings and cobwebs. The kitchen is cozy, there are outdoor toilets. We truly feel like we’ve been catapulted back to the ‘olden days’.
The Spirit of the YHA
But this hostel actually pre-dates the YHA, and gives important information about its beginnings. In a glass display case in the dining room, there is a letter that tells ithe story of the building itself, built in 1914 and given as a gift from the Society of Friends (The Quakers) to the public,
“to provide facilities for holidays, rest of convalescence for any person requiring them, but more particularly for persons of limited means, preference being given to inhabitants of Street and the immediate neighbourhood.”
The letter embodies the spirit of the YHA and the Youth Hostel movement in England and Wales, and it’s important for visitors to appreciate.
Underneath the bright green duvets and re-branding there is a strong commitment to leisure and relaxation for those who need it: the school child who has never seen a mountain, the teenager who has never been on a hike…or the pensioner who, having scrawled a nasty note on somebody’s abandoned Spanish olives, simply wants to sit quietly and read a book with some fresh air coming in the window.
As evening falls, and quiet streams of sepia light stream through the dust in this old, wooden chalet, I go to the kitchen to make myself a cup of tea. In the fridge, I find the the following post-it attached to a plastic carton: “Please have our milk. We have gone home now. Bye! 🙂 ”
I smile, and pour some in my tea.
Tips for Staying in a British YHA:
- Bring your passport to check-in.
- Bring your own towels and toiletries
- If the YHA has a bar, you must buy their wine and beer; if no, BYOB
- In the kitchen, use the correct coloured chopping board and wash up as you go
- Label your own food with your surname and the date of departure.
- Observe check-in and check-out times, which may differ by hostel
- Keep your children close
- Don’t be afraid to make friends!
Helen and her family were guests of the YHA England and Wales, which did not review or approve this editorial.