If, like me, you love to wander across the South Downs and the Sussex countryside you will often use gates and stiles.
Gates were traditionally wide enough to allow a farmer to manoeuvre a horse drawn hay-cart through and were made of wood. Today however farm gates are wider and usually made of cylindrical metal. These gates are lighter, cheaper to maintain and are easier to open. To be honest, when on public footpaths you will rarely need to open or climb a farm gate. If you do however it is always best to climb the gate closest to where the hinges are as this makes it easier to climb and is less likely to cause damage.
Obviously gates and stiles have been with us for thousands of years but they were only really used in the countryside when people started to enclose land. This means many of the oldest stiles and gates date from the Enclosure Acts of the 18th and early 19th Century. If a fence, wall or hedge was built across a well trodden path a stile would be installed to prevent damage.
The most common stile is called a ‘cross-over’ or ‘step-over’ stile constructed of wood with one or two steps to help you climb over a fence. They can often be difficult to use if you have a dog although sometimes a little gate is constructed alongside, maybe with a simple wooden bar to pull up to allow Fido to pass. (Are dogs still called Fido?).
Squeeze stiles, sometimes called squeeze-belly, vee or yolk stiles were often built into a wall were there was a lack of timber. They would just about allow a person to squeeze through but not a cow. These stiles were not so popular where sheep were grazing as they are far more agile than cattle. Squeeze stiles are often seen in church walls.
Kissing gates are also popular and, although my wife insists that we stop and have a kiss every time we go though one, they are called kissing gates because the central movable gate ‘kisses’ the two sides. In Sussex they are also called ‘Cuckoo-gates’. They can be made of wood or metal.
Sometimes steps would be built either side of a wall and these are known as ‘step-stiles’ although if there are just one set of steps, this is probably not a stile but a mounting-block to help people up into the saddle of a horse. These are also known as upping-steps and examples can be seen at Ford Church in West Sussex and Herstmonceux Church in East Sussex.
The main entrance to a church is often marked by a covered gate called a lych-gate. Most Sussex lych-gates are Victorian but the use of them dates back to pre-Reformation days. The Prayer Book required (and still requires) a priest to meet a funeral procession as it enters a grave yard for prayers to be said. Trestle tables would be brought out in order to rest the coffin on although this was sometimes a more permanent stone structure like at Sompting or at Bolney Church. There would also be seats within the lych gate for the pall bearers to have a well deserved rest as they may well have carried the coffin a considerable distance. The word lych is an Old English word for a corpse and the oldest lych-gate in England is believed to be at St George’s Church in Beckenham, Kent which dates from the 13th century. The ancient lych-gate at Worth near Crawley is probably the oldest in Sussex.
The lych-gate became a popular feature of parish churches and were later built as War Memorials (like at Clayton and Plumpton Green churches) or as a memorial to a vicar or other parishioner. The lych-gate at East Blatchington Church is dedicated to the naturalist Reverend Robert Dennis (1846-1869) although it was erected a good twenty years after his death. Although not a lych-gate, the gate at Chalvington Church is a war-memorial dedicated to a young man lost at sea during WW2.
Gates are often used as memorials or sometimes commemorate an event. The metal gate for Crouch Gardens in East Street, Seaford was made in 1953 to commemorate the Queen’s Coronation. It fitted into a Tudor gateway which had been recovered from under the medieval Town Hall in South Street. I thought it would be nice to have it restored and repainted for her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012 but was told by the council that it would be too costly. Not deterred, my wife and I did some ‘guerrilla painting’ and painted it ourselves!
Some Sussex churches have another form of entrance in the shape of a tapsell gate. The gate pivots on a central column and could also be used by pall bearers to rest a coffin whilst prayers were said at the church entrance. No one seems to be sure where the name comes from although I have read that they were designed by a man called Tapsell who was a Sussex bell founder. The first mention of a tapsell-gate was at Kingston just south of Lewes. A churchwarden mentioned the gate in 1729 – the carpenter being paid 1 shilling and sixpence. St Pancras Church at Kingston still has its tapsell-gate but alas it is not the original. There are similar gates at East Dean, Friston and Jevington.
The Reverend Parish mentioned clatterdown or tumbledown gates in his ‘Dictionary of the Sussex Dialect’ published in 1875. He says they are usually constructed on tow-paths in order to allow horses to pass when one side is pressed down. If there were any in Sussex I guessed that they may have been associated with the Chichester Canal so I was rather thrilled to recently find one in East Sussex near Alfriston (and nowhere near a canal!) They are also called ‘stile-gates’.
Clatter down Gate near Alfriston in up and down positions (ES)
A feature of the Sussex roads was the toll-gate. The oldest toll-gate in Sussex was said to have been established at Barcombe in the year of the Norman Conquest – this being the first place where tolls were levied in Sussex. It is possible that Polegate got its name from a toll-gate on the nearby turnpike road however other Sussex ‘gate’ place names such as Chelwood Gate, Faygate and Tilgate were once gated entrances to Ashdown Forest.
Although stiles are numerous they are often difficult for the elderly and often impossible for people with disabilities therefore new ‘rambler gates’ are now being installed. These can be pulled open wide enough to allow a wheelchair or a pushchair through.
Probably the last gate you will go through will be the cemetery gates and even these can be interesting. The heavy gates to Ocklynge Cemetery in Eastbourne were cast by the famous Coalbrookdale Company at Ironbridge in Shropshire. These ironworks were established by Abraham Darby in 1708 and his revolutionary coke-fired iron-smelting furnace kick-started the Industrial Revolution.
It is amazing how much history there is in a simple Sussex gate!