It’s now more than 85 years since we opened the first YHA hostel, although the history of the organisation is relatively brief compared to the history of some of the extraordinary buildings that house our properties. Here we take a look at some of the most heritage-rich hostels in our network, from 12th-century castles to Jacobean manor houses. (And a word of reassurance: these days, cosy bedding, wi-fi and freshly cooked meals come as standard!)
YHA Ironbridge Coalport
The history: The hostel occupies one of the original factories of the Coalport Porcelain Works, an enterprise founded in the 18th century. The company produced ceramics here for more than 120 years, setting up a retail warehouse in London to cope with demand, before uprooting to Stoke in the 1920s.
Today: The property’s location within the Ironbridge Gorge World Heritage Site makes it a piece of living history, and anyone with an interest in the Industrial Revolution has ten award-winning museums to visit. It offers a rewarding circular walk along the banks of the Severn – and the hostel’s Coalport Café does great meals.
YHA St Briavels
The history: No other hostel can hold a candle to YHA St Briavels when it comes to heritage. Previously both a hunting lodge (King John visited several times) and a prison (look out for the inmates’ graffiti), the ancient moated fortress has more than 800 years of stories to tell, making it a superb educational residential for school groups and an unforgettable stay for history buffs. Building work began on the castle in 1075.
Today: The castle was originally designed as a royal administrative centre for the Forest of Dean, and still has the woods on its doorstep – these days designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It’s also regularly described as the most haunted castle in Britain.
YHA Snowdon Pen-y-Pass
The history: Set on a mountain pass and offering a peerless location for Snowdon hikes, this one-time coaching inn enjoys near-legendary status in outdoor circles. After opening in the late 1800s as the Gorphwysfa Hotel, it went on to host regular climbing parties, drawing everyone from mountaineer George Mallory to writer Aldous Huxley.
Today: The hostel benefited from a £1.3 million renovation in 2014, leaving it as a state-of-the-art base for outdoor-lovers. Don’t miss the daily three-course menu in the evenings – perfect for enjoying over a post-hike beer or two.
The history: As the oldest YHA hostel still in operation, this chalet-style property has looked out over Glastonbury Tor and the Somerset Levels since 1931. It’s a relative pup when compared to some of the local attractions, such as the 2,000-year-old sacred Chalice Well, but it’s easy to see why it’s spent so many decades as a magnet for peace-seeking hikers and cyclists.
Today: The 28-bed hostel still makes a hugely convenient base for seeing the region, with Wells, Glastonbury, the Wookey Hole Caves and the Clarks Village Shopping Centre all close by. And larger groups take note – the property can be hired exclusively at certain times of the year.
YHA Port Eynon
The history: The sea-ramp still standing outside the hostel is evidence of the building’s original purpose as part of a lifeboat station, and it’s easy to see why its location at the southernmost tip of the glorious Gower Peninsula would have made it an obvious choice as a sea-rescue boathouse. The building dates back to the 1880s, and still bears various original features.
Today: Sitting on a stunning stretch of Welsh coastline, today’s hostel serves up a ready array of water sports, running loops and beach walks. The sea views from the lounge windows are fantastic, while the coastal hike from the hostel to Rhossili Beach is an excellent one.
London St Pauls
The history: Back in the 19th century, this unique base in the capital acted as a school for choirboys at St Paul’s Cathedral (which stands little more than a hymnbook’s throw away). The building’s historic features are still very much in evidence, from spiral staircases and Latin murals to wood-panelled classrooms complete with schoolboy graffiti.
Today: As well as providing an obvious base for visits to the cathedral itself, the hostel is also a short walk from the Millennium Bridge – the gateway to the arty rewards of the South Bank. Back in the hostel, the licensed restaurant serves tasty, well-priced meals.
The history: A hostel since 1931, Idwal Cottage was our first property in Wales. Its location close to Tryfan, Llyn Ogwen and the Idwal Slabs has helped it draw climbers and hikers for more than eight decades – there’s even a traditional wooden dorm hut still on site, now restored to offer accommodation for groups of up to seven. In its former life, the homely cottage belonged to a local quarry manager.
Today: Fast forward to 2016 and the four-star hostel is still a comfortable, friendly base for Snowdonia adventurers. For campers, meanwhile, its wooded campsite gives the chance to nod off to the sound of Ogwen Waterfall.
YHA Hartington Hall
The history: This handsome Peak District manor house was built in the early 1600s by the Bateman family, wealthy baronets who – so it’s claimed – went on to welcome Bonnie Prince Charlie here as a house-guest. The Batemans remained in situ until the 20th century, making substantial alterations over the years. The hall reopened as a YHA hostel in 1936, and still boasts oak panelling, log fires and three gabled bays.
Today: As well as the activities on offer in the Peak District itself – everything from hang-gliding to bouldering – modern-day visitors to Hartington Hall have easy access to Chatsworth House and Alton Towers. It even has its own annual beer and music festival.