“ Type: YHA hostel close to Hadrian's Wall / Address: Military Road, Bardon Mill, Northumberland NE47 7AN „
Northumberland is dotted with properties belonging to the Youth Hostel Association which offer a good value alternative to the somewhat pricy guesthouses found in many parts of the county. Back in November we decided on a couple of days walking on Hadrian's Wall and booked a twin room at the hostel at (the fabulously named) Once Brewed, a little cluster of houses beside the Vindolanda Roman Museum. it's also within reasonable walking distance of Housesteads which is the most complete of the forts along Hadrian's Wall.
This hostel is housed in a fairly new building which is situated next to a tourist information centre, just off the B6318, which is better known as the Military Road. It has its own car park which is more than adequate for the size of the hostel. It also has a secure, undercover bike store. Like most YHA hostels, this one is closed through the day and opens up at around 4.00pm; we arrived a few minutes early but we were able to check in anyway. We had made a reservation by telephone having checked availability online but you book entirely online too. The hostel had been running a promotion whereby you would get a hefty discount on your meals if you booked and paid for them in advance (always risking paying for a meal in advance as it's usually more difficult to get anything back if it's not up to scratch). As we weren't sure how near we'd be to a pub or restaurant, we decided to go with the offer. We were advised we'd need to order our meals by 5.00pm so we did this as we checked in. We were told the times that dinner is available between, but we weren't told that the food is cooked to be ready for beginning of that window, and kept hot thereafter. Before going off to our room we were told about the lounge, the residents' kitchen and asked to fetch our bed linen downstairs the next morning as we checked out. I asked about the opening hours for Vindolanda and by the time we'd come back downstairs to go out, a staff member had kindly found the information on the Internet and printed it off for us.
Our room was on the first floor and was the very last on a short corridor; there are lots of fire doors in the hostel which will no doubt reduce the noise at times when the hostel is busier. There was a small kitchen next door to our room which wasn't a problem when we stayed as the place was very quiet, but could be an issue at busier times (that said, this isn't the sort of place where people stay up too late making a racket, a healthy dose of Northumberland fresh air usually ensures an early night). On the upside, there were two shower rooms and toilets in this part of the corridor which was a good provision considering the number of rooms here. The room was quite small but you really wouldn't be spending much time in it. There was a set of bunk beds, a couple of chairs and a small coffee table and a clothes hanging area. There was also a small washbasin. A road ran quite close by but it wasn't a busy one and there were plenty of trees between the building and the road. While the room itself was was clean and cosy, the decor was quite awful - the main bone of contention being the terrible mustardy-coloured paint chosen for the walls; it would be a good idea to change this colour and make the rooms look less institutional and a bit more modern.
As well as the two person room that we had, there are family rooms, lots of quad rooms and larger dormitories so this hostel can cater for larger groups as well as couples and families. Dorm beds cost from around £10.40 while a double room costs £26.00 (not including food) but prices can vary depending on the time of year. The hostel is open from February until November, but only at weekends outside of the summer holidays.
The shower rooms were fine but were also getting a bit shabby; clearly copious amounts of tile paint had been regularly slathered all over tiles, but the work was shoddy and untiled areas were splattered with purple paint. However, the shower room and toilets were clean and in good repair. The only real issue was that one of the shower rooms was really tiny and not ideal if you want to dress and undress in there - for this room you'd have to dash down the corridor and back in your towel. The water was always hot and easy to adjust the temperature to suit.
We decided to take a walk to the nearby Twice Brewed Arms for a beer (or two) before dinner. It was nearer than we'd thought and had we known a) how good their food would promise to be and b) how disappointing the hostel meal would be, we would have eaten there in the evening. We'd been told dinner was served until 7.30pm and we arrived back at the hostel around 6.45 pm. Unfortunately our dinners had been cooked at 5.30pm and kept warm under a hot plate. We'd both chosen prawn cocktail to start and as these had ben refrigerated they couldn't suffer the same fate as the mains. However, they'd been in the fridge a long time and would have been nicer if they'd been allowed to warm up a little. The prawn cocktails were pretty bad though: there was far too much sauce, hardly eany prawns - and what there were were minsicule shrimps - and the limp piece of lettuce was drowned under the sauce.
We had both chosen scampi, chips and peas for our main course. The peas were shrivelled, the scampi was dried up - and wasn't very good scampi anyway - and the chips had become way too crisp. If we hadn't been so starving (and if we hadn't paid in advance) we wouldn't have eaten it. Finally our desserts: chocolate brownie (more correctly chocolate cake) and custard for me, apple crumble for Himself. Both were very average but at least they weren't as bad as the rest of the meal.
Water is available to drink or you can buy alcoholic drinks from reception, or bottled soft drinks from a vending machine. I chose the latter but Himself wanted to try the locally made Twice Brewed ale; I was impressed that the prices of the alcoholic drinks had not been cynically inflated and that the choice of wines was rather good. Self-catering guests are welcome to eat in the dining room; the room was bright and cheery is, again, quite institutional with lots of notices giving instructions, some of them curiously contradictory.
The staff member who had met us when we arrived was also the chef; as we left the dining room he reminded us of the times for breakfast and advised us that the breakfast tasted better the earlier you got up - in other words, we don't cook to order so if you don't get up early, the food will be dried out from being kept hot. He wasn't wrong! We did get up fairly early although we weren't exactly banging on the door to get into the dining room yet the hot breakfast items were starting to wizen slightly and dry up. The selection of items was fine, even if the quality was not so good. The chef (the same guy) doled the food onto plates according to which items you wanted. As well as the cooked breakfast items, there was a choice of (I think) three cereals, but because of the way these were dispensed, I had to avoid them in case of contamination with nuts, and also yoghurts. Finally there was bread, and a toaster which you had to use yourself. Drinks (both the cold fruit juice, and the tea and coffee) were self service. Breakfast may not have been great but there was certainly enough of it - perfect if you're off for a day's walking.
This hostel has a lovely big lounge containing numerous squashy sofas and armchairs; there were loads of books and magazines to borrow if you need some reading matter, and there were also plenty of leaflets on the region and its attractions just outside the lounge. Next door to this there was a small games and television room that contained a pool table, darts board and television; it seemed to me that it would be pretty hard to watch television in there is other people were playing pool - the room just wasn't big enough.
This is a pleasant and comfortable hostel in a useful location but there are a few issues. The rooms could certainly do with some updating, if only to freshen them up a little. Then there is the issue of the food: we really should have been properly informed that the food would be cooked at the beginning of the dinner period and thereafter kept warm. The choices were also poor and uninspiring; surely it would make more sense to offer hearty stews and soups that would better withstand being kept warm? In the autumn and winter in particular, it would be great to come in after an exhausting day to a bowl of stew or a curry.
The hostel at Once Brewed is fine for unfussy hikers and families who want to self cater on a budget. It has friendly staff, good facilities and is set in lovely Northumberland countryside. There are more luxurious places to stay but for the money one can hardly complain - so long as you steer clear of the food.