You know those ubiquitous Sunday supplement questionnaires that ask, who would be your ideal dinner guest?
Never did I imagine answering: a retired social worker from Manhattan (who regaled us with hair-raising tales of cycling around New York) and a (tall and handsome) school teacher from New Zealand who was heading to Glasgow by way of Great Langdale.
Over chicken casserole and a glass of very decent Merlot we solved the world’s problems; at the next table a father and his daughter were too engrossed in a game of chess to take any notice.
We’re at Elterwater Hostel in the heart of the Lake District. There’s no piped music, no background TV, no Michelin stars, but this is the perfect place for the solo traveller.
A week ago I’d been in Wales, staying at a smart hotel with flat screen TV in my room, ensuite shower…and a dining room full of golfers and their wives who didn’t talk to one another, let alone talk to me. Guess where I’d rather be?
In true hostelling tradition I arrived at Elterwater on foot; once upon a time you weren’t allowed to arrive by car. Now there’s a reverse snobbery. Those who drove here are outsmarted: “A cruise liner, three trains and two buses” said our New Yorker. A young couple from Manchester had hiked over the Old Man of Coniston. The night before the staff had booked in several sodden campers who had to bale out of their tents at a site nearby.
Yes, it does sometimes rain in the Lakes, so you can stay in and play chess, or a board game of chance called Othello, or you can go out, get soaking wet, and leave all your kit in the drying room. Dressing for dinner means leaving muddy boots at the front door.
Our hosts tonight are Charlie (she’s worked here for over five years) and Andy. They check in guests, cook divine dinners, and can rattle off the bus timetable or the distance to the summit of nearby Lingmoor Fell. They serve local ales as well as very good (and inexpensive) wine, and those who’d hiked more than my meagre five miles felt no guilt as they tucked into sticky toffee pudding.
It was a quiet night, so I had the dormitory all to myself. That is, I chose the bottom bunk of a two-bed room with a view of the fells across the garden. The building is a couple of hundred years old, but the washrooms and showers were renewed last year; that’s the modern convenience we all appreciate.
Travelling alone you can be as anonymous or gregarious as you wish. Pretend to be Dutch, or bury your head in a novel, and no one bothers, but you get to eavesdrop on some fascinating conversation. All ages, all races, stay at the hostel. They share a love of adventure, a love of the countryside, a love of basic but comfortable accommodation. And a very substantial breakfast.
Elterwater is not a remote hostel. You can get here by bus and “hike” from the main road. You can pop out for a pint or two at the Britannia Inn or – if you’re self catering – buy all your provisions at the independent Co-op grocers at nearby Chapel Stile. But it lies at the quiet end of a quiet village. There’s free wifi but no phone signal. Can there be a more perfect escape to the country?
You can book to stay at Elterwater via the website https://www.elterwaterhostel.co.uk/