COUNTRYSIDE NOTES MARCH 2016 GATES and STILES
Having visited many parts of the British Isles it’s interesting to see the wide variety of gates and stiles. Here in the Norfolk countryside we have little in the way of livestock (other than pigs!) therefore have few permanent fences and definitely no stone walls to negotiate. Gates serve to keep animals and humans either in or out and come in all shapes and sizes. In the past elaborate gates, usually of wrought iron, became status symbols and there are some magnificent examples about. They were a sign of wealth and grandeur but were also functional. The conventional ‘five bar gate’, made from wood or iron, is the most common. Another we may come across is of the ‘kissing gate’ design comprising of a half round barrier with a swinging gate across the middle which is completely stock proof. Cattle farmers often use a cheap substitute known as a ‘Hampshire’ or ‘New Zealand gate’. This is a continuation of the fence and comprises of wire netting or three or four lengths of barbed wire with a post attached to the end and ‘spacers’ in between. It is fastened tight by loops at the top and bottom of an upright post. Large insulated springs are used to fasten strands of electric fencing. Cattle grids set in the ground are another extremely effective method of containing livestock. Many church yards are entered through a ‘lych gate’ beneath a pitched roof. Many of these were built during the Middle Ages, when corpses were wrapped only in a shroud, to offer shelter to the priest who conducted the first part of the service on entry into the churchyard. Unique to several churches in Sussex are ‘tapsel gates’ which are wooden gates with a central pivot. Where we encounter stiles in our local countryside they are most likely to be the conventional couple of boards set diagonally at different heights to provide steps over railings or barbed wire. In places where 2 metre high deer proof fencing is used ‘ladder stiles’ resembling a pair of steps enable access over the top. ‘Squeeze stiles’ are often found built into dry stone walls although they may also be constructed from wood in other places. Humans can negotiate the narrow gap less than ten inches wide but not livestock. Another form of stile, a ‘step stile’, can be found in the Lake District. Here protruding stones are set diagonally in the dry stone walls creating a series of steps on either side. Small holes may be seen in the base of these walls, these are known as ‘smoots’. The smallest allow rabbits and hares to pass through and slightly larger ones are for lambs to access fresh grazing. One problem people find when walking with large dogs is getting them over a stile so ‘dog gates’ are sometimes constructed alongside. These are usually in the form of a trap door that can be pulled up by a rope allowing passage through and which will drop down again when released.