Heart Searching: Your husband assured in the great outdoors: Cathy Aitchison brings up the rear when she spends a bonfire weekend at a youth hostel in Devon

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'YOU KNOW what YHA stands for, don't you,' joked one of the group, as we sat eating our lunch on Dartmoor: 'Your Husband Assured.' I was spending a bonfire weekend in Devon with a party of 25 people from the YHA Bristol Social Group. The initials, of course, stand for the Youth Hostels Association, but with two couples in the party who had met through the group, the other suggestion seemed appropriate.

Clare had met Andrew on a YHA weekend in June 1992 in Tintagel, Cornwall. It was her first weekend with the Bristol group, and she and Andrew hit it off straight away - something which didn't go unnoticed by the others. 'They kept falling behind the rest,' I was told. 'At one point we looked back along the beach, and there they were, laughing and splashing water at each other.' By February this year they were married.

Dave and Maggie, the other couple in the party, are getting married next summer; they first got to know each other at a map-reading session, one of the evening events organised by the group.

There is a regular programme of evening and weekend events, mainly based around walking, but also including cycling, ice skating, slide shows and meals out. Hostelling weekends vary in the amount of stamina and effort involved, from a relaxing weekend at the Ludlow Festival, to more stretching ones in Snowdonia or the Peak District.

Founded in 1930, the YHA aimed to provide low-cost accomodation for people who want to explore the countryside - not just for the young, although aimed particularly at young people with a limited budget. Almost immediately, local groups began to spring up as people became interested in the idea.

The Bristol Social Group was formed in 1935, and now is one of 92 such groups throughout England and Wales which are affiliated to the YHA. A few years ago it moved its meeting place to the new Bristol YHA Centre, Hayman House - a converted warehouse on the quayside which turned out to be a good location - membership this year stands at just under 70.

Most of the people who join enjoy walking and outdoor pursuits, and want to meet others who feel the same. Along with bank holidays such as August and Easter, Bonfire Weekend is one of the more popular events, with a wide mix of people.

The ages of our party ranged from mid-twenties to early sixties, split evenly between the sexes. Apart from myself, there were three newcomers: Judith, who had recently joined the Bristol Group and wanted to broaden her horizons after her children had left home; Dave, who was friends with a regular member of the group; and Richard, an engineer who played in a band. Richard had met only one of the group before: 'I'm used to being with musicians, so it was a bit strange at first because they are all very straight people.' I found them very kind and unpretentious.

We were staying in Maypool hostel, near Brixham in south Devon. A large house in beautiful surroundings overlooking the River Dart, it was bought by the YHA in 1950, at around the same time that Agatha Christie bought the neighbouring house, Greenway. She evidently took note of her backpacking neighbours, because Maypool features in several of her books - it appears in Dead Man's Folly as Hoodown Park Hostel.

I hadn't stayed in an English youth hostel since the 1970s, but Maypool was much as I remembered hostels to be, with its members' kitchen, dormitories and common room. You still carry out a 'duty' in the morning (I had to vacuum and tidy the common room); cars are now accepted - a welcome change from the old charade of hiding your vehicle up the road and pretending you had come on foot. We cooked our own breakfasts in the members' kitchen but ate the evening meal prepared by the hostel.

Warden David Rowe and his wife Jenny, who have been there for thirteen years, describe Maypool as 'still a hostellers' hostel' - despite modernisation, it had kept enough of the flavour of the early days to satisfy the somewhat ascetic tastes of the original hosteller.

Personally, I found the showers a welcome modernisation after a long walk, and the bunk beds were new and comfortable. The hostel was about half-full that weekend, and we shared it with a study group of French conservation wardens from Clermont Ferrand, a Devon cycling club and a few families and couples.

The wardens had arranged the firework display on Saturday night for everyone from the hostel, plus several more besides: 'It makes a change for us to be entertaining Dartmouth,' said Jenny Rowe, as the bangs echoed like gun salutes over the river. It was good, but there was a better group atmosphere afterwards, when our own group piled into the kitchen for hot drinks.

My main concern had been how I would stand up to the walking: even on good days my constitution tends to prefer a log fire to a long walk, and I had picked that weekend to develop a streaming cold.

On the first day we walked along the cliffs to Stoke Fleming, a village south of Dartmouth; on the second we walked on Dartmoor west of Bovey Tracey, finishing up at the magnificent Becky Falls. As I puffed and panted up and down the gradients, I could see that neither route would be particularly taxing to a regular walker.

I was impressed by how amicably everyone got on, with no one complaining about the pace. Richard was pleased that everyone was keen to walk, as most of his musician friends' idea of a walk was a stroll to the nearest pub and back.

I don't think any romances began over the weekend, although maybe I was just looking in the wrong direction - at least, the only person who kept falling behind seemed to be me. There were several people who I really liked as friends or companions, and I would certainly enjoy going again, but not until the weather gets warmer.

For details of YHA groups in your area (England & Wales) telephone: 0727 855215 (ask for local groups officer) For YHA Bristol Group telephone: 0249 445624

(Photograph omitted)

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