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01/06/2005 Archived Entry: "Country Stiles"
Those of us who walk in the countryside are accustomed to the sight and great variety of stiles even if we don't take any particular notice of them. They help us on our way across the landscape on foot even if we rarely consider the surprisingly large number of different types.
Certainly a lot of us are unaware of the range which exists, some types being associated with particular parts of the country. The Lake District, for example, boasts lots of stiles made from huge slabs of slate, these being used to negotiate walls or hedges while Cornish slabs can be found in the West Country. These are slabs of stone set in the road in such a way that sheep and cattle refuse to walk upon them but they do allow access by motor vehicle - very similar to our modern cattle grids. In fact, these provided the inspiration for our cattle grids.
So far as I am aware, there is no recorded history of stiles with very little on record about their early use and development. It is known, however, that the ancient Romans had a god of boundaries called Terminus. It seems that in his time, boundaries were marked with some kind of religious sign and this continued into Christian times.
Although the practice has fallen into disuse, there is a stile in Cornwall beside which stands a tall stone marked with the sign of the cross. That tall stone now serves as a handhold but I know of no such markings in this region. The word terminus still means a post or stone which marks a boundary and it is also an architectural term for a square post whose top is carved into an armless human or animal figure. A relic of those ancient times perhaps?
So far as our country is concerned, it is claimed that the Saxon King Offa made reference to stiles in AD 779 while in 1546 there was a note about helping "a dogge ower a style", along with a later proverb which advised people to look over the hedge before they leapt over the stile.
It is very likely that the first stiles were invented as a means of necessity. Probably when livestock owners first enclosed their animals in a field, they realised they would require easy access to the animals whilst at the same time preventing their escape. The most simple solution was the basic V shape stile - narrow at the bottom and wider at the top to allow access by a man or woman and even a dog but too narrow to admit horses, cattle or probably sheep. These are plentiful in our modern countryside even if they do vary in the materials from which they are made. Some are fashioned from wood whilst others are made from either stone or slate but they are not easily accessed by large people or those bearing bulky backpacks. Not surprisingly, an alternative name is the squeezer.
Another very simple device, doubtless in use from the earliest times, was the protruding stone or plank of wood which served as a step when it was built into a fence or wall. Some of these took the form of two cross pieces, one higher than the other and pointing in different directions to provide a miniature staircase, while another very basic idea was a stout ladder-type series of steps over a high wall or even a dyke. As estates became larger, so these sturdy steps became very popular - and they could also be negotiated by dogs or with men carrying shotguns. Dogs have great difficulty in negotiating simple stiles and on some of my country walks, I've spotted specially constructed dog stiles or gates.
A logical development was a form of small gate, suitable for humans to negotiate but almost impossible for animals. The most basic is known as the zig-zag stile which comprises a swinging gate suspended between two angled parts of a fence, rather like the arms of a letter Y. In some places, this is called a kissing gate. Horses, cows, sheep, cycles and similar objects are not hinged in the middle and thus have great difficulty negotiating these gates, and they will permit access only by humans, one at a time. However dogs can cope with these, often with a little human help.
Equally difficult for animals and cyclists to negotiate is the turnstile. In its most primitive form this was simply two cross pieces of wood fastened to the top of a post, the whole of which could be revolved by slight pressure.
Like V stiles, they allowed humans and dogs to pass through but frustrated attempts by large animals and vehicles. Today, of course, this basic design has been developed into fairly complicated mechanical turnstiles of the kind seen at football grounds or and other public venues.
Perhaps the most peculiar is the so-called clapper stile. At first glance this looks like an ordinary length of fencing with, say, three rails, but one end of each rail is not attached to an upright. Those loose ends fit into a post with a vertical slot. There is a centre post which acts as a swivel while the opposite end of each rail looks like an ordinary fence post. By depressing the loose ends, one can easily reduce the entire height at that point and climb over - but it is also a trap for the unwary so do take care if you come across this one.