Steven Desmond climbs back through history to uncover the origins of the stile and understand why these charming country crossings are no longer such a common feature of our landscape.
The stile has been with us for a very long time. Indeed, the very word is Anglo-Saxon. A writer in 1564 described the difficulty of getting his dog over one and, in the 19th-century, rural poet John Clare remembered its value as a momentary place of reflection: ‘he lolls upon each resting stile/ To see the fields so sweetly smile/To see the wheat grow green and long/ And list the weeders’ toiling song.’
Over time, many variations have grown up on the theme of humans crossing field boundaries without livestock being able to follow them. Apart from that basic requirement, the relative simplicity of construction seems to have been the guiding principle, with the practicality of getting over one some way behind in the constructor’s mind. There seems always to be an element of doubt at the point at which the body crosses from one side of the boundary to the other, in a combined test of forward planning and nimbleness.
Sometimes, this moment is further encumbered by a combination of decaying structure and encroaching vegetation, as a wooden step swivels underfoot just as a length of bramble snatches at clothing or skin. however, human dignity is a relative thing and the urging of companions a great motivator.
In any event, nowadays, the stile is a less frequent occurrence on our rural walks. Arable fields require only a gap, assuming the hedge itself survives. The planners of long-distance walks have also found ways of removing obstacles, so that the 79 miles of the Yorkshire Wolds Way, which once boasted 120 stiles, now possesses none. There will be fewer opportunities for drunkards weaving home to come a cropper.
Some of us, drunk or sober, will be sad if we never come across one of these ingenious features again, as they have evolved in several formats, some minor triumphs of engineering in themselves, in various parts of the country. Here are a few, some more familiar than others, for you to recall with mixed feelings.
1. Ladder stile
This is a sort of semi-permanent step-ladder of timber, rising to a point over the wall, then symmetrically down again the other side. It’s a surprisingly ancient form, shown in at least two of Thomas Bewick’s ‘tailpiece’ wood engravings from the 1790s. In one, an old lady arrives at just such a stile only to be greeted by the face of a bull glaring over it from the other side, pawing and bellowing. In another, a lame man and a blind man have just negotiated a ladder stile, with the former riding piggyback on the latter. The mind boggles at the potential for disaster, especially when we see that they have with them a dog on a lead.
2. Step stile
The commonest sort these days and reasonably straightforward to cross provided that, first, the structure is in good repair and that, second, there is a good tall post, suitably shaped, chamfered and sanded, to hang onto when the other leg goes over. There are numerous variations on the number and angle of the timber steps. Good luck and do your cursing silently.
3. Stone steps
My favourite of them all—at least to look at. Typically, these project from the flanks of a dry-stone wall and are simply undressed treads without risers. They are not only part of the fabric of the wall, but also have that cantilever quality, which requires a certain faith in the mind of anyone using them. All is typically well until you reach the top, when realisation dawns that you will have to pirouette to face the other way before descending the other side, as the stones are the same on both sides. These are, reasonably enough, called through stones (pronounced thruff in northern parts).
4. Squeeze stile
In some ways, this is the ideal stile: simple, elegant, effective and durable. A stone wall is pierced by a narrow gap lined on either side by vertical stones, so that the gap is slender at the base and widens towards the top. These are found all over dry-stone wall country in many areas. The name gives a fair impression of the hazard. In Yorkshire, this type is impertinently known as the fat ladies’ stile. In the interest of gender equality, I should point out that, west of the Pennines, it’s a fat man’s agony. An ingenious variant has the two stones placed with one a little in front of the other, so that the gap is invisible until you stand next to it. There is one of these in Ronnie Duncan’s garden at Weston, near Otley in West Yorkshire: on the first stone is inscribed the text ‘I can’t go on’; on the second, ‘I go on’, para-phrasing Samuel Beckett.
5. Cornish stile
A curiosity when first encountered, this consists of a series of granite rails placed horizontally across the land to be traversed at ground level, with a pit of variable depth beneath them. There is a handsome pair of these stiles either side of the forecourt at Godolphin, near Helston, Cornwall, allowing humans to pass from the farm buildings to the elegant loggia. A polite variant, less commonly seen, has broader crosspieces like stepping stones, enabling a more gracious progress. The modern cattle grid is, of course, the descendant of these structures, greatly inflated in size, but deflated in beauty and romance.
6. Clapper stile
The last word in ingenious craftsmanship. A length of timber fence-rails is loosely held horizontal by a weight attached to one end of each. The other end is unattached, finishing just shy of the adjacent post. These rails can be readily pushed down at the unattached end, enabling the walker to step over them. When the hand is released, the rails spring back up to their earlier position. A little mental preparation is called for, otherwise the rails will spring back up when the walker is halfway across, leaving gentlemen somewhat compromised. Their companions will, I’m sure, sympathise.