I have life membership of the Youth Hostels Association of England and Wales, which has been great value over the years – but for the last decade or so I really haven’t stayed in British hostels much. Recently I’ve stayed in official HI hostels in Italy, Paris and the USA, and whenever I’ve been updating the Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget the Swiss association has put me up in its lovely hostels (usually in a private room, thanks). But the England and Wales association has closed most of its more attractive hostels, concentrating on cities and large modern hostels that can take school groups. Indeed, one problem is that often, even when there is a hostel in the right place, it’s full because of a group booking. Closed or full, that seems to be the choice – not much use for the independent traveller. Any idea of a network of hostels within cycling distance of each other has also been lost, except in the Peak and the Lake District – you need a car nowadays. It’s incredible that second-tier destinations such as Salisbury and Lincoln are now hostel-less – how can a hostel in these tourist towns not cover its costs?
However the YHA has seemed more like an arm of the property business than a youth charity for years now, and one sometimes gets the sense that closing hostels down has become its purpose rather than an unfortunate side-effect of economic circumstances. It’s telling that when a new chief executive was appointed in April 2017 he said: ‘My initial priority as chief executive is to deliver the new business plan and lock in the success that has been achieved in recent years’.
The sense that the YHA has been taken over by bureaucrats and bean-counters was reinforced recently when I wanted to meet a friend in Milton Keynes. There is still a decent smallish hostel here, of all places, in Bradwell, one of the original villages swallowed up by the New Town, with a couple of cheery and remarkably cheap pubs nearby. But I booked for the wrong date and had to change it – I sent two emails to the hotel and had no reply at all, I phoned and had no answer, and the YHA’s call centre, which was meant to be open on Sundays according to the first webpage I found, wasn’t. When I called on Monday morning I was dealt with very professionally, but I had a strong sense of over-centralisation. And if they aren’t dealing with their emails and phone calls at the hostel, there needs to be an auto-reply or redirect to say so.
Once you get to the hostel, it’s absolutely fine, apart from the strange lack of hooks in the shower cubicles, and the manager is great. You also need to show photo ID to check into a hostel now – something to do with child protection, I suppose (there were no children around when I was in Milton Keynes) but it’s hard to see that it would actually make any difference.
As for Milton Keynes… the museum is only open weekends and half-term, which ruled that out. The World War II code-breaking museum at Bletchley Park is excellent, but I’d been there not too many years ago. So the high points were the Concrete Cows and the little robot vehicles that deliver fast food in the centre. I remember the concrete cows from years ago, reasonably lifelike and grazing in a field by the railway, but after years of decoration/vandalism these are now in the MK museum and they’ve been replaced by ‘replicas’ that look like rejects from someone’s GCSE art project. They’re not so visible from trains now and stand on wood chips rather than grass in the Loughton Valley Park. We had fun discussing their self-referentiality as meta artworks, or something.
As for the pods, they look like student bed-sit fridges on wheels and bustle around on the pedestrian/cycleways at a maximum 15mph. Apparently passenger-carrying pods are also on trial in central Milton Keynes (or centre:mk as it’s now been branded). But we in the tech hub of Cambridge are not at all jealous, because we have Amazon Prime deliveries by drone. Well, just two Beta customers, apparently, but the first delivery took just 13 minutes from final click to delivery. But apparently you still need to put out a welcome mat that the drone can recognise.