I was washing up my dinner things in the kitchen of Oban youth hostel when I first got into conversation with Marie. That's not her real name, we never properly introduced ourselves, but that's how I think of her. Marie was about twenty, I should think, from Charlton in south-east London. A wide-eyed innocent from the endless suburbs intoxicated by the high and wide expanses of the Highlands. This wasn't her first visit. She had discovered Scotland by chance and was now returning for the third time. She should have been soaking up the sun and sangria with her girlfriends in Ibiza but had chosen to come north instead. Her friends were as puzzled and alarmed as if she had fallen under the spell of an unsuitable lover.
Not content with merely risking the derision of her friends, Marie was braving the world on her own, venturing by ferry and local bus, threading her way slowly through the Western Isles. She had already been to Mull and tomorrow would head further northwards, hoping to get to Harris before returning to London in time for the Bank Holiday weekend and that most urban of festivals, the Notting Hill Carnival.
Marie radiated enthusiasm, her skin and eyes glowed with discovery, everywhere was fresh and inspiring. She was everything the youth hostel movement was founded to foster. She was a draught of clear mountain water to my own world weary cynicism. Did I once draw refreshment from everything I saw?
Another woman returned from Mull in different humour. I was reading on the lawn in the sun when this dark figure flopped down by me exclaiming in an American drawl what a godawful day she'd had. What a boring country Britain was. Everywhere the same, just more and more bloody castles and bloody gardens. Nothing distinctive about the local culture, not like Greece or India which really were fun to visit. She couldn't wait to get off to Morocco to see what that was like. I asked how long she'd been travelling. Nineteen months. She was taken aback at my suggestion that she needed a holiday. The idea of a holiday from travelling was beyond her. Travelling was supposed to be her holiday and that should mean endless enjoyment. But travelling had become her way of life, as susceptible to boredom as any other.
But at least her frustration came from her constant questing for new experiences. Some travellers lapse into their own twilight worlds. For two Australians in Ullapool it was the mysterious fascination of The Deal. Like many Australians these two had travelled far and wide. Whereas most of their compatriots might keep up a seamless flow of anecdotes about their adventures and disasters, these two talked endlessly about The Good Deal they had struck in this or that town. They didn't know each other, they had met as strangers in that hostel, but they must have recognised in each other a kindred spirit. They swapped no tales of palaces, beaches, mosques, or mountains, but vied for The Best Deal I Ever Got was on my watch, boots, air-ticket, or jeans in the shops and bazaars of the world. The highlights of their travelling were dodgy currency deals in the back streets of eastern capitals. For the whole of a damp Friday afternoon they batted their deals backwards and forwards. Perhaps that was their way of relaxing from the rigours of travelling. Mine was to read a book quietly in the corner.
Marie had not had an easy time
on Mull. In her own carefree innocence she'd returned late from
an evening talking to the locals in the pub to find herself locked
out of the hostel. At one time hostels were run very strictly
and every transgression of the warden's rules, carefully thought
out to be as restrictive and obstructive as possible, were punished
with a dour and evil delight. Hostel history is replete with tales
of ex-naval officers forcing recalcitrant hostellers to polish
wooden floors with toothbrushes. One of the few rules remaining
is that hostels are closed for the night at a time specified by
the warden. Usually a warden will be tolerant of innocent mistakes
such as Marie's. But Tobermory has the reputation of being ruled
by one of the last of the dragons. No matter how long and hard
Marie hammered on the door it remained firmly closed. It says
much for the hospitality of the islands that the first cottage
she tried took pity on her and took her in for the night.
Youth hostels are much friendlier and less regimented than they once were, and their staff are generally helpful and enthusiastic. But loners and eccentrics are still attracted to hostels and at a few the unceasing, unspoken battle between thoughtless hostellers and misanthropic wardens still rages quietly. The sure sign of such a hostel is the plethora of peremptory hand-written notices pinned up on the walls. They catch you the moment you step through the door. At the entrance to each hostel there is always a standard, printed notice saying that outdoor boots cannot be worn inside the hostel. But how about the additional hand-written warning, No footwear with black soles inside, which appears to rule out the wearing of many trainers, now standard footwear for hostellers of all ages. Having secured my bed in a dormitory it would be time to wash and change and then wash my cycling clothes. Some hostels now have washing machines but many do not. I had as usual washed my trousers, shirt, undershorts, and socks in a basin in the washroom before I spotted the notice above the basins which announced, There are no facilities for washing clothes. Having just washed my clothes in the facilities provided I found this statement somewhat inaccurate. Presumably the warden didn't want the basins used for clothes washing. Back in the dormitory the ball-point-wielding warden had been at it again. Beds made up by 9am, please leave them as you find them. Now that last point about leaving things as you found them was very necessary because, in this hostel but no other, the warden wanted the duvets folded lengthways instead of crossways. Having registered the notice in the sitting room that Alcohol is strictly forbidden, it was time for the real battle-ground - the kitchen, fully deserving of three separate notices. Kitchen closed at 10am and in the evening at 10.30pm - This kitchen must be kept clean at all times - The kitchen must always be clean, all dishes washed, dried and put back in cupboards, worktops and cookers cleaned after use. Underlining is one of the key techniques in composing hand-written notices. But what suffering the warden must have endured from thoughtless hostellers using the fire exit as the shortest route to the car park before penning a notice in which each word was individually underlined, This door must not be used as an exit to the car park. Surely intended to be read in the staccato fashion of a Dalek.
All those notices were in the hostel of an apparently friendly and helpful warden. What frustration and resentment must have been bubbling away below the surface! But at least the warden vented her frustration in literary criticism. What hope was there for a warden obsessed with pans and teapots. It is always kitchens which cause the most problems, whether real or imaginary. One warden, quiet, miserable, and invisible for most of the time, would suddenly appear in the kitchen at dinner time. He would sidle up to me as I was cooking and make quiet, dismissive comments about the other hostellers and the mess they made of the kitchen. He didn't seem to mutter in the ear of anybody else. Not a happy thought that he saw me as a fellow misanthrope. His pet obsession was that when people put pans back on the shelves they didn't line them up properly. Half-heartedly he would prod them back in line and leave sighing dejectedly at the difficulty of it all. But he must have gathered strength during the night, for we would return to the kitchen at breakfast time to find all the teapots and pans in military order upon the shelves, marshalled by size, handles and spouts to the right, ready to do battle once again with the barbaric hordes. A warden's life would be such pleasure if it wasn't for hostellers!
But most wardens are friendly and helpful, their enthusiasms adding to a stay rather than detracting from it. The warden at Coldingham, east of Edinburgh, seemed too meek and mild to have enthusiasms. But as we sat down to dinner in the evening he would settle down behind his reception desk lost in concentration as his fingers danced over the keys of an electronic organ. We might have been dining at the Ritz to the civilising melodies of the Palm Court Orchestra.
Once upon a time there was a certain uniformity in type and purpose to hostellers. They all arrived with rucsacs or saddle bags and were intent on some kind of outdoor pursuit. Allowing hostellers to use motor vehicles has changed all that. Now an unstated, puritanical hierarchy has developed in the great dormitory lottery. Would the warden take pity and put me in with other cyclists and walkers, or would I have to suffer the indignity of sharing with motorised tourists?
Hostellers come in all shapes and sizes, none more so than the group of overweight, middle-aged Hungarians with whom I shared in Inverness. To say that we shared is an overstatement. We slept in the same room, that is all. We had not a word in common, nor the inclination to seek a common understanding through sign language. They arrived perspiring, clutching bursting suitcases which overflowed around the room. How they and their luggage managed to cram into a tiny Fiat remains a mystery. There is always a snorer in every dormitory but five of this group of six snored, each in a different key, and all out of tune. But the most disturbing of the Hungarians was the one who didn't snore at all. For some reason he arrived for bed a couple of hours after everybody else, when the others were all in full song. He was the shortest and widest of the group and, awakening with a start, I looked down on him from the height of my upper bunk seeing foreshortened in the gloom a menacing troglodyte. The subterranean figure shuddered, grunted, and heaved out of his clothes and collapsed onto the lower bunk. But not into blessed stillness. All night my bed trembled and shook as he tossed and turned below me. His grossness gave his breathing the laboured gasping and wheezing of someone edging slowly and painfully towards irresistible death. I slept badly that night.
At Broadford on Skye the nightly cabaret was provided by The Flatulent Italian. I cannot be certain he was actually Italian as I never heard him or his son say a word to each other over the two nights I spent there. The son occupied the upper bunk and the father the lower. Each evening before going to sleep the father would emit a string of high-pitched, anal squeaks like a dolphin communing with his offspring, and each dawn would be greeted by the same heart-rending song.
At Ratagan I mentioned the officious
Group Leader who chivvied his party to take an early night to
prepare them for the next day's climb of The Five Sisters of Kintail.
I shared a dormitory with them and when we were disturbed by another
group coming late and noisily to bed, Group Leader complained
loudly and bitterly. Then all through the night the man below
him would begin to snore and Group Leader would reach down from
his top bunk, shake the unfortunate man awake, and urge him to
sleep on his side to avoid snoring. This pantomime played repeatedly
throughout the night, Group Leader apparently oblivious to the
fact that his own admonishings were much more disturbing than