There is something special about holidays that deliver up eerie sights like these, when time seems to turn itself inside out. It had taken us three days' walking to reach Wheeldale, staying each night in a different youth hostel. We hadn't expected anything so august. But then the whole trip was a shot in the dark, taken by two non-walkers who were well past the usual definition of 'youth'.
We looked - I think - convincing enough: rugged packs, big boots, over-trousers and canny equipment such as plastic map covers. If you'd seen us lurching off the InterCity at Scarborough you could hardly have failed to have been impressed: but inside we had our doubts - I more than Sarah, who is a practised camper. Here we were, fiftysomething, leaving our families for an adventure. Would we be able to handle it? Would youth hostels spurn us? Was it all total folly?
Scarborough didn't cheer us up. The minute we arrived it started to rain, and all the grey-haired matrons thronging the place put on plastic macs. We'd planned to look round, but the downpour increased and we retreated cravenly to a cafe. Thunder cracked, rain bounced and hissed off the abandoned cafe chairs. It did not feel auspicious.
Why, you might ask, did we not go straight to the youth hostel? It's simple. Youth hostels are like nannies. They have rules for your own good. They put you firmly out of doors in the morning and will not let you in again until the evening (with a few exceptions), no matter what. No, your job is to stomp about in the open air, not to loll around. This may be why so few wardens make their places look nice or cosy. Maybe they fear it might rot the resolve and incite revolution: people clinging to their soft armchairs and refusing to go out. As it is they are functional places - time-honoured metal bunks, communal washrooms, lounges that could double as a morgue.
Is this a recipe for misery? Not at all. The youth hostel should be appreciated for what it is. It is not a cheap bed and breakfast (even though their prices can put them in that bracket); it is in fact a rare and valuable thing - a modern caravanserai. To take this extraordinary institution in the proper spirit, you need to employ a different mode of thinking. Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims could give you a clue.
Our first night's hostel was located in an obscure hollow at the very edge of Scarborough, far beyond the gift shops, fun fairs and fortune-tellers. It had started life as a water mill and still had a damp and faded air. Fourteen motley people were there for the night, by no means all young. A young German woman on her way to a job in a riding school in Scotland was trying to work out English words for the parts of a horse; three Italians were cooking pasta in the kitchen; several parents were busily inducting their offspring into the ways of the hostel.
The site was melancholy and the place only a quarter full, but there was a decided camaraderie - one of the characteristics of the hostel. In normal life if you fall into conversation, people tend to ask you what your job is. Here they'll ask you where you're going. The talk is of the road. Tips are exchanged and reminiscences aired over the set meal of Creamy Vegetable Pie (a triumph of misadvertising).
Scarborough, we learnt, is on the Cleveland Way. One of a series of marked ways throughout the country, it would take us on our first stage, north to Boggle Hole. Its route is
spectacular, following the line of the cliffs. Scarborough's castle, like a broken molar on the horizon, recedes behind you; far below the sea dashes itself on countless jagged rocks: Beast Cliff, Sailor's Grave - these are not gentle places. But on a calm day, with farmlands on one side and the sea on the other, they are very beautiful.
I cannot tell you that the dozen miles flew by. It is in the nature of cliffs to rise and fall. By lunchtime, after countless hollows, rises, dips and denes, we were tired and switched to an easier mode. The end of the railway has fortuitously left stretches of narrow cinder tracks behind, and we walked along one till the end of the line at the ghost station of Ravenscar. Here, we regained the Cleveland Way, plunging down a few miles to the beach in sight of Boggle Hole.
Boggle Hole youth hostel was built by a contortionist. Somehow he managed to fit a building (another old mill) and annexes into a narrow cleft in the cliffs. The result is a rabbit warren with little logic to it: the main entrance is upstairs and the dining room a few floors below. A queen of hostels because of its site, it rang with the sound of people. Many were walkers because the Coast to Coast route crosses the Cleveland Way here. But there were others - car drivers (now allowed in hostels) from Bradford and Leicester; long-distance travellers from Australia and Europe. But come the morning and the end of breakfast, they were gone. You could catch sight of a rucksack or two in the bijou lanes of Robin Hood's Bay but the landscape had otherwise absorbed every man jack of them. It was like a superior conjuring trick.
The path led back to the top of the cliffs on the way to Whitby. The blister on my right heel, for all the care I had lavished on it, decided to burst, so as the grass was dry and springy, I took my boots off. This raised the eyebrows of the Coast-to-Coasters striding from the other direction: 'That's different,' commented one. But exchanges are warm; like long-distance lorry drivers, we pass with a comradely salute, boots or no boots.
Then, when we were in sight of Whitby, something magical occurred. From the north, three small-engined planes appeared. They drew level with us over the sea and then slowly and gently rose up vertically, in perfect symmetry, and looped the loop. They did this three times then departed as mysteriously as they had come.
With such a greeting, how could Whitby not have a special glow? Its hostel was a fine one - the old stone stables of the Benedictine abbey - sitting high above the little town. From here you can see the view that the young Captain Cook had over the Esk.
The next day we headed inland, taking the small train to Grosmont. Then came a trip that every nostalgic should take, a ride on the old steam railway to Goathland. Perhaps it was the railway that did it. Perhaps it was simply being far from towns, or the accident of the poignant and abandoned Roman road. Whichever it was, Wheeldale youth hostel, reached by an easy walk from Goathland, had an unearthly charm. It sat in a dip, a single curl of smoke rising from its chimney stack like something from a fairy tale. No electricity reaches Wheeldale, so the hostel has to generate its own. Water is scarce, so there are no showers. It felt embattled, yet cosy and secure.
Even its warden had a fey improbable quality. All the others had been bluff types. Wheeldale's warden was slender and abstracted, her narrow face framed in a cloud of pre-Raphaelite hair. We'd heard of her on the road; people had told us of her special talent: she was, they said, a gifted cook. So it was that in this loneliest of hostels, we ate like pashas - home- made soup, ratatouille (in servings so large that even children baulked). The next day we huddled in the terrible downpour, and ate salad baps and the warden's home-made cake. Wheeldale to Lockton was a long, tough haul, mostly in rain, over high ground, through a dripping forest and up - a welcome relief - to a lone inn, Saltersgate, where the owner wordlessly turned on an extra electric fire.
Lockton was the first hostel to be full, so our final night was spent at the Fox and Rabbits down the road. There was hot water galore and privacy. The restaurant was entirely free of Creamy Vegetable Pie. But no one spoke, and the beds were too soft.-
MEMBERSHIP of the Youth Hostels Association (Trevelyan House, 8 St Stephen's Hill, St Albans, Herts AL1 2DY) costs pounds 9 a year for those over 18. Overnight prices for adults at hostels range from pounds 5.10 to pounds 11.40; breakfast is pounds 2.40, packed lunch is pounds 2 and evening meals start at pounds 3.70. It is generally advisable to book in advance.
If you want an evening meal, remember to book that in advance as well, otherwise you could go hungry. Hostels now provide duvets and sheet sleeping bags free, so you need not take a sleeping bag unless you want to.
Useful things to take: Ordnance Survey map (plus plastic cover), compass, lightweight anorak and over-trousers, spare thick socks, good comfortable walking boots, torch, healthy nibbles such as nuts and dried fruit, knife, plastic bags to prevent the contents of your rucksack getting soaked, plasters.
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