Return of the youth hostel: a stay at the YHA New Forest
Bethan applied the brakes, brought her tiny bike to a halt, and gasped. Ten metres ahead of us, a red deer had materialised from the piney depths of the forest. It had early-season antlers – a pair of bony stumps the size of garden hand-forks – and a glossy, chestnut coat. Eyes fixed, it trotted across the cycle path and disappeared again into the trees. “That was like … an animation!” spluttered Bethan. Then her attention turned to her older brother, pedalling ahead of us in the middle distance, and an even more exciting thought occurred: “And Joe missed it!”
The three of us – respectively aged 8, 11 and lost count – had come to the New Forest on a two-night hostelling trip. Among other things, it was a chance to get away and enjoy another part of the country. But hold on. A hostelling trip in summer 2020? Well, technically, yes. YHA England & Wales eased back into business earlier this month, reopening 30 of its 153 hostels on 17 July. A further 63 are now available for exclusive hire. The 30 properties taking individual bookings were selected chiefly for their outdoor space and their self-contained accommodation options. YHA New Forest, tucked away down a long, unsealed lane in the dappled belly of the national park, fits that bill.
The hostel itself is a large white mansion, refurbed in 2017, and set in shaggy gardens. On our visit, four of its en suite guest rooms had been opened. That was on the inside. But we were staying outside, in the grounds, where three camping pods and two caravan-like “land pods” (all sleeping four) provide budget-friendly glamping. The pods were in place before the pandemic, but being at least five metres apart and each with its own outdoor table, they could have been created in response to social distancing.
Bethan and Joe Lerwill outside the YHA camping pod, ‘the cosiest den ever’. Photograph: Ben Lerwill
Our base (child’s verdict: “the cosiest den ever”) was one of the pine-clad camping pods, with two single beds and a double. All other guests at the hostel were also in family groups, which turned the place into a kind of rambling, all-ages holiday camp. The evenings rang to the fluting notes of treetop blackbirds, the automated whirr of hand-sanitiser dispensers and the merry bedlam of kids playing hide-and-seek too loudly. Parents exhaled audibly. I can’t speak for other, busier parts of the New Forest, but here in the woods it felt like a release.
The YHA marks its 90th anniversary this year. Back in 1930, it was created as a social enterprise “to help all… to a greater knowledge, use and love of the countryside, particularly by providing hostels or other simple accommodation for them on their travels”. That ethos still holds true, although today’s hostels would be largely unrecognisable to pre-war hikers. Curfews and chores are long gone. These days they have bars, private rooms and bike-repair stations alongside the traditional dorms and drying rooms.
Budget-friendly glamping is in three camping pods and two caravan-like ‘land pods’
Well. Maybe not these days. On our visit, the self-catering kitchens and the lounge were off limits. Reception was done one family at a time, showers were bookable in time-slots and breakfast came in the form of pre-ordered baps. We got pizzas delivered for dinner. It would take a crystal ball to judge how and when things might change – all open hostels are working to a system that suits their particular set up – although staff were doing their damnedest to juggle the current arrangements smoothly. “We’ve only been open two days,” said Steph, the perma-smiling manager. “It feels like weeks already!”
What the YHA has always excelled at, of course, is locations. Find a ravishing outdoor spot in England or Wales and the charity’s green-triangle logo is likely to be nearby. It has 19 hostels in the Lakes alone. This New Forest setting is a fine one, too. Minutes after arrival, the kids were roaming the surroundings, biking down a dusty track (“it’s got jumps!”) and gingerly summiting a huge fallen beech tree.
We spent the next day on a 12-mile bike ride that looped through the forest, wending slowly from the hostel out to Bolderwood Arboretum, mainly on car-free trails. It was a joy: a packed-lunch voyage through an uncrowded world of ferns, oaks and breeze-tossed butterflies. After dropping the bikes back at the hostel we made a 10-minute walk for ice-creams into the village of Burley, where nonchalant ponies were blocking the traffic.
I’ve stayed in enough YHA hostels to know what was missing from the normal experience – that muddy-boot murmur of camaraderie, chatting and swapping stories over dinner – but those elements will return in time. For now, it was a thrill to be somewhere where we could breathe deep, lay on the grass and watch the stars appear, and where, in the green heart of the woods, we could cross paths with a deer, and marvel at its innocence.
• YHA New Forest has pods and private rooms from £49 a night (cost more in summer holidays and availability limited). See all hostels at yha.org.uk. Bike hire available in nearby Burley at New Forest Cycling; cycle route maps available at the hostel