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Wednesday 13 May 2015

Elm furniture at YHA Dartmoor (previously known as Bellever Youth Hostel)

  'A fire was burning in the common room, where there were specially made wooden seats.'

Pat Packham, A Holiday in South West England, 5 August 1958 mentioned in the historical listing of 2001, collected by John Martin, YHA Volunteer archivist

The youth hostel in Bellever Forest lies right in the middle of the Dartmoor National Park. Since 2012 it's been called YHA Dartmoor and is the main hostel in the area.

The hostel is one of the earliest ones that is still in use. It opened in 1934 but was originally a barn that was part of the Duke of Cornwall's Model Farm, which was owned by the Prince of Wales.

Bellever forest consists mainly of conifers surrounded by the wild, open moorland dotted with granite tors and prehistoric dwellings and monuments.

However the small village of Postbridge is not too far away, with a shop and the famous clapper bridge.

On arriving at the hostel, one thing that stood out was how cosy it felt, compared to some hostels that I have visited in the past. The building has thick stone walls against the Dartmoor weather, which can sometimes be very fierce. The common room had a great granite fireplace and comfy chairs.

The other things that I immediately noticed were some of the other items of furniture that were in the hostel. The pieces had obviously been made using one-off or small batch production methods using slabs of English elm and, in the case of the two armchairs in the common room, handmade iron nails with the heads left faceted.

Elm is a traditional wood used in furniture making, as boards of elm are less prone to splitting than many other kinds of timber. Unfortunately, since the late 1960's large elms in Britain are very rare thanks to the arrival of Dutch Elm Disease. It would seem likely that this furniture dates to at least the 1970's, although I suspect that it could be older judging by the quote at the start of this post.

There were more benches in the games room in another part of the hostel. I love the way that the pegs holding the bench together are extended into legs in the design above and the large armrests on the design below.

While these settles would fit perfectly in many country pubs:

 This table is so robust that I wouldn't be at all surprised if it was made for the newly-opened hostel in the thirties:

The entire table top is made up of a single slab of elm, like every piece of timber used in making these pieces of furniture:

I also noticed tables made in a similar way from even larger pieces of elm in the pub in Postbridge. Perhaps they all came from the workshop of the same local maker?

Sadly, there is no information that I can find about where the furniture came from. Garry Hayman, longtime manager of the hostel who now works at YHA Swanage, mentioned seeing an old postcard of the common room that looked hand drawn. He thought that the two settles shown above could be seen on it and also said that it was entirely possible that the furniture was brought into the hostel when it opened in the thirties.

So the origin of the elm furniture will probably remain a mystery. The designs were all simple, practical but also comfortable and seemed to fit the place and its rugged moorland location perfectly.


  1. Hi, im the new manager of dartmoor and have always been interested in this furniture and dont want to see it going to waste. i dont suppose you ever found out any more about it x.

  2. Hi, sorry for the slow reply. No more information as yet, but if anyone else knows anything, I'd love to find out too... Thanks for commenting and I hope everything has gone/ is going well at Bellever