Is the YHA still a friend to walkers?

Published 8 March 2017

Earby YHA

I love hostels. Hostels are great. They provide simple, affordable accommodation, and are wonderful things for solo walkers. After all, traveling solo can be really expensive. Single rooms are almost never half the price of a double room (for understandable reasons), and many places now charge the same price per room regardless of how many people occupy it. Hostel, with their shared bunkrooms, can make all the difference for a hiker on a budget.

Throughout its life, the Youth Hostel Association has been at the forefront at providing accommodation in country locations, ideal for those wanting to indulge in outdoor pursuits. But recently, that’s a role that it seems to be increasingly stepping back from. It put several rural hostels up for sale, including hostels in the South Downs, the Lake District, and the Yorkshire Dales.

Some, like Kettlewell, Elterwater and Grasmere Thorny How, survived and were taken on by independent operators and maintained in the same spirit. Others, like Salisbury and Alfriston in the South Downs, closed for good; their doors never to re-open.

Okay, I get it. The organisation only has so much money. It has to chose where to invest its cash, and difficult decisions sometimes have to be made. Which is probably why the YHA has focussed on its larger, more lucrative city-based operations. And it also has to be said that sometimes private operators are better placed to make smaller, remote hostels work financially. The YHA hostel at Greenhead in Northumberland, was taken over by the nearby hotel who now run the two together. The former YHA at Byrness also in Northumberland, is now known as Forest View and is operated by people who have diversified into luggage transfer and running lifts for Pennine Way walkers. These are the kind of things that can make a hostel more viable, whilst maintaining an offer of affordable accommodation.

Many of the hostels that were saved left the YHA immediately. For whatever reason, their new owners decided to operate independently. But others, such as those former hostels at Byrness, Kettlewell, Earby and more, remained in the YHA network by becoming a YHA franchise. The hostels leverage the power of the YHA network with its marketing opportunities, whilst the YHA gained from having a greater network than it could sustain by itself. YHA franchises also include properties that never were part of the YHA in the first place.

It seemed to be the best of both worlds. The YHA network shrank a little, but it was still pretty comprehensive. Whilst the YHA was busy expanding in cities, it was still there in the country. Somthing for everyone

YHA sign buried in the snow at Byrness

But as I type, I’ve just read something that just made me shake my head with disbelief. The YHA has undergone a process of kicking out franchises. As of 2017, fifteen camping barns have been given their marching orders, along with several bunkhouses too. All have one thing in common. They’re small operations, in rural areas.

For whatever reason, the YHA has decided to withdraw en-masse. No more would it support these franchises. They would simply drop off the YHA network, and disappear.

Some of these operators have a long history with the YHA, with one of them being a YHA franchise for 20 years. But now they’re all cast adrift. Depending how much of their business came via the YHA, this could have a huge impact on these oerations. It’s quite possible some will close for good if they can’t close the gap.

Yeah, okay, no one has the right to be a YHA franchise owner for ever. The YHA don’t appear to have said publicly why they’ve made this decision, but they have, for reasons best known to them. Although we can get an idea from the operators of Puttenham Camping Barn. The operators there were told it was financial, yet perversely the YHA had also recently decreased the franchise fees the barn paid!

And what message does this move say about the YHA’s commitment to the Great British Outdoors, and those that enjoy it? If nothing else, it gives the impression that the YHA simply no longer cares. If it’s not a big hostel, they’re just not interested. And the question has to follow: where will the axe fall next?

In the meantime, if you’re planning outdoor pursuits, do consider a stay in a former YHA property. The Independent Hostel Guide website has compiled a list of those accommodation providers who have been booted out, which also includes many of the hostels that the YHA has sold off that are now independent.

The photograph at the top of this article is of the now former YHA Earby, which the YHA gave up its lease in January 2017. The second photo is of Forest View, where I was once snowed in, and at the time still in the YHA network.

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