The year before Tony Blair’s first victory, I cycled from Whitehaven to Newcastle on the C2C route. My companion was Bill, a 16-year-old from Sunderland, whom I met at a Youth Hostelling Association mountain-biking weekend and who was off to join the Army after the summer. We’d pedal all day and stay in youth hostels at night: spartan bunk-bed accommodation, but welcome after a day in the saddle.
Do teenagers still cycle cross-country in the summer holidays for fun? My hunch is that it’s probably less common than in the Nineties. Even before the pandemic, the WHO was warning that more than 80% of adolescents are not active enough, a sedentary state that hasn’t improved since lockdown. Now, combined with inflation and cuts biting into family trips and school outings, such waning youth outdoorsiness is rewriting Britain’s leisure landscape: according to reports, around a third of YHA hostels are to be sold off.
This isn’t the first round of such closures. Hostels have come and gone, with numbers declining for over 70 years. But even if this isn’t the first time the YHA has adjusted its hostel offering, the prospective loss of as many as a third of the remaining establishments feels like part of my youth disappearing.
The no-frills hostel vibe was an integral part of growing up for me, from windswept, blister-inducing school hikes along Hadrian’s Wall to my cycling venture with Bill. The hostels’ utilitarian, classless atmosphere felt deeply, pleasingly English in a distinctively post-war way: one nation under tinned food and changeable weather, enjoying a damp-but-cheery commonality that (outside farming communities) is only really accessible in modern Britain via hiking or cycling.
And yet, the roots of hostelling as an English phenomenon are unexpectedly shallow. Youth hostels are in fact an inter-war German import: the first British hostel was founded in 1930, at Pennant Hall in north Wales, inspired by a network already well-established across Europe.
Its origins lie in late 19th-century Germany. In 1896, in Stieglitz, a suburb of Berlin, groups of young men began taking long hikes together in the countryside. Sleeping in barns and cooking their own food, they viewed these excursions as a means of escaping Germany’s staid culture and increasingly urbanised environment. Inspired by German Romanticism, they rejected modernity, militarism and Victorian cultural influence in favour of a more intense and harmonious connection with one another and the natural world, and older and more authentic cultural traditions.
By 1901 this had coalesced into a movement, founded by the charismatic Karl Fischer. The groups called themselves Wandervögel, or “migrant birds”, drawing inspiration from poetry, Teutonic myth and the idealised life of itinerant medieval scholars, and swiftly became the dominant strand in the early 20th-century German Youth Movement.
The very first youth hostel was envisaged as a response to the Wandervögel. In 1909, teacher Richard Schirrmann published plans for an inexpensive hostel for young hikers, opening the first such establishment at Altena Castle in Nordrhein-Westphalia three years later. The movement swiftly grew, and by the time war broke out there were, according to Schirrmann’s biographer, 535 hostels across Germany.
Meanwhile, as the Wandervögel grew, the movement began to fracture, with more conventional groups diverging from a rebellious, masculinist Romantic hardcore. Fischer’s anti-modernist ideas sat ill with groups who just enjoyed hiking, and these splintered off in 1904, leaving Fischer’s Alt-Wandervögel behind. Then, in 1906, Fischer was forced out of even this group in a leadership struggle, by the charismatic intellectual and activist Willie Jansen: a man controversial at the time for his advocacy of “the Hellenic side of things”, which is to say sexual relations between older and younger men.
In Jansen’s view, a key aspect of the Wandervögel was the scope to form intense masculine friendships within a Männerbund — that is, a band of masculine men. As documented by Hans Blüher, the first Wandervögel historian, in a scandalous 1910 book titled The German Wandervögel Movement as Erotic Phenomenon, Jansen saw such relationships as crucial to masculine formation and endeavour.
A man of ferociously antisemitic views and, like Jansen, unconventional sexual proclivities, Blüher argued that Wandervögel friendships in all-male groups should be understood as erotic, albeit in an unconsummated way. Blüher rejoiced in the restoration of “ancient gymnastics”, complaining that “the most natural form of gymnastics” had been “erased by Christian culture” and should be restored, along with “the open nobleness of nudity”.
The friendships formed in such groups were, Jansen and Blüher argued, superior to relationships with the opposite sex. Men should channel their masculine, creative energy in richer and more fruitful ways than just pulling girls, by seeking out and intensifying cooperation within a Männerbund. “Where does the vitality that is capable of giving rise to such a movement of masculine youth come from,” Jansen asked, “if not from men who, instead of loving a wife or becoming the father of a family, loved young men and founded Männerbünde?”
But rumours about Jansen’s relations with younger men saw him driven from his leadership post in 1910. By then, across the movement as a whole, fierce debates raged between chapters about whether to include girls or “non-German” members, whether to permit alcohol and tobacco, or whether to embrace other popular lifestyle reform issues of the time, such as vegetarianism. After the Great War ended, returning Wandervögel — now military veterans — brought back a battle-seasoned, patriotic masculinism to the now largely mixed-sex hiking culture, and in response the Alt-Wandervögel expelled women and girls into a parallel organisation.
Meanwhile, even as the Männerbund subculture hardened into something altogether fiercer, Robert Schirrmann was hard at work on a parallel effort to domesticate Germany’s youthful upswelling of outdoor vitalism and Teutonic myth-making. While deployed near Vosges, separated from the French only by a narrow No-Man’s Land, Schirrmann had witnessed the Christmas truce of 1915, where French and German combatants laid down their arms and exchanged gifts. The event left a deep impression, inspiring a dream of hostelling as a vector for peace. According to his biographer, Schirrmann wanted to create places where “thoughtful young people of all countries” could “get to know each other”, hopefully helping to forestall future conflict.
Between the wars, Schirrmann’s hostels rapidly spread across Europe, but they took some time to find a receptive audience in Britain. When Schirrmann wrote to the Anglo-German Academic Board in 1928, to enquire whether a European party of schoolchildren would find hostels in England, the Board replied: “It is not customary for young people to go on tours… English young people normally go out into the country in groups and stay at one fixed point in a camp, using their own or hired tents.”
But in 1930, a group of English young people returned from touring hostels in Germany determined to replicate them in Britain. Pennant Hall was opened and, by the end of 1931, there were 75 hostels, charging a shilling a night (about £3 in today’s money). They swiftly became popular and, in 1932, the YHA was granted royal approval.
Over the same period, the Wandervögel fragmented further, taking on wildly divergent political colouration from proto-hippies to proto-fascists and, in some impoverished cases after the Great Depression, outlaws and vagabonds. Many were eventually absorbed into the Hitler Youth, as were Schirrmann’s youth hostels from 1936 to 1945. But other Wandervögel groups held out, with some even going underground.
And Schirrmann never abandoned his vision. After the war, he was the first German civilian to enter the British Isles, when a friend flew him to a hostelling conference in Scotland by private plane in 1946. Peak youth-hostelling came not long after, in tandem with peak post-war collectivism. The YHA reached an all-time high of 303 hostels in 1950, and even published its own songbook in 1952. “Many a common room sing-song has been marred because few of the hostellers know more than the first verses of the songs,” explained the introduction, “and all too frequently the item that begins as a rousing chorus ends as a faltering solo.” Speaking to a level of common heritage that’s unimaginable now, the book included only lyrics and no sheet music, as it assumed someone would be bound to know the tune.
A great deal has changed since then. If hostelling represented a strain of Romantic wanderlust for Germany, English hostels were powered by an egalitarian post-war desire to make the nation’s most beautiful places accessible to all. And, for a while, it worked. In the normal course of my average Home Counties adolescence, without hostels, I’d never have met, let alone spent five days travelling with, a working-class teenage guy from the industrial North-East.
We weren’t dating, and he never hit on me. We enjoyed one another’s company for a five-day ride, and then, when our tour ended, he and I parted ways in Newcastle as companionably as we’d started. I never saw him again. If he did join the Army, I hope he survived Iraq. But I also wonder whether, in 2023, when young men of Bill’s background are routinely treated as deplorable from an early age, how many lads like him would contemplate undertaking a platonic five-day bike tour with a female near-stranger.
In any case, I suspect that many more of today’s Bills are indoors, perhaps playing Call of Duty or posting behind an anonymous avatar. As for more physical pursuits, should some charismatic modern-day figure ever advocate a programme at all resembling Jansen and Blücher’s Hellenistic and virulently antisemitic masculinist agenda, its adherents probably wouldn’t travel with a female companion. Regardless, it seems implausible somehow that the activity of choice for any resulting Männerbunde would be touring national parks with the YHA.
Meanwhile, the movement that sought to direct pre-war Germany’s youthful, roving, energy to internationalist ends — the youth hostels themselves — continues to falter, in Britain at least. According to John Harris in The Guardian, YHA “insiders” report that Brexit has also hit hostelling, as many European school parties have stopped coming. Less materially, too, Brexit was a symbolic defeat for Schirrmann-style internationalism, and there’s little certainty even now as to what political order will follow it in the British Isles.
And there is little more certainty as to the future of British youth hostels. In a curious echo of Jansen and Blüher’s subculture, Pennant Hall ended up as a specialist hotel and bathhouse for gay and bisexual men, before being redeveloped as luxury flats in 2019. Some variant of the same fate perhaps awaits the YHA’s unwanted properties, should they fail to find a buyer willing to run them as they are.
Apart from one noted blip between 1933 and 1945, a century of efforts by Schirrmann and others to institutionalise and internationalise the roving, Romantic, masculinist impulse proved fairly effective overall. Today, though, the Männerbünde are ever less well-served by such respectable, egalitarian, and now-fading institutions as the YHA. Indeed, in all but the internet’s less-trodden wildernesses they are now largely homeless. But marginalisation never prevented such fraternities from forming before. I suspect we’ll see the outlawed Männerbünde at large again, and as undomesticated as ever.