Now, let’s be honest, if you are out walking and come across a stile, but spy either a squeezable gap alongside or an easier route through a nearby gate, how relieved do you feel? I’m guessing most of us would be glad not to have to perform a public agility test.
Faced with no other option but to tackle a stile, walkers are forced to go through a multi-stage evaluation process to successfully reach the other side. Firstly, there is the identification process, as knowing your enemy is a vital part of planning your attack and achieving success. Fortunately, although there are almost as many types of stile in the UK as there are regional dialects, they do tend to fall into one of two main categories – those you climb and those you squeeze through. However, speaking as a relatively slim person, I have to say that even I eye up the latter with a degree of trepidation. Could there be anything more humiliating than getting wedged in a stile? And they have mostly been built by people much smaller than 21stcentury man.
Once you have fathomed the appropriate method for traversing a stile, there is then the careful test of their structural integrity, because let’s face it, few stiles are robust. If climbing, every stage of the process needs to be approached with caution. The key is to never fully commit until stability and height of steps have been properly gauged. In my experience, it is often the descent that thins out the experts from the amateurs and cavalier. Those in the know will be prepared for a degree of see-saw action on the way down, expertly controlling the forward propulsion, rather than being thrown off guard…..and unceremoniously dumped on the ground. And all this before (or perhaps after) the mind games that are required to work out how a dog goes over, under or through the stile…..assuming any of these are even an option.
Given all their peculiarities, is there any wonder the writer of the ‘Crooked Man’ nursery rhyme chose to find his crooked sixpence upon a crooked stile!
When risk assessing walks, knowing the number of stiles enroute is important. Not only are they a hazard to be managed, but they also slow down the pace, as everyone politely lines up to take their turn in the spotlight. However, from recce to actual walk it is possible for the number of stiles to change. This is down to the ‘Miles Without Stiles’ programme, which is gradually replacing stiles with metal kissing gates across the whole country.
The theory behind this programme is sound. Stiles are clearly discriminatory, favouring the firm and brave. Metal kissing gates on the other hand are easy to use, maintain and are more accessible (some even having special keys giving disabled ramblers passage). Here in East Hampshire/West Sussex there are still plenty of stiles in situ but the movement to improve access is gathering pace. Notices around Stansted Park (outside Rowlands Castle) inform the public of a rolling programme of stile replacement, and Friends of the South Downs have donated money to a similar project being carried out by the National Park.
For all I have written about the trials and tribulations of stiles, I can’t help but feel a pang of regret about their slow demise. For one, they tend to be a reliable indicator of an area’s geology. Just as you would expect to find a slate roof on an old cottage in North Wales, so you would know you were in the north of England if your passage was interrupted by a stone squeeze stile, or The Lakes if you had to traverse a stone wall using a wooden ladder.
Stiles are also woven into the fabric of our socio-cultural history. In the 1800s they were viewed as an outdoor staircase; a place where young men and women met, ankles were glimpsed, and where someone could sit and contemplate life. They featured as important boundaries in poems by Emily Dickinson and Charlotte Bronte and have a similar significance in Pride and Prejudice, when Elizabeth Bennet crosses “field after field at a quick pace, jumping over stiles and springing over puddles” to reach Mr Darcey. In more modern times, they also probably serve as a useful place to find a better phone signal.
Personally, I like 19th century rural poet John Clare’s assessment of stiles. He regarded their value as a momentary place of reflection on our hikes:
“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.”
As with all things in life, the key here is surely balance. The Offa’s Dyke National Trail used to have 900 stiles along its 177-mile length – one for every 300m. This is clearly excessive in the extreme and meant many people have been excluded from walking this beautiful path. Miles without Stiles has now reduced this number down to fewer than 250 and removed them entirely from the 79-mile-long Yorkshire Wolds Way (our first stile-free national trail). However, in our efforts to improve accessibility to rights of way, we should be careful not to erase these unique features of the British countryside. For all their challenges a walk without stiles would be like a winter without rain or mud – we’d have nothing to moan about! So let’s learn to love our remaining stiles and smile the next time we encounter one.