How love for the Lakes changed our lives

Personal reflections on owning a hostel in the time of coronavirus

Like so many others who love the Lake District, we are in exile and unable to visit.

This week we planned to be at the hostel, covering our manager Nick’s holidays. He had an event to attend in London and Pete, our go-to relief, had plans to visit relatives. But all outings are off and instead, writing from our home outside the Lakes, I find myself reflecting on our journey with the hostel and how we’re coping in these difficult times.

I fell in love with Elterwater on my first hosteling tour as a teenager and have been back regularly ever since.  In those day hostels were modernising and trying to reflect the demands of youngsters at the start of the 70’s – but it was still in the days of YHA membership, cotton sheet sleeping bags and walking from one hostel to the next. You were not allowed to stay if you arrived by car and had to complete a task before leaving in the morning, with a stamp in your membership card.

Fast forward to 2013 when we found ourselves in the fortunate position of having successfully bid for the hostel. It was a quick decision to keep the tradition of providing affordable accommodation to ensure as many people as possible can enjoy the Lake District, the beauty of the national park, a respect for its heritage and a love for all things green. My position was going to be firmly in the background dealing with the paperwork and policy. The face of business was to continue to be our wonderful manager and staff and officially our Chairman, my husband Alan.

Six years later, and after several visits a year watching how it is done and with Alan now retired it was about time to emerge from the back office, get more involved and also spend more time in my beloved Elterwater. You see, it takes two of us (Alan and me) to cover the work of one of Andy, Charlie or Nick and even then, we don’t manage to do all the hiking we plan.  However, I really enjoyed meeting the faces behind the names of guests and realising just how hard the staff work, so I was glad to be called upon again this year.

We love the Lake District; that's how we ended up owning a hostel there
Christine working behind the hostel desk on a previous visit.

March 2020 saw a normal start to the main season with our team training day and meal out and many regular individuals and some groups helping us get back into the swing of things.  Although bookings were a bit slow, we were still optimistic of a good corona outcome and were looking forward to the year ahead.

How things have changed. After seven weeks of lockdown I have found myself with time to research the history of hosteling and time to reflect; something which was much needed in the hectic lifestyle pre Covid. The gradual easing of restrictions means many businesses find themselves returning to a ‘new normal’ – but not the hospitality sector – not yet.

I think I have experienced most emotions regarding the ongoing situation and particularly concerns for our future.   I have been overwhelmed by the support and understanding from Nick, Charlie and Andy and their response to uncertainty and challenges we face.  It was not an easy task to decide who should be furloughed but their collaboration in the process was heartfelt.  I have found empathy and enjoyed my daily chat with one of our occasional guests, who is currently supported in sheltered housing and finding the lockdown more challenging than most.

We miss everybody. There have been tears – tears of pride at the heartfelt messages of support and good wishes from guests we have had to cancel. Tears of relief and gratitude for the suppliers who have offered to put a stop or hold on services they provide, despite being in desperate situations themselves.  Tears of exasperation and frustration from the intransigence of a small minority of guests and our insurance company who will not entertain a claim for business interruption.

My close friends wonder why I put myself through all this stress. When I grumble or moan (and I can do both) they helpfully suggest that we just sell the business and walk away but what they don’t realise is that this isn’t just a business.  It is my love and passion.  What I have come to accept over the last couple of months is just how emotionally invested I am and how I would rather sell my home than see the business fail and not welcoming guests anymore.

So, you can imagine my delight when the other week I found Alan working out how old he would be when the hostel reaches its 100th anniversary, in 19 years’ time and I knew then we were on the same wavelength.

Like so many others, coronavirus has certainly hit us hard. We’re not through the last of it yet but we will do the upmost to support the jobs of our staff.  We will be unfurloughing Nick in June to work on the measures deemed necessary to achieve appropriate social distancing and meet the new government health standards and Visit England Tourism accreditation Kitemark.

It may not be hosteling as we have come to know it but Nick, Charlie, Andy, Pete and I will be here to greet you and welcome you back to our little corner of heaven when the time comes and it is safe to do so.

by Christine Thomas