I hadn’t really thought about it much before this week but stiles are an increasingly rare sight in the British countryside.
Stiles serve an important purpose. They allow walkers using the thousands of miles of public footpaths that criss-cross our rural landscape to pass through or over hedgerows, fences and walls without allowing livestock to escape.
Even so, it’s not hard to understand why they’re disappearing. Most stiles in the UK consist of a couple of wooden steps and a pole to hold for support. They’re often poorly maintained, which can make them unstable and potentially hazardous if you’re older, physically limited or, er, mildly inebriated.
As a result, stiles are gradually being replaced by more user-friendly contraptions such as ‘kissing gates’. (The English language is a wonderfully descriptive tool sometimes, isn’t it?) If you’ve ever been walking in the country you’ll have come across these. They’re typically a curved enclosure with a hinged gate that you have to manoeuvre around. The free end of the gate just ‘kisses’ both edges of the enclosure, allowing people through but not animals.
Kissing gates are certainly easier to use than stiles – and less likely to result in an inelegant loss of balance and a tumble into the brambles. (Not that this has ever happened to me before. Oh no. I’m talking about a ‘friend’.)
I guess that should be a good thing. But there’s something about a kissing gate that saddens me. It’s a simple engineering solution to a common need. You rarely find a broken gate in the way you might curse a rickety stile. But it’s just, well, a bit functional and soulless. It removes a tiny bit of the romance from the experience of walking.
Now I’m not going to complain too much. Kissing gates help ensure the countryside remains accessible, after all. But I do miss the familiar, centuries-old designs they are replacing. Enjoy them while you still can. If you will forgive me repeating the pun, they’re fast going out of stile. (#SorryNotSorry)