Celebrating the best bits and bobs to be found while exploring Britain, Ireland and beyond. Much is inspired by real outings, whether they were walking, cycling or photographic in nature, while virtual blundering in the name of planning them has turned up some gems too. Regardless of how they were found, I hope that they keep coming so I can continue to share new things with you.
When I first went to the Isle of Skye in 1999, I stayed not in one but in two independent hostels around Portree. One was the Portree Independent Hostel based in the old post office in the heart of the town while the other was on the road for Uig but I cannot track it down now; maybe it moved or closed down during the last decade. It was the Scottish Independent Hostels website that I consulted to find out what was there. Looking back now, it amazes me that I didn't make any bookings before I set off from Edinburgh on a Scottish Citylink coach for an early evening arrival in Skye. Whether it was naivety on my part back then or I have grown far too cautious since then, that isn't something that I'd try today. Organising a roof over my head before I depart has become one of those necessities for any trip away nowadays.
In the years following that excursion to Skye, I turned to B&B's, guest houses and hotels. For visits to Scotland, that meant turning to VisitScotland a lot though LateRooms.com saw some business too. The business of trying to book hotel or guest house accommodation in Scotland at busy times is another discussion and I won't labour the point here.
In recent years, I have been turning to the SYHA for overnight accommodation where it is located where I need it. There's a lot to be said for being able to book things directly over the web and I occasionally have tried to see if the approach can be extended beyond Scottish hostels to their counterparts in England and Wales.
The SYHA habit began during a two day walk along the West Highland Way between Inverarnan and Drymen (yes, I went south) with an overnight stay in the SYHA at Rowardennan. Well, it was either that or an expensive hotel stay and the hostel provided what was needed: a bed for the night and breakfast in the morning. For evening sustenance, I popped over to the hotel's bar only to get caught in a downpour on the way back, a development that ensured that the hostel was full for the night when tents became inundated with water.
That wasn't the end of either the WHW or my making use of SYHA hostels because a stay in Crianlarich facilitated my walking the section between Inverarnan and Bridge of Orchy. Being a self catering hostel, you need to organise your own catering arrangements but there's a cafe in the train station that opens early enough in the morning for those not wanting to do it all themselves.
My next brush with the SYHA was on a Saturday night stay in Oban on the way home after a week spent exploring the Western Isles. It was a counterpoint to my staying in hotels for much of the week but it did what was asked of it though the decor looked a bit tired. Though I haven't returned recently, the closure for refurbishment was understandable and it would be interesting to see how the place now looks. When I was there, I put the condition of the place down to its being open all year. Not all SYHA hostels do and both Rowardennan and Crianlarich only open to individuals for part of the year but groups can hire them out at other times.
Next up was another all year hostel: Aviemore. It is the proximity of the Cairngorms that keeps this one going and I had stayed twice, once for two nights around Easter 2009 and again in August when I was in the area for three days of walking. It is a smart modern building right by the Catholic Church and, whatever you think of Aviemore, the location is a good one.
While I may have read comments about the Inverness SYHA lacking in soul, it satisfied my simple needs on a weekend that started with a walk along the WHW from Glen Coe to Kinlochleven before an opportunity for a stroll around Inverness' greener parts wasn't refused. It is situated in a quiet part of the city so if a lack of character means an oasis of calm, I'm never going to be an objector.
The following spring, I stayed at Cairngorm Lodge on the shore of Loch Morlich in Glenmore. It certainly is brilliantly located for the hill country though you'd need to cook your own evening meal unless you fancied some more walking. A continental breakfast is provided for an additional fee so you don't have to travel for that.
In June 2010, I sampled both the Lochranza and Inverary hostels on long weekend away that took in both Arran and Kintyre. The first of these was refurbished not so long ago and very nice it is too. Cyclists frequent it as well as walkers and others. It is a self catering affair though so you need to bring your own supplies. Saying that, the kitchen is both modern and well equipped. Inverary's hostel felt more worn and I ended up sharing with a heavy snorer and that didn't make for a peaceful night's rest. Nevertheless, I did get to spend more time around a place through which I had passed so many times while en route elsewhere.
July in 2011 saw me enjoy a number of weekends away from home and it started with some walking along parts of St. Cuthbert's Way with stopovers at hostels in Kirk Yetholm and Melrose. Sadly, both of these have closed now though Broadmeadows seems to be surviving for this year and it was the closures list too along with Loch Lomond (Arden) and Canisbay. Both of the now defunct hostels served me well with Kirk Yetholm very much being a self catering operation. Melrose offered the option of continental breakfast and served cyclists and motorcyclists along with walkers and others. It was a grand two storey house and it's a pity to lose it as a hostel.
Until the closures announced at the end of 2011, I had thought the SYHA an enlightened and resilient organisation that offered simple functional places to stay. While I am no longer so sure about the latter, its network could see my patronage on future Scottish excursions though it now looks more threadbare in the south of the country.
With my penchant for using SYHA facilities, I have wondered about using its English and Welsh equivalent, the YHA. However, I used to have trouble with hostels being found to be full when I was pondering a frugal weekend away. That trend was ruptured when I managed to make a booking at their Capel Curig hostel. Again, the offer was similar to that of the SYHA with the main difference being the provision of a cooked breakfast to compliment the continental option. The bunks in the room that I shared might have done with a little TLC but that's the only adverse comment that I have. Mind you, some might express surprise at bed linen coming in plastic packaging, hardly the most environmentally friendly of practices.
Just as there are independent hostels and bunkhouses in Scotland, they exist in England and Wales too. Just take a look at the Independent Hostel Guide (both Hostelworld and HostelBookers seem to be focussed on cities instead of out in the countryside) to see what I mean; there is a book as well as the very useful website. Some, such as Corris Youth Hostel in Wales and Kirkby Stephen Hostel in Cumbria, were formerly YHA establishments until refurbishment costs and other reasons caused it to relinquish them. Not having tried any of these myself, I cannot comment on quality but any websites that I saw gave a very favourable impression. They get listed elsewhere on this website along with a gaggle of other options. Could assessing the quality of independent hostels make a good excuse for constructing other explorations of the British countryside? It's a promising thought.
Many hostelling associations are members of Hostelling International and that certainly is true of Ireland's An Óige, Hostelling International Canada, Hostelling International USA, YHA Australia and the Youth Hostel Association of New Zealand but others need checking before you can be sure. Just being a member of any HI member association entitles you to lower rates with any of the other ones.
Until now, my hostel stays have been limited to the YHA and the SYHA since I tend to value the security of a hotel booking on any my overseas trips. If courage ever gets summoned, that may change but not all youth hostels will take in older customers. For instance, that appears to be the case in Germany where the maximum age limit appears to be 26 years unless it is a family or a parent and child booking. Other hostels in the same country are not so fussy so that is something to remember for other countries where age restrictions apply.