Askrigg - A place With A Certain `Stile`

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I was recently asked by the Otley and Yorkshire Dales Branch to give a talk at their monthly Branch meeting. Rather than return directly home to North Wales the following day, I took the opportunity to head for Wensleydale, and Askrigg in particular. Askrigg is perhaps best known for its role as the location for Skeldale House in the TV adaptation of James Herriot`s "All Creatures Great and Small". The reason for my visit was perhaps a little more prosaic. In re-writing the BTCV`s "Dry Stone Walling" I had included an example of a stile I had seen only in photographs within "Yorkshire Dales Stonewaller" by Lund, Muir and Colbeck (Dalesman 1992). The example used was one of 3 in the book, each slightly different, and described as "at" or "near" Askrigg. The text was not much more forthcoming than that, other than to hint at the quality and the craftsmanship involved in their construction.

Wensleydale; in particular the area around Aysgarth, Askrigg, and Hawes; is awash with stiles, mostly "squeeze" stiles of many variations, and some step/squeeze combinations. Often a wooden spring loaded gate has been added to ensure that these essentially cattle barriers are also sheep proof.

There seem to be two basic patterns one where the gap between the wall heads is reasonably wide, often around 60cm., with the squeeze point achieved by two thin slabs (often shaped) set vertically within the wall heads, as in this example in Wroxton.

Lund et al refers to these slabs as "stoops". In the other pattern where the wall `heads` form the squeeze point, normally accompanied with a shelf on top of one or both sides of the squeeze at a height of around 75cm. This is the variety that I had set off in search of.

Having stopped to photograph several stiles in the area, I finally reached Askrigg and headed for the church. I thought it would be a likely place to find such well-crafted works rather than their being found in simple field walls. Anyway when photographing another stile on the outskirts of the village the church was visible in the distance with what appeared to be a likely candidate alongside.

I`ve mentioned that Wensleydale has a plethora of stiles but this churchyard was to prove ridiculous.

The entranceway is a large wrought iron double gate, somewhat extravagantly flanked on either side by a squeeze stile. Although squeeze is something of a misnomer as all but a pregnant cow could probably have negotiated them.

Entering the churchyard through one of the stiles rather than the gate - well it seemed appropriate somehow - I followed the path around the church, negotiating another squeeze stile similar in design to those by the entranceway. This was quickly followed by two adjacent stiles where the footpath split, one of the shaped slab design, the other little more than a gap between a wall head and a corner,. Just beyond these was the stile I was after, forming the entrance to a separate graveyard. It was disappointing, perhaps interesting in its own right but somewhat rough compared to those I was really looking for.

Well it wasn`t really that disappointing, after all a church with six stiles - get real. I recently repaired a step stile, I cannot remember when I last repaired one prior to this. I definitely haven`t done any since I passed my Master Craftsman Certificate in 1993. I`d be hard pushed to even place 6 stiles in North Wales, and I`m the sort of anorak who notes these things. Here we have kissing gates a plenty (the Welsh actually call them gat mochyn - pig gates), small gateways on the mountains, or wooden ladder stiles over the wall, certainly no squeeze stiles. This is probably all explained by the predominance of sheep farming, and the particularly scrawny and cunning Welsh Mountain breed. If you were ever looking for a breed of animal to negotiate the eye of a needle these would probably be it, and as far as any Welsh farmer is concerned could certainly make use of a step stile. The reason I can remember the location of one step stile is because I actually witnessed this very occurrence.

Back to Askrigg. The village is at the centre of a network of paths, so I chose one at random and set off, rounding the first corner ahead of me was someone actually working on a mortared wall. Exchanging pleasantries I enquired if he had any knowledge of the stiles I sought. If it hadn`t been for the presence of a fairly ordinary stile immediately alongside where he was working, which I was able to use as an illustration, I`m not sure he would have even understood what a stile was. Onwards.

The stile after next (that is about the staggering distance of 200m further on), was a well-crafted stile quite similar to those I was looking for, but not as spectacular as I was hoping for. Somewhat bizarrely it was situated next to an enormous gateway - without gate, or much sign of there ever having been one.

The path looped back into the village and I set off in search of another. This led me to an area of new housing an unpromising setting for a path let alone stiles. Of course I should have known better, a path ran between two houses and then across a narrow field before reaching more houses. The field of course had fairly ordinary stiles on either side of it. I continued on heading out of the village via another stile or two before doubling back. I reasoned that the further from the village centre and buildings in general, I progressed, the less likely I was to find `my` stiles.

Back in the village I set off on another loop, footpaths branched off in various directions to Wroxton and all points east by the looks of things. A number of fairly ordinary stiles were traversed, one or two others noted in the distance, but following my previous logic I looped back to the village. How can someone be so foolish?

Frustrated I called at the post office complete with "Yorkshire Dales Stonewaller". No they didn`t know of the stiles, but "Mr.Kirkbride at Townhead Farm might". The farm was near the village centre, and he was a local councillor. I retraced my steps, found the farmhouse and knocked on the door. No reply, I nosed around, and was just about to investigate the farmyard beyond the gate when Mr.Kirkbride emerged from the farmhouse. It was soon established that they were not on his land. However he seemed to recognise a couple of details in the background (such as a power line), and he was fairly certain as to where one was, on the footpath to Wroxton - a couple of hundred yards beyond the point I had last looped back to the village. He thought another was close by.

Sure enough there they were on three sides of a field not quite in the middle of no-where, but you get the general idea.

Each of the 3 stiles varies slightly in the angle/shape of wall above the shelves, although the shelves were all similarly sized at around 15-20cm deep by around 50cm wide. The exact reason for these shelves is unclear, although passage is much easier than if the squeeze extended the full height of the wall. Roberts in "Gates and Stiles" (Gold Cockerel) makes the interesting suggestion that they allowed for the placing of baskets or similar which could be retrieved once the stile had been negotiated.

Passage is further facilitated by the slight tapering of the heads to widen towards their tops, opening from around 15cm at the base to around 30cm at the top. Similarly passage is eased by another feature of these stiles (and one or two others in the area) in that the wall heads are rounded and so only particularly narrow at their closest points.

They are truly remarkable structures, in some mortar is visible in places, but the stonework is still exceptional. With each stone individually shaped and tightly fitting. Their location and mere existence is however bizarre, one day I might find an explanation. Some of the adjacent walls are quite tall and have the feel of `estate walls`. Some of the heads/ends are almost as bizarre as the stiles not always square; one or two are angled, others not square, not rounded, but quadrant shaped. There is no obvious rhyme or reason for this, and I know of no other examples - anywhere.

To complete the picture the fourth side of the field has a stile, it has steps leading to the squeeze, which has a shelf on one side only. To add to the variation a step over slab has been added at some point and (presumably) later still a wooden gate. I`m not sure that it is possible to incorporate any more variations in one stile, but then this is Askrigg and there are paths I haven`t yet got around to. On reflection there probably is!
[The Certain Stile]

The Certain Stile