Snippets Issue 13 : The London Issue

Hostels In London

Notes from a Canadian

Hostels In London

International travel is something that everybody should do while they're young, and even when older if possible. And for travellers who have to limit their budgets, hostels are a godsend. Hostelling is essential if you plan to spend most of your money out seeing the sights and exploring the local culture, rather than chilling out in a hotel room.

In London, which is famously expensive, hostels are a necessity for most young visitors. But even then, look out. Nightly rates can range from £10 to £60 just for a dorm bed - and be advised that a higher price doesn't necessarily mean it's a better place to stay, nor does a lower one. But the good hostels are there if you know where to look - and how.

My advice is to do your homework. Research hostels on the Internet at least one month before you arrive in London (or anywhere), and book early to avoid the rush. And know exactly what you want in your accommodations. Other than a rate you can afford, what's important to you? Do you plan to spend a lot of time at the hostel? Do you just want a place to sleep, or a place to party all night with other travellers? What about location - do you need to be in the city centre, or do you mind staying way out in a borough? Do you want a private room, or are you willing to share bunk beds with strangers in order to save money? Also check what services and facilities are available (inclusive breakfasts, free or cheap Internet access, lockers, storage rooms) at each place.

And here's an important tip you might remember from the late Douglas Adams: Always bring a towel. Why? In my ten years of staying in hostels on three continents, only once have I ever encountered one that supplied towels for guests, and that was in Canada. And you probably don't want to dry yourself with your own dirty laundry after every shower. That's just gross.

As a frequent U.K. traveller, I've had my own varied experiences with hostels around the country. Here's a rundown of where I've stayed in the British capital and how I fared.

* * * * *

During my first visit to London, in May 1999, I stayed in the original St. Christopher's Inn, which was a pretty crappy hostel. Only I didn't realize how crappy it was: since I'd never stayed in a hostel before, I had nothing to compare it to. The location was great (in Southwark, a short walk from London Bridge) and the nightly dorm rate was cheap by London standards (₤12, which came to about $30 Canadian at the time), but sleeping there was almost impossible. The dorms were a floor above a noisy pub, in which loud music played until the early hours. And because the rooms were hot, the windows were usually open, which let in the noise of the street traffic all night. The bathrooms and shower stalls were a bit grimy, and the showers ran small trickles of water that were useless if you actually wanted to clean yourself. And there was no web access; even back then, I believe, the majority of European hostels had already made that giant leap forward into the information age.

It didn't help that the guy who ran the hostel was, to put it as kindly and empathetically as I can, a first-class prick. He hated my guts. He had it in for me right from the moment I checked in. Or maybe he saw that I was a novice Londoner and felt big throwing his weight around somebody as vulnerable I was. And to be fair, I had no clue what I was doing. This was my first time travelling alone, and my first time outside of North America. Before I'd left Canada, my family and friends all had warned me not to trust anybody abroad - evidently all Europeans were nothing but thieves, pickpockets and deranged scam artists ready to milk Canadian tourists for all they were worth. So when I arrived at the hostel, exhausted, disoriented and paranoid, the first thing I said to the staff in unabashed terror was: "I need a locker! Now!"

From then on, I kept all my belongings in the locked storage area behind the check-in counter - and irritated the staff several times a day requesting the key so I could get stuff. Then I would irritate many other guests by inadvertently blocking their way with my huge backpack while I organized my belongings. I didn't learn until after I left London that everybody keeps their stuff in their hostel dorm rooms. And since they trust you with their luggage, why shouldn't you trust them?

Regardless of my own behaviour, you'd think that somebody who ran a referral-seeking service like a hostel would make some effort to ease their guests' tensions and brighten the experience for them. Not this guy. Only a few days into my ten-night stay, he started picking on me. "Look, mate," he said, "I don't mean to be rude, but shouldn't you be keeping your belongings in your room? You're bloody wasting everyone's time." I might have acquiesced if he'd confronted me with a more understanding and diplomatic attitude, but instead I just said I was worried about security and thanked him for the kind tip.

A couple of days later, he definitely meant to be rude. "Aw, f***in' hell", he'd snap at me, usually when other people were around to hear, "you're not very good at this, are ya then? You're completely useless, mate. You shouldn't even have left America." He would verbally harass me like this even when I was doing nothing and minding my own business. I put up with that for several more days, wondering if he'd have spoken to me the same way if I'd been six-foot-four or if he'd met me in a dark alley.

I later got some small satisfaction when I reviewed St. Christopher's on several hostel-rating websites, making occasional use of the words "crappy" and "prick".

* * * * *

Things were much better (if more expensive) the next couple of times I hit London. I discovered a charming little hostel around the corner from the British Museum called Pickwick Hall. (I'm guessing that it got its name from the fact that two of Charles Dickens' former residences are within walking distance.)

At ₤20 a night, Pickwick Hall is still a fair deal by London standards. It's run by this friendly, somewhat shy old guy named Patrick, who was always very helpful and accommodating whenever I had a question or needed help with something. He loaned me a small alarm clock whenever I had to get up early to catch a train or flight, and he was even willing to hold on to some of my luggage when I went up north for five or six days. Even when I was acting a little impatient about how long my laundry was taking to dry in the basement, Patrick didn't scold or condescend: he merely shrugged with an awkward smile and said, "Ah well, y'know... a watched pot never boils."

The room I stayed in both times I was there included closet space, reasonably comfortable beds (no bunks), a sink with soap, even a microwave oven and refrigerator. Almost like a budget hotel room you shared with strangers. The showers were good, the inclusive breakfast was decent, but best of all: free Internet in the lounge. There were only two computers, but for some reason, there was usually at least one available. So it was easy for me to update my blog regularly about my trips; my friends back home wondered if all I was doing in London was using the web.

The only real downside of Pickwick Hall was that it was five or six floors with no elevator. My room was up several flights of winding stairs. It was tiring going up and down those steps over and over, especially if you were carrying luggage or a bag. (And it's especially inconvenient when you invite a physically handicapped girl you met up north to stay over... but that's another story.)

Through Pickwick's quiet atmosphere, cleanliness and homey qualities, I always got a good night's sleep and felt very secure. It was a convenient walking distance from many West End theatres as well. I liked its personable feel - I could have used that the first time I came to the city.

* * * * *

When I came back in July of this year, the cheapest beds at Pickwick were already booked for some school group. As far as prices went, the best alternatives I could find were, however, franchise expansions of my old nemesis, St. Christopher's Inn. But I decided to grit my teeth and reserve a bunk at the Hammersmith edition.

St. Christopher's of Hammersmith is out of central London, but it's right next to a tube station, and it's in Zone 2, so transit doesn't cost any more. You can take the Piccadilly or District lines straight into the city in about fifteen or twenty minutes. Just think of it like commuting to work from the 'burbs.

Like the original St. Christopher's, the Hammersmith hostel is located on top of a pub, this one called Belushi's. But I didn't find the noise as much of a problem this time; maybe the dorm room I was in was more isolated from the bar. In fact, my room happened to be across from the shopping mall at Hammersmith Broadway, which had a big clock facing my window - very convenient for anybody (like me) who has never gotten into the habit of wearing a watch. The room was big and spacious and included a mirror, a (usable?) fireplace, a few chairs and tables, and lockers.

I generally slept okay there, although sometimes it took a while because the other guests in the room occasionally stayed up past midnight chatting with the lights on. This annoyed me when I want to sleep, but at one point, I relented and joined in on the conversation. I mentioned that I was a performance poet on tour, and they talked me into giving them an impromptu performance. (They seemed to enjoy it, but they didn't buy any of my merch. Nor did any of them go to my gig in Islington the following night. Points for trying?)

Like Pickwick Hall, the Hammersmith hostel had several floors and lots of stairs. This time, I was on the third floor, so it wasn't quite as bad. And unlike many hostels, there were no less than three bathrooms on my floor, which cut down waiting time. There was also Internet there - but at a whopping ₤1 per ten minutes, and you couldn't even open a second browser on the machines. I got suckered into that only a couple of times, however, before I discovered the terrific Internet cafe that was literally across the street from the hostel and charged ₤1 for the first hour. I'm guessing the hostel staff doesn't mention that too much.

Belushi's was where they served the free breakfast every morning. You could help yourself to cereal and toast with butter, peanut butter and jam, as well as coffee or orange juice, while surrounded by posters and murals of music artists from The Clash to Eminem, or of the Trainspotting "Choose Life" monologue, as well as big-screen TVs playing music videos. I wasn't sure whether the faux-hip-youth atmosphere was aimed more at the pub customers or the hostel guests. (The Southwark St. Christopher's had had an Italian Goodfellas poster in the basement lounge, for no apparent reason.)

With a friendly staff and a relatively affordable rate, St. Christopher's in Hammersmith was more than adequate for my modest needs. But it also had the impersonal, almost corporate feel of a franchise expansion, and if you value genuine warmth and hospitality over cost savings, you might want to go with Pickwick Hall instead.

* * * * *

Of course this is just a small sampling of what you may encounter. London is full of hostels and guest houses with varying degrees of price, atmosphere, and overall quality. Again, do your research, read past guests' reviews and recommendations, and see if you can find the right one for you. (And if you hear about one that's run by a surly, condescending jackass, run away fast.)

Jeff Cottrill is a writer and spoken word artist based in Toronto, Canada. Visit his website.


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