A walk across the beautiful British countryside would not be quite the same without the fun of navigating one of these charming country boundary crossings, known as stiles.
Children will always run ahead to tackle them first and then watch with impish grins as the adults negotiate them in the hope of a minor tumble or humourous difficulty.
But there are quite a few different types of stile and given their history all the way back to the Anglo Saxons, some have evolved, while many remain almost unchanged.
Let’s celebrate a little bit of British Countryside quirkiness and help to ensure that you have the perfect country clothing to wear for rambles and walks that allow for easy stile navigation. With Hartwell Clothing, style is always easy.
We are sure that members of the UK Ramblers Association would have a wealth of stories and maybe could use pathwatch to identify an interesting stile?
History of Stiles
The word stile is actually Anglo Saxon and is thought to have evolved from from Old English stiġel “stile, set of steps for getting over a fence”, based on the Proto-Germanic *stigilō “entry, entrance, overpass, device for climbing, stile”.
Even the major 19th-century British poet John Clare, renowned for his celebrations of the English countryside, thought the stile important enough to mention in one of his poems.
“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 the centuries there have been a number of adaptations despite the relative simplicity of construction to accommodate the need for people to be able to cross fields without being followed by curious livestock.
I am sure we have all wondered as we tackle the practicality of getting over one whether there was any thought in the constructor’s mind to the human form navigating a stile. There often seems to be that little element of doubt as our bodies cross from one side of the boundary to the other.
If the pub lunch has been a bit hefty it is wise to combine forward planning rather than hope that nimble athleticism will see you safely over.
Clothing can often play a major part in Stile navigation issues and should be hardy rather than free flowing. Hartwells printed leggings with a good pair of rambling boots are perfect for style crossing and preserving modesty.
Types of Stile
Stiles have evolved in a number of formats, and given some of their locations, they could sometimes be called minor triumphs of engineering in themselves.
An unkept stile can often cause nervousness and mixed feelings, as they can be further encumbered by a combination of decaying timbers and encroaching vegetation. We can all recall that moment when a wooden step swivels underfoot just as an unruly stem of bramble snatches at clothing or skin and we feel certain that our dignity is about to take a nosedive.
Basically a small semi-permanent step-ladder of timber, peaking at wall height then symmetrically descending down the other side. It’s a surprisingly simple stile that stems from as far back as the 1790s. Fairly easy to negotiate as long as the rungs are in good order.
- Step stile
The Great British Countryside’s most numerous type of Stile and found in most parts of rural Great Britain. A simple barred fence with the step protruding between the rails. Reasonably straightforward to cross provided, there is a good tall post, to hang onto when the other leg goes over.
2. Stone steps
Typically the most pleasing to the eye and these project from the sides of a dry-stone wall. As they are part of the fabric of the wall, they promote faith in their construction and ability to bear weight. However, pirouetting at the top of the wall to face the other way before descending can cause the odd heart flutter.
Great for photo opportunities and we would love to see some of you resplendent in the Hartwell majestically negotiating a stile.
3. Squeeze stile
For boundaries with stone walls this is a very simple and effective stile, which lasts for many years against the elements. The wall is pierced by a narrow gap lined on either side with vertical stones. Some craftsmanship is involved as the idea is that the gap is thinner at the base and broadens towards the top. So most people can navigate these easily as long as you’re not too broad for the widest part.
In Yorkshire, this type is slightly tongue in cheek known as the fat ladies’ stile. However, in the interest of gender equality, and not wanting to upset the PC police, we will point out that west of the Pennines, it’s rather humorously called a fat man’s agony.
And of course the only other issues could be young livestock.
5. Cornish stile
A slightly curious style, and very much native to Cornwall. It is constructed from a series of granite rails placed horizontally across the ground to be negotiated at ground level, with a pit beneath them. Less commonly seen ones, have broader crosspieces like stepping stones, allowing slightly more graceful transition. The modern cattle grid is very much the descendant of these structures.
They may be larger and more modern, but in our eyes these old stiles have a rustic countryside beauty about them.
6. Clapper stile
Now this stile should definitely come with a “men beware sticker” A length of timber fence rail is loosely held horizontal by a suitable weight attached to one end. The other end is unattached, so that the rails can be easily pushed down at the unattached end, you simply step over it.
When the hand is released, the rails spring back up to their earlier position. Now this is where a little care is called for, otherwise when the walker is halfway across, if you take your hand off too soon, the pole springs upwards! leaving gentlemen somewhat anguished. Their companions will, I’m sure, sympathise with giggles and laughter.
Stiles are a wonderful part of British countryside heritage and it would be a sad day if we never come across one of these ingenious features again. Maybe the Countryside Alliance or English Heritage should do more to protect this part of our countryside heritage?
Enjoy hunting them down on your walks and send us your photos dressed in Hartwell with a stile, and ladies can choose their favourite Hartwell womens country shirt colour to match the fauna and flora or even the stile itself.
Drunk or sober, good luck with stiles and do your cursing silently.