Nobbut laiking: Ross Brewster

Date: Tuesday 7th March 2017

THE idea went something like this. Drive 300 miles after work on Friday, run 100 miles on Saturday and drive 300 miles home on Sunday. Speaking now as an aching pensioner, you’ve got to be young to contemplate that sort of schedule, and back in the day I was full of fitness and energy.

However, penny pinchers largely get what they pay for. I had two choices of accommodation the night before the big event where I was due to be joined by 200 other knobbly-kneed, hardened and weathered outdoor types.

Choice one, the sensible one: The Silver Trees guesthouse. Choice two: The youth hostel which marked the starting point of the run. The difference, about £15 quid which was quite a lot in the 70s. I went for the cheap option and, in the immortal words of the Italian commander in ‘Allo, ‘Allo, “what a mistaka to maka.”

I drew the short straw. The bottom bunk, immediately below an ageing, snoring hosteller with a dodgy prostate who climbed down the ladder, treading on my ribs, about half a dozen times during a sleepless night.

At the 6am start the next day the buzz of conversation was all about the marvellous facilities at the Silver Trees down the road. En-suite rooms, comfy beds and a prodigious full English to set their guests up for the long day ahead.

It’s all very different now. Youth hostels offer private rooms with flatscreen telly, cafes and lounges. Beer on tap, even waiter service in the posh ones. There’s even a Jacobean mansion just down the road from Kensington Palace. “Perfect Dorms” said the headline writer in the feature on hostelling 2017-style in my Sunday newspaper at the weekend.

At least one roughty-tufty hostel made it into recommended list — the incomparable Black Sail Hostel midway between Ennerdale and Great Gable in possibly the most iconic of Lake District settings. “This lonely hostel is the antithesis of all the new generation poshness,” said the article wistfully. Your smartphones and tablets are no use here. Forget about WiFi and even a phone signal. And still it is one of the YHA’s most popular destinations. There must be a message there somewhere.

But hold on a minute. While Black Sail continues to attract those who savour the genuine outdoor experience, roughing it a bit being all part of the pleasure, is the YHA forsaking some of its simple hotels in the quest to be 21st Century?

I received a tweet last week from Kate Ashbrook, aka Campaigner Kate, general secretary of the Open Spaces Society, pointing me to her blog in which she said it was “deeply depressing” that the YHA wanted to go the way of Holiday Inn and Travelodge.

“The YHA seems to have forgotten its roots,” wrote Kate. “It has given notice that it will cut its ties with the proprietors of a number of simple hostels and camping barns, leaving them to fend for themselves. The charm of the hostels has always been their variety, different standards and range of accommodation, facilities and levels of staffing. Many are losing their quirky distinctiveness.”

The implication is clear. The YHA is a modern business. And while walkers queue to book at a former shepherd’s bothy in Ennerdale, many of their patrons now prefer to stay at places like York’s first “boutique” hostel — deceased old-time ramblers will be revolving in their graves at that description — manor houses and “poshtels”. And now there are plans for an 850-bed mega-hostel in East London.

Talking about hostels becoming hotels, prices at some of the posher ones are indeed quite similar to those for budget hotels and the YHA obviously sees a market for good quality accommodation close to many of the nation’s top tourist attractions. Gone are the days when you were asked, after a communal evening meal, “do you prefer to wash or dry?”

I confess that, after my night on the bottom bunk, I’d have smashed the dishes in frustration if they’d dare to ask me that question. But hey, I still got in before the cosseted patrons of the Silver Trees guest house. Perhaps the full English wasn’t such a good idea at the start of a run after all.

I can see where the YHA’s business managers are coming from when they can command two pages of free advertising in a national newspaper. Perhaps the poshing up process is merely reflective of a softer society, one that can’t live for five minutes without checking the phone or texting a mate. At Black Sail, the art of conversation lives on.

They would probably say the quirky, remote hostels no longer pay their way. But what a tragedy if they were to be lost to the walking community. Who knows, one of these days we might all turn away from hip and happening and feel the need for a return to simpler ways.

I’m with Kate on this one. The thought of the YHA abandoning these smaller hostels depresses me, too. But, if you do want a piece of advice when planning a visit to one of the simpler hostels while they are still going, make sure you grab the top bunk.


THE irony of tourism is that you begin by wanting more tourists to come, then when you get too many you start wanting fewer of them blocking up the streets and the car parks, eating their chips in the street and threatening to buy up all the houses for their second homes.

I presume most readers will, at some time, have visited the charming village of Cartmel, down in the South Lakes. For its historic priory, its popular race meetings or, if you’ve got a bob or two, for its foodie experience.

It’s all going a bit wrong in Cartmel where the influx of gastro-tourists and their Bentleys and Ferraris are causing parking problems. Parish councillors have drawn up plans for double yellow lines to fight “irresponsible parking”, but not everyone agrees.

One shopkeeper told The Sunday Times: “Other villages would kill for what Cartmel has. It just makes us look hostile.”

The New York Times named Cartmel the 44th best travel destination in the world. However, the worldwide reputation of the village’s Simon Rogan restaurant L’Enclume — named in homage to the former blacksmith’s shop it’s located within — and sticky toffee pudding is not to the taste of locals who don’t all profit from the tourist boom.

It goes to show, in the world of foodie tourism, whether it’s chips in the high street or a pricey taster menu, you can’t have your cake and eat it.


POSITIVE news about Penrith. Writer Alan Bennett might have considered the town too lacking in opera, libraries, restaurants and other attractions of a more dubious nature for the liking of poet W. H. Auden, but the old town received a timely boost in Sunday’s Home section of The Sunday Times.

Penrith, with its “rugged beauty, packed with gourmet eateries,” its outstanding schools, poetry readings, exhibitions, arts venue, live music, transport network and “places to be seen in” cut quite a dash with the ST’s Sarah Lonsdale.

Have Auden, Bennett and me all been missing something in dear old Penrith? I associate Penrith with boy racers who seem to spend their evenings revving up and endlessly touring the town. Have I done Penrith a serious injustice?

Sarah Lonsdale laments the long wet winters. But otherwise she has nothing but praise for “a gritty stone-built town that loves its food, in the heart of Wordsworth country”.

Watch out, Grasmere and your wandering lonely as a cloud literary tourists, Penrith’s on the way to claim them.


TALK about instant conversion. Keswick’s new MP, Trudy Harrison, joined the Conservatives only after hearing the Prime Minister speaking at the party conference last October. Must be a record — from conversion to MP all in the space of just four months.

Quoted by the Daily Mail after her victory in last week’s Copeland by-election, Mrs. Harrison — or Trudles as her eldest daughter unflatteringly dubbed her on Facebook — said: “I just thought, that’s who I am, that’s what I want and that’s what my community needs. That was a really inspirational moment for me.” I wish her well, although reading that did make me feel slightly queasy.

Her part-time roles as a governor of the local primary school and as a parish councillor influenced her decision to join the Conservative Party. The Mail says she joined the Tories “overnight” and was “catapulted on to the national stage,” when she ended 82 years of Labour control in the constituency.

Neighbouring Workington MP Sue Hayman has been promoted to Labour’s shadow cabinet two years into her parliamentary career. What with her rocketing rise and Trudy Harrison’s overnight conversion on the road to Bootle, there’s nothing new in politics these days that comes as a surprise any more.