We’ve spent the last several days walking along the banks of the River Wharfe. It’s bordered mostly by meadows and pastures studded with sheep and cows. Here the fields are separated by dry stone walls, most dating back at least a couple of hundred years.
The fields are not large, and walkers must pass through the walls constantly. Sometimes your passage is marked by a gate; you walk through, reattach the chain holding the gate closed, and off you go. The many signs begging people to close the gate hint that some walkers aren’t as assiduous as they should be in closing the gates.
And so farmers through the years have built stiles – structures that allow people to pass through or climb over the walls but that the animals can’t manoeuver. They come in many guises; ladder stiles (pictured) allow you to climb over the wall, and they work pretty well unless there’s a pile of sheep poop at the bottom.
Stone stiles are constructed by inserting stone steps on both sides of the wall, so you walk up, step onto the top of the wall, and walk down. A fine concept, except that the bottom steps seem to always be way too high to make ascending or descending comfortable. Not to mention that you’ve got your walking poles dangling from your hands, which makes climbing a bit precarious. And stinging nettles have an affinity for growing around the bottom step.
Gap stiles are simply very narrow openings in the wall that a tall skinny man can walk through, but that would deter a cow or sheep. We are talking a very tall, very skinny person here, not short women with backpacks. Gap stiles can be quite a squeeze.
But we’ve come to suspect that some stile-builders have a wicked sense of humor. They combine stone stile steps and gap stile narrowness at the top of the wall with a springloaded gate on either side of the gap. We call these “butt-slappers,” because the little wooden gate slams shut on you the minute you get to the top of the wall.
A few years ago, walking alone through the Yorkshire Dales, I composed this poem about stiles (with abject apologies to Joyce Kilmer):
I think that I shall never smile
When climbing up or down a stile.
A stile whose purpose is to keep
In pastureland the farmer’s sheep;
A stile that all day guards the wall
And makes me fear that I will fall.
A stile with nettles nuzzled close,
Whose evil sting makes me morose.
Poems are made by walkers vile,
But only farmers make a stile.