Wine, song and no chores in sight

The latest youth hostel opened last night in Manchester. It proves just how much hostelling has changed since Simon Calder's youth The 1995 hostels booklet promises car parking and wine with meals
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The Independent Travel
Public school, they say, is a good preparation for prison. I have (so far) eluded both institutions, but youth hostels combine the worst bits of both. That, at least, was how it appeared when I began hostelling:

"How many hostellers support the spending of £4 each for interior spring mattresses ... has no one a word of praise for the palliasse and wire-sprung bed?"

That letter was published in the YHA handbook in the mid-Sixties, when your membership card was a passport to suffering and regimentation. Thirty years on, becoming a YHA member costs £9. It buys you a nifty new credit card-sized pass and the right to stay at thousands of hostels around Britain and in 60 countries all over the world.

The concept of low-cost accommodation for young travellers originated in Germany in 1929. The idea of catering for wanderlust spread rapidly, and Britain's first hostels opened the following year, promising "to help all, especially young people of limited means, to a greater knowledge, love and care of the countryside".

The hotel trade did not feel immediately alarmed, not least because of the Youth Hostels Association's rigorous and literal adherence to self- motivation.

Youth hostels are for the use of members who travel on foot, by bicycle or canoe; they are not for members travelling by motor- car, motor-cycle or any power-assisted vehicle.

The YHA is still a charity, but founder members might be shocked at the 1995 handbook, with its promises of on-site car parking and wine with meals. Although you can still do things the hard way if you wish (see the article about the Black Sail Hut, below right), the things for which youth hostelling was famous (or infamous) are disappearing as quickly as you can say "en-suite facilities" or "a pint of bitter, please".

Rule 14: Members are not permitted to bring intoxicants into the hostel premises.

In the mid-Sixties I was too young to be bothered about the no-drinking rule, but by the time you reach the maximum age limit in Bavaria (the one place which insists on "youth" - under 27s only), you get fairly fed up with the strictures. The rules on alcohol, curfews and especially chores seemed designed to deter the average traveller.

Every member is required to carry out duties as directed by the warden.

On my travels through Britain's hostels, I have learnt useful skills such as scouring an entire hostel kitchen's-worth of pots and pans, and scrubbing wet and muddy hostel floors (those damn canoeists). So, like thousands of others, I made a beeline away from the kitchen sinks and outdoor latrines as soon as the first new, easy-going backpackers' hostels were established.

These developed first and fastest in Australia, offering travellers inexpensive beds without the bother. "Rules are only for inconsiderate people," says the sign in the kitchen of a hostel in Cairns.

The simple combination of cheapness and camaraderie spread quickly across the globe. Even Moscow and St Petersburg have hostels these days. Despite the Queen's recent unflattering comparison between the two cities, St Petersburg's backpacking accommodation does not compare with the shiny new Manchester hostel (see story below left).

Many independent hostels in America allow only foreigners; no one actually says so, but the idea appears to be to keep out long-term itinerants. Backpackers' hostels offer the only way to find a cheap room in midtown Manhattan: $50 buys a comfortable double room in the Theater (sic) District. Take the "s" out of hostel, and the price is tripled.

Even Britain is catching on to the backpackers' concept. "Would you like a cup of coffee?" inquired Steve Maxwell when I arrived at the Igloo, Nottingham's independent hostel. Dispensing free hot drinks is not part of the average YHA warden's duties, but at the Igloo (motto: "Warm beds for cool heads"), you get unlimited tea and coffee and ready-made entertainment in exchange for £8 a night.

The Igloo is a rambling five-storey Victorian house on the Mansfield Road, one of Nottingham's main thoroughfares. Mr Maxwell spent last year ripping out the old fixtures and installing bunk beds.

The secret of a successful hostel, he says, is to invest in good mattresses: "We don't short-change people on beds." The nest that he has created is filled with a migrating flock of travellers, most of whom seem to be Antipodean.

Among budget travellers, Australians and New Zealanders are the real sophisticates. Hostels in King's Cross, Sydney, where the unfortunate local populace do daily battle with thousands of rucksacks, compete with each other on grounds of comfort as much as cost. "Premium" hostels are the five-star properties of the backpacking world.

The official youth hostels were rapidly being left behind by the growth in the independent sector, so they have been fighting back aggressively. Out go rules such as "portable wirelesses must not be used in such a way as to interfere with other members", and in come computer games and rock music. Sting wails about being "An Englishman in New York" as New Yorkers fill the reception area of the YHA's Carter Lane hostel in the City of London, checking in to £22-a-night single rooms.

"Having spent a sleepless night recently at a London hostel, thanks to noisy latecomers who ignored the warden's request for silence, may I suggest that special padded cell-type dormitories be provided for these disturbers of the peace?"

Mr V T Littlewood, writer of that letter to the YHA handbook 30 years ago, would have been appalled at the kerfuffle in the City of London hostel. What with new touches such as family rooms, computer reservations and payment by credit card, the YHA is doing rather more than providing "simple accommodation ... to promote health, rest and education".

But even in the chore-free world of hostelling for softies, ex-public schoolboys, convicts and anyone else who hankers after the hard life can still find solace. In the Wye Valley, Ottawa and Stockholm, former jails have been converted into hostels, complete with wardens. Or should that be warders?

YHA England and Wales, Trevelyan House, 8 St Stephen's Hill, St Albans, Hertfordshire AL1 2DY (01727 855215).

Scottish YHA, 7 Glebe Crescent, Stirling FK8 2JA (01786 451181).

YHA of Northern Ireland, 56 Bradbury Place, Belfast BT7 1RU (01232 324733).

Membership of any of the above organisations makes you a member of Hostelling International.To book hostels in North America, call freephone 1 800 444 6111(within the US and Canada).

The Independent Hostel Guide is available from the Backpackers' Press, 2 Rockview Cottages, Matlock Bath, Derbyshire (01629 580427), £2.95. The Igloo, 110 Mansfield Road, Nottingham NG1 3HL (0115-947 5250).

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