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Hostels go soft on the rough stuff

Walkers, weep no more. The YHA is fitting mod cons. By Rachelle Thackray
IT may not be the last word in luxury, but tired hikers trekking to a tiny Lake District youth hostel nearly two miles from the nearest road will find the new additions more than welcome.

The installation of modern conveniences such as a telephone and electricity - provided by solar panels and a wind turbine - at the remote, 16-bed hostel is part of an initiative to bring the smaller of the Youth Hostels Association's 240 British properties into the modern age.

YHA business development director Liz Lloyd conceded that the Black Sail hostel, a former shepherd's hut near Buttermere in the Lake District, which reopens for business at the end of the month, had been in a time- warp. "Having no telephone was something that we were concerned about. The light was provided by bottled gas, as were cooking facilities. We wanted to find a way of providing a limited electricity supply, because, if there had been an accident, we couldn't get in touch with the outside world. But it's a very atmospheric place, and we didn't want to destroy that."

YHA managers consulted the Centre for Alternative Technology at Machynlleth, Wales, and decided to go for a pounds 6,000 photo-voltaic system, which stores several hours'-worth of electricity in batteries, providing power for the kitchen, phone and fax (the latter are restricted to emergency use). Other appliances will still run on bottled gas.

"We recognised that the Lake District probably isn't the sunniest place, but there is also a small, unobtrusive wind turbine," said Ms Lloyd. She admits that even the wardens are ready for a change after 12 months at Black Sail. "It's one of the jobs we put our young hopefuls into. They enjoy it for a year, they wouldn't want to stay longer."

Much of the cash for the refurbishments came from the YHA's 265,000 members following an appeal two years ago. Now, most of the small rural hostels have indoor loos, and a 24-bedder at Litton Cheney in Dorset, once a cheese factory, now boasts a state-of-the-art self-catering suite and a flower-bed.

Prices have risen to start at pounds 5.85 (pounds 4 for under-18s); the most expensive hostels, mainly in cities, cost pounds 20 a night and include breakfast. Meanwhile, compulsory hostel chores, such as cleaning and weeding, have been phased out. "People are less socially inclined to do that kind of thing. Also, because of health and safety requirements, you can't ask people to use chemicals. But in small hostels, people want to help," said Ms Lloyd.

The YHA, a registered charity, wants to raise the standards of its most dilapidated residences, and is keen to recruit younger members by advertising at student freshers' fairs. But Ms Lloyd confirmed that it will not ditch its dependable - some might say stolid - image. "We are seen as being safe and secure, and that's very reassuring for parents, although it can be quite a turn-off for youngsters wanting to get off on their own. We have to get a balance - we have a really lively cosmopolitan feel, although we're not at the cutting edge of youth culture."

That balance and the improvements attracted two million people to make overnight stays last year, an increase of one per cent. "We can track the popularity of the improvements, because when you look at the results for the unimproved hostels, it is the improved product that people want to go and stay in," said Ms Lloyd. "Unless standards and facilities are improved at our smaller hostels, those attracted to use them will diminish in numbers until the places become unviable."