B&B and Beyond: YHA South Downs, East Sussex
Eight centuries in the making, Britain's latest Youth Hostel opens its doors this weekend. Simon Calder gets a preview
Simon Calder’s career in travel started at Gatwick Airport, where he cleaned aircraft for Laker Airways and later worked as a security officer. He became The Independent’s Travel Correspondent in 1994, and is known as “the Man Who Pays His Way” because he does not accept free travel facilities. He writes across the Independent titles, as well as for the Evening Standard.
Saturday 06 April 2013
The unpainted plaster in the lounge, interspersed with raw brickwork, has the kind of mottled look for which a boutique hotel might pay a fortune. But in the case of the South Downs Youth Hostel, which opens this weekend, it looks like that from necessity.
"We insisted on plastering the walls with lime prepared in the traditional Downland way," says Duncan Simpson from YHA HQ. "But it takes two years to dry before you can paint it."
When I visited the new hostel on Tuesday, workmen were still putting the finishing touches to the resurrected Itford Farm. A 10-year, £5m project has seen a farmhouse and its outbuildings transformed into cheap and cheerful accommodation in a priceless setting. Itford Farm has stood on a gentle slope towards the River Ouse since the Middle Ages – the oldest feature, the font in the kitchen, dates to the 13th century. It closed in the 1980s, and lay unused. Then a local organisation, Active Lewes, teamed up with the Greenbank Trust and the YHA to revive the property and turn it into the most impressive hostel to open in England so far this century. History, character and views of the South Downs across the valley are included in the modest rates.
Most of them are standard-issue YHA bunks, packed six into a dorm (which can also be booked by a family). Bathrooms are either en suite or adjacent. But given the rambling spaces of the old farm, the opportunity has been taken to provide plenty of alternatives. There are private rooms for two, with twin beds or a double, and several rooms for families of up to four.
If youth hostels had the equivalent of "executive rooms", the premium offer at Itford would be the Granary, a self-contained unit that feels much more like a cottage on a farm than part of a bigger property – an ideal hideaway for a family wanting an indulgent South Downs holiday on a budget.
Hostelling is a lot less spartan than a few decades ago – expect hot showers and warm rooms. But if you yearn for complimentary toiletries, you're in the wrong place.
Unlike other accommodation providers, the YHA encourages self-catering, so you could buy some local produce and prepare it yourself in the well-equipped kitchen. But in the Courtyard Café you can order a Full Sussex for under a fiver.
Another facet of modernising the hostelling movement is that there is no "lock-out" during the day: reception is staffed from 7am to 11pm. Dale Richards is the manager, and takes pride in the fact that the YHA's newest hostel has such a long history: "No two rooms are the same," he says. You don't get that at the average budget hotel.
Immediately to the east of Itford Farm, the A26 roars past, to the west, the railway trundles, and beyond it the lazy River Ouse oozes its way to the Channel. But the most significant thoroughfare passing the new hostel is the South Downs Way – the pedestrian superhighway that cuts through Britain's newest national park. You can follow the well-marked track in either direction – but for the best of country and city, take the South Downs Way across the Ouse to the lovely village of Southease. Admire the 1,000-year-old church, cross the main road and head uphill, passing the splendidly named Cricketing Bottom – the valley to the right.
You dip down to Telscombe, and pass its own youth hostel, but then climb again on a road that dwindles to a track. Follow it to the English Channel – just before you reach the cliffs, the A259 intervenes, with buses every few minutes into Brighton.
And when you have enjoyed the shopping and sightseeing (especially the Royal Pavilion, England's finest palace), you can hop on a train back to Southease station, a couple of minutes' walk from the hostel.
The historic town of Lewes is a few miles north, and the spectacular Newhaven Fort a short way south.
Itford Farm has actually become a pit-stop on its own, with the on-site café (and information centre) aimed at hikers on the South Downs Way. The nearest pub, a mile or so away, is the Abergavenny Arms (abergavennyarms.com) in Rodmell, where Virginia Woolf once lived. Or take the train one stop to Lewes where the Limetree Kitchen (01273 478 636; limetreekitchen.co.uk) serves venison carpaccio and pan-fried grey mullet.
Itford Farm, East Sussex BN8 6JS (0845 371 9574; bit.ly/YHASoDo). Private rooms for two from £50; dorm beds from £16; breakfast £4.99.
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