James Blake - CEO of Youth Hostels Association (England and Wales)

James Blake

James Blake - Credit: Archant

Catherine Roth visits the Matlock headquarters of the Youth Hostels Association (England and Wales) to talk to CEO James Blake

Caving - a caving adventure Photo: YHA

Caving - a caving adventure Photo: YHA - Credit: Archant

Situated in the hills above Matlock town centre are the headquarters of a national charity that is dedicated to transforming the lives of young people through travel and adventure. The Youth Hostels Association (YHA) is the ninth largest charity by membership in the country and has had its home in Matlock since 2001. It is, however, perhaps most well-known for offering budget accommodation for all ages.

Youth hostelling attracts everyone from young people looking for their first taste of independence and school and university groups to individuals of all ages and families. With a network of 150 hostels across England and Wales, there are plenty of opportunities to explore a wide range of rural, coastal and city locations. Indeed, just under a million people stay with YHA in England and Wales each year, of which 425,000 are young people under 26.

James Blake has been the Chief Executive of YHA (England & Wales) for two years, joining the organisation in July 2017. Prior to that he worked in central and local government and was Chief Executive of the District Council in St Albans for nearly five years. He also has a passion for youth hostelling that began when he was 16.

James says, 'I went with a friend and stayed at a youth hostel in Patterdale in the Lake District. I loved being in the mountains - there weren't any where I grew up in Hertfordshire! I was making my own adventures for the first time and mixed with like-minded people. It hugely boosted my confidence.'

The gem of a hostel at Hartington Photo: Tom Hodgson

The gem of a hostel at Hartington Photo: Tom Hodgson - Credit: Archant

Since then his love of youth hostelling has continued to grow, first staying at hostels when he was president of his university hill walking club and now on holidays in England and Wales with his family.

Hostels range from mansions and grand country houses to converted grocery stores and isolated mountain huts. Acquired in 1934, Derbyshire's oldest hostel is in Hartington, a 17th century manor house that James describes as a jewel in the crown. He says, 'In Hartington you can experience staying in a country house hotel but at youth hostel prices!' Some also come with additional accommodation including bell tents, teepees, pods and shepherd's huts, which are proving popular whilst increasing the capacity of the hostels.

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YHA was founded almost 90 years ago as a social reform organisation providing affordable accommodation so that everyone - in particular young people - could access the countryside as well as the cultural landscapes of cities. James says, 'At the time our founders wanted the means to improve health and education and make it affordable for people to access some of the most amazing places in the country.' With proven benefits including good mental health and physical activity, these aims remain just as relevant today as they did then.

Many will find that the accommodation, once synonymous with spartan dormitory rooms, has changed a lot in recent times. Gone too are the days when guests had to make up their own beds and do their share of chores.

A bathroom in a hostel

A bathroom in a hostel - Credit: Archant

James says, 'We live in a different way to how we did 90 years ago and standards have moved on massively. People value their privacy more and their expectations of the quality of rooms, bathrooms and catering facilities have changed significantly and we've responded to that.' Whilst dormitory accommodation costing only £10 a night is still offered for those on a low budget, there are also private en suite rooms available with full board.

Each hostel also has its own communal spaces including a dining room, living rooms, games rooms and kitchens for those who are self catering, as well as classrooms for educational visits. Most hostels have their own cafés and restaurants too, many of which are open to the general public, offering breakfast, lunch and evening meals - packed lunches can even be ordered for the next day!

James says, 'Youth hostels give people freedom - they can cook one night and eat with us another - and younger kids can run around outside in a safe environment.' The hostels also run supper clubs each evening when people can choose to eat together. James says, 'At one hostel I enjoyed a meal with an individual traveller, a French student, two people from Poland and a family with kids. We had a really interesting conversation. Two of them then realised they were doing something similar the next day so decided to go on their walk together. Social interaction is important in today's digital society.'

The winter months are always quieter and it is then that the hostels can take on an altogether different identity. Some of the managers host Christmas dinners for the elderly and others are available for exclusive hire, perfect for large gatherings.

Staff at the Matlock headquarters Photo: Mike Williams

Staff at the Matlock headquarters Photo: Mike Williams - Credit: Archant

All of the money earned from accommodation is reinvested into the charity. This includes not only maintaining the buildings, making improvements and acquiring new properties, but subsidising YHA's charitable work. This includes its bursary programme which enables around 8,000 young people a year, who have never been on holiday before, to experience youth hostelling. James says, 'A young person who lives on a city estate may have never been away from home before or never have seen a sheep or a cow, or the sea. Likewise, we have school groups who have never been to London before. What we take for granted can be life transforming for others.'

Neither is it just young people who benefit from youth hostelling. James says, 'Someone who was overweight and at risk of diabetes was told by his doctor to get out and get active. The patient said that he liked walking, but that holidays in the countryside could be quite expensive so the doctor suggested he try youth hostelling.'

YHA is one of the organisations helping to lead the way in promoting the many benefits of the countryside and encouraging access. In the 1930s it was one of the organisations, together with the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, the Ramblers, Open Spaces Society and the Campaign for National Parks, that lobbied for the creation of National Parks, commissioning a report that led to the government of the time setting up the very first one after the war. Their lobbying continues today and includes working with the government to help develop key policies. James says, 'The ability to access, appreciate and preserve these spaces for the future is just as relevant 70 years on.'

Having its head office in Derbyshire provides YHA with the perfect opportunity to trial new education programmes at some of its key outdoor activity sites. These include the hostel at Edale, which is located halfway up Kinder Scout and boasts YHA's largest activity centre, as well as Losehill Hall, a mock Gothic mansion in Castleton, offering a wide-ranging outdoor education programme in its extensive grounds. A residential break can teach young people useful life skills but it's also a chance to have fun. When James's teenage daughter went youth hostelling her favourite activity was orienteering. James says, 'When I asked her why, she said it was because she was allowed to get lost! In our sheltered society we don't get so many of these opportunities.'

YHA Edale hostel

YHA Edale hostel - Credit: Archant

For James, youth hostelling is all about capturing the spirit of adventure and he's both delighted and privileged to be heading an organisation that is helping to make those adventures happen.

For further details about YHA and places to stay visit www.yha.org.uk

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