Grown-up youth hostels in the Lake District

PUBLISHED: 20:13 28 August 2013 | UPDATED: 19:54 23 March 2016

YHA Ambleside

YHA Ambleside


The old image of working for your supper and sleeping in a large dorm is on the way out in many hostels. Eileen Jones went along to see how things have changed

Taylor and Carolyn NuttallTaylor and Carolyn Nuttall

They were sweeping up the confetti when I called at Thorney How. It was their first wedding, a great success, with 50 guests enjoying the ceremony, and the celebration food prepared by the in-house chef.

Thorney How is one of the latest venues in the Lake District to gain a licence for civil wedding ceremonies and partnerships. It’s also a youth hostel, and it just happens to be the second youth hostel I ever stayed at – as a youth.

Today, Thorney How offers free parking, free wi-fi and free weekend film screenings, which are open to non-residents, and are welcomed by the villagers in Grasmere, especially in the winter. There’s a licensed bar on-site, a four-star rating from Trip Advisor, and an excellent chef.

Back then – ok, confession time, it was 1968 – there was no car park. You weren’t allowed to stay at a youth hostel unless you arrived on foot or bicycle. Thorney How, I recall, had one of the friendlier wardens, and a very efficient can opener with which we opened our tins of beans for dinner.

Carolyn Nuttall is co-owner today, with husband Taylor. Note, owner, not warden. The couple bought Thorney How two years ago when it was one of several properties put up for sale by the Youth Hostels Association. They have joined a growing band of independent hostels; there are 25 of these now in the Lake District alone. ‘That’s if you include the bunk houses and camping barns,’ says Carolyn.

Aha, a hint of the roots of this tradition. ‘Yes, of course we still get the walkers and the backpackers, that’s the mainstay of our business. But we can also do full catering for events. We have a drinks licence and a film licence.’ And the café is open during the day, serving tea and cakes. Back in 1968 when we arrived at Thorney How, we sat on our rucksacks in the sun for the afternoon till the warden opened up at 5pm. It was a long wait, as ours was not the best-planned of hostelling holidays. We had just taken our GCE exams, but none, I recall, were in geography. After spending the first night in Ambleside, at what is now the Queen’s Hotel in the centre of town, we walked to Grasmere along the main A591. Not along Loughrigg Terrace. Not along the ancient ‘coffin trail’ route which winds by Rydal. No, we walked along the tarmac road which, even in those days, was heavy with motor traffic. Someone else, I’m sure, was in charge of route-finding.

After Thorney How, and a jolly evening playing knock-out whist with a party of dishy lads from a high school in Manchester, we walked to the Helvellyn hostel. Five miles further along the A591, then the abrupt climb of our first mountain from Wythburn, and a terrifying descent via Swirral Edge, arriving at our third hostel just as the warden was about to send out a search party.

Of Helvellyn hostel, I have few memories, other than the desire to lie down. After that we travelled by bus, and walked only if necessary. Most of the hostels were very basic; we slept in dormitories, queued for the bathroom, and cooked our own meals (usually with the aid of a tin opener), though the wardens would provide meals if booked in advance.

Some of that essence remains across the YHA. Most hostels have both cafes or restaurants and self-catering kitchens. Accommodation is still ‘basic’, mostly in bunk beds, though often in much smaller dormitories sleeping four or six people. Showers and loos are usually plentiful and modern.

What’s disappeared is the practice of allocating ‘jobs’ to all visitors, as part of the budget package. Some of these were practical in nature – clean the kitchen surfaces, or the bathroom. Others seemed irrational; at Esthwaite Hall, Hawkshead, I was ordered to polish the steps of the ornate staircase, an unwise move given that residents were asked to remove their boots at the door and walk around inside in socks.

The Lake District’s flagship hostel is Ambleside, located for many years now in a prime position at Waterhead, looking out directly over Windermere. Having had a £1.4million refurbishment programme over the winter, the hostel is little short of luxurious. Some of the new rooms – 11 in all – are en-suite. There are a few single bedrooms, a new café and bar looking out onto the decked terrace which in turn overlooks the lake.

What price for such luxury in the budget-accommodation category? Well, a family of two adults and two children could book an en-suite room in early summer for around £65-£70. Down the road – and only marginally down the market – at Windermere, there are family rooms from £50 or you can book a bed in a single-sex dormitory from £18.

For families, it’s an ideal solution. There are usually well-stocked games rooms, plenty of other kids to hang around with and cosy sitting rooms for the parents. Sometimes there’s even the added bonus of poor TV reception, so that families can re-discover the fun of card games and monopoly.

The YHA no longer has a monopoly in the Lakes, though. Those 25 independent hostels are making names for themselves. Some are under new ownership having been sold off in the YHA capital-raising programme. Others have always been independent, such as the Ambleside Backpackers’ hostel or the Grasmere hostel at Broadrayne Farm just north of the village, boasting ‘de-luxe’ self catering accommodation with en-suite rooms, free wi-fi and internet, and a private patio and barbecue area, and described as ‘boutique in all but name’ by the Rough Guides’ Best Places to Stay in Britain on a Budget.

That may well be the future for the two latest YHA hostels to be put on the market, Arnside and Elterwater. Management spoke of a ‘difficult decision’ to dispose of them, but it would cost £1.2million to ‘bring them up to standard’.

It’s disappointing news for hostellers who appreciate a standard that’s acceptable while not claiming to be deluxe. Elterwater hostel opened in 1939 while Arnside moved to its current location on Red Hills Road in 1978. Both buildings will be put on the market at the end of the summer season with the charity hoping to redeploy staff to other locations.

My own journey into hostelling history ended not far from Elterwater, at the YHA’s Langdale base, High Close. This was the last place we stayed on that holiday, and inside it looked pretty much the same as it did then. It’s a ramblingbuilding of corridors and connecting doors, of slightly shabby paintwork and curtains past their best.

But from the outside, with a few coats of paint and some tender loving care, High Close could compete with any country house hotel. The setting is spectacular: behind lies the summit ridge of Loughrigg, so close you can make out tiny figures on the skyline; at the front of the house, across lawns and through magnificent trees, is a glimpse of Windermere.

The place is a dream for school parties, with woods almost designed for survival skills and inside, a couple of classrooms. But it’s also sought after for wedding receptions and while most of the accommodation is in bunk rooms, for between four and 16 people, there is one en-suite room with a double bed. The staff call it the bridal suite.

Duty manager Lisa Jones took me on a tour down memory lane. The sitting room, with its massive fireplace and collection of antlers, is referred to as the Great Hall, and very popular with wedding parties. (The minstrels’ gallery, sadly, was panelled in a long time ago and, says Lisa, there’s no money to open it up.)

There’s also a bright reading room with a piano and vast bookshelves. Guests are not the sort to wonder about the style-mismatch of 1950s coffee tables with Ikea lamps.

Down at reception (which doubles as a well-stocked bar) guests were two courses, £9.95, three courses, £11.95. On the menu tonight are garlic mushrooms, three-bean chilli with rice and tortilla chips, scampi, and sticky toffee pudding. All good, nourishing, home-cooked food, loved by the families with small children, the ramblers on a walking tour, the cyclists recovering from the Fred Whitton challenge.

High Close is safe because the National Trust owns it. It’s a piece of Lake District history, dating back to around 1575. Once upon a time, poachers were locked inside in a cell until the police could be fetched.At least, that’s what they tell visitors!

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