TWO years on from the sale of the iconic Derwentwater Youth Hostel, its managers Dave Piercy and Kathy Morris are finally able to look back with relief at the result.
After running the hostel for more than 20 years, they faced great uncertainty over their home and jobs when the Youth Hostel Association said it was selling it off in 2011, citing a cost of £1.2 million to refurbish it.
“We went through the whole stressful process of viewings and it all came down to who was the highest bidder,” Mr Piercy said. “Some wanted to turn it into a hotel but it was amazingly lucky that the only bidder who wanted to keep it as a hostel was the one who ended up buying it.”
Local businessman John Snyder not only kept the hostel in its original state, but he founded the Derwentwater Youth Hostel charity, harnessing much of the ethos with which the youth hostelling movement was started in 1930.
“When I was researching Derwentwater I met all these people who had been impacted by their own first experiences of staying in a youth hostel,” Mr Snyder said.
“So for me to put money in this direction has been really fulfilling. The youngsters that stay in these hostels are touched by the experience - even if it is just a small twist or bend on their outlook, it stays with them for life.”
And the new ownership of Derwentwater is not just surviving but thriving. Mr Snyder reports advance bookings for the year until October 2013 are already over 105 per cent of last year’s full year bookings.
He disputes the claim that over £1 million was needed to bring the hostel back up to scratch.
“Not if you don’t want to bring it all up to look like a modern hotel,” he said. “The modern YHA seems to be a uniform brand whereas before it was a network of idiosyncratic properties.
“The point of youth hostels is to have these old buildings and stay comfortably, but basically, for an experience that you can’t get anywhere else.
I think it is an absolute tragedy that these hostels are being closed.”
Also in 2011, couple Taylor and Carolyn Nuttall bought what is now Thorney How Independent Hostel at Grasmere, another iconic property from the YHA collection as the charity’s first fully owned lodgings.
Former arts administrator Mr Nuttall said he had been looking for the ideal business opportunity in the Lake District when he saw the hostel for sale.
“We knew the place very well as we had stayed here in the past,” he said. "We weren’t specifically setting out to run a hostel but we were drawn to the charm of the building.
“Our ambition here has been to have the hostel business with an added arts component. We have film screenings and are involved with the C-Art programme, hosting weekends for different artist groups.”
And they also report steady growth, with a 25 per cent increase in business over the last year.
“We have invested in a bio-mass heating system and upgraded one of the buildings,” he said. “We have also installed charge points for electric cars and bikes.
"It had been neglected and run down but it is such a lovely property.
“The advantage to the hostel being run independently is that living on site you get to know more about its needs and you can be sensitive to it.”
In Kirkby Stephen, Denise Robinson has been running the former YHA hostel, a converted Methodist church, independently for the last five years.
She bought it at auction, attracted by the idea of it as a ‘lifestyle job’ that would fit around her children.
“It was quite run down,” she said. “I haven’t been able to do a lot of work because of the cost, but it didn’t really need completely revamping.
“People like the quirkiness and the individuality of hostels - why try and make them all look the same?”
She said business can be tough but that she is proud to help keep the town busy.
“There is a big need for budget accommodation, especially in Cumbria,” she said. “The Lake District is getting to be a posh person’s place to stay.”
And she said she was in a network of independent hostels across the region, with a desire for it to be developed.
“We should do more I think. It would be good if we could organise something where we meet and share ideas.”
Also forging a future through a former YHA property are mother and daughter team Jan Moffat and Christina Rowe, who bought Kendal Hostel on the town’s high street.
Miss Rowe, 20, said many of the former YHA customers weren’t aware the hostel had been kept open independently, which they were trying to address.
“We think there is a real need for a hostel in Kendal,” she said. “It keeps money from tourists and walkers in the town and there isn’t anything quite the same nearby.
“Kendal falls along the Dales Way, Land's End to John o' Groats and the Miller’s Way walks so we think it is really important to have a hostel here to serve walkers and cyclists.”
All of the new hostel owners said they were optimistic about the futures of Arnside and Elterwater hostels, if the right person decided to buy them.
And Mr Snyder at Derwentwater issued a rallying call to businessmen in the area. “I would urge anyone with a passion for the Lake District to meet the teams at the YHAs which are closing,” he said. “If you see a team which is passionate, why not put some money behind them and take the risk?”