The so-called "State Apartment" in the youth hostel at St Briavels, Gloucestershire, looks about as tidy as any bedroom occupied by teenagers or twentysomethings. No longer are guests of the Youth Hostel Association expected to rise at cock's crow and leave their dormitories looking as neat and orderly as a military barracks. So discarded jeans and trainers litter the floor, drying towels dangle limply from the ends of beds, and a banana skin nestles at the foot of a large cavity in the thick stone wall, which once provided access for a portable throne.
The hostel occupies a turreted and moated castle, built in 1203 as a Forest of Dean hunting lodge for King John. "What I like to call the modern annexe was added in 1293," says the manager, John Cotterill, who is showing me round. On Thursday next week he will provide the same guided tour to two government ministers who will be spending the night here on their way home from Westminster to their constituencies across the nearby Welsh border.
Whether the Rural Affairs minister Alun Michael or Kim Howells, an undersecretary responsible for tourism, will get the State Apartment has yet to be decided. Perhaps they will have to toss for it. The loser is likely to have Isobel's Room, named after John's wife. It's smaller but still imposingly proportioned and offers an equally splendid view over the Wye Valley to the Welsh hills.
Over dinner (pounds 4.60 for three courses, with wine an optional extra) they will discuss with YHA representatives the effect of the foot-and-mouth epidemic on the association's finances. The end of this financial year is expected to show a shortfall of pounds 5m on a turnover of pounds 30m. "That's a substantial hit for us to take," says the corporate affairs manager, Duncan Simpson. "The chances are high that some hostels will have to close."
St Briavels is unlikely to be one of them, although foot-and- mouth led to those great studded front doors being locked and barred last year. "We were shut for months and lost around pounds 65,000," Mr Cotterill recalls. The effect on the local pub and sub-post office is not difficult to imagine; when full the hostel sleeps 70, and a fair proportion of those guests would be likely to find their way into one or the other, or both. Thankfully, both have survived here. But the long-term closure of hostels elsewhere could be yet another blow to the beleaguered rural economy. "A lot of youth hostels are critical to the survival of village shops and pubs," says John Mann, the Labour MP for Bassetlaw.
In a passionate speech at Westminster, he told MPs why the Government should support the YHA financially as a vital resource for city youngsters. "It is precisely to allow young people who have never seen such sights, who have never had that experience, never had their eyes opened to the greater world, who have been stuck in that burger-and-chips economy of deprivation, of drugs, of social risk. …