7 February 1997

TRIALS ON

STYLE OF STILES

Style-victim takes on a whole new meaning in the countryside and it has nothing to do with new boots and fluorescent all-weather wear. Tessa Gates talks to the man who has put the styles of stiles on trial in the search for a new British Standard

AS any keen walker will know, stiles come in all shapes and sizes. Some are more of a hindrance than a help in negotiating fences and walls that cross a right of way.

A field trial with a difference was held in Oxfordshire recently to test out designs in order to review the British Standard for stiles, bridle gates and kissing gates (BS5709) which was last revised in 1979.

Tom Bindoff, a keen walker and climber, specialises in rights of way furniture and gate fittings. He hosted the day at the demonstration area he has set up which has examples of different stiles and kissing gates. The day was attended by volunteers from the public and members of the working party set up to revise the standard.

"We had representatives from virtually everyone involved in the countryside including the NFU, Countryside Commission, Ramblers Assoc-iation, National Trust," says Tom, "and 130 people, in a good range of ages, answered our call for volunteers to try out the stiles. It was a very good turnout on such a bitterly cold day."

Tom used to be a part-time warden on the Ridgeway National Trail that runs from Ivinehoe to Avebury. "I had to lead walks and saw the great difficulties some people have with stiles. It is not something you think about until you see it. I thought it might be possible to design a better stile but it is far more complicated than it appears. We have a lot of progress to make with stiles and gates."

He has come up with some clever ideas, including a stile with a raised slatted step that works on the cattle-grid principal and deters stock and dogs from crossing it. An adjacent dogway – which can be raised by walkers – can be fitted to allow accompanied dogs through but not free-running strays. "Through working on the stiles, people running the National Trails started coming to me for kissing gate designs. I am working on one at the moment which will allow motorised wheelchairs through while keeping out motorbikes. This is all adjacent to Centrewire, my wire business and doesnt justify the time I put into it but it is nice to put something back into a pursuit you enjoy," says Tom, who finds most of his customers are local authorities.

The point of revising the British Standard is to get it right. "It is about changing attitudes rather than spending a lot of money – the right stiles can be quite cheap. Our approach is to establish a few specifics like the spacing of steps, rather than one whole thing," says Tom, who feels that a reasonable approach is the only way forward with landowners. "We are talking about thousands of stiles in this country, if we can just get 10% better, especially those near villages where the elderly and families with young children like to take a round walk, then it will be something."

While walkers are often portrayed as militant marchers or irresponsible litter droppers, Tom has found that people on walks he has led are extremely cautious. "They are not confident about finding their way and nervous about confrontation should they get lost. They really appreciate good stiles and good way marking," he says.

At the stile trial eight designs were tried and people were asked to mark them according to ease of use, with five categories from very easy to very difficult. A V-stile, without a step or hand post was rated the most difficult – "really horrid" – but a similar one with a step and hand post was rated much easier to use.

A standard design used by some county councils was disliked for its narrow step running parallel to the rails which makes it difficult for many to feel safe while trying to get their leg over the top rail. "People really dont like it and there are a lot of variations on this design in use. You have to put your foot on it sideways, the step is very narrow and you cant get over the stile comfortably," says Tom.

The stile found to be the easiest of all to use was one of Toms designs which has a slatted approach to make it stock proof and low rails that can be stepped over in a walking gait. A close second was a two step stile with a hand post and dogway. The top rail of this was 890mm high but the crossed steps and hand post made this easy to negotiate even for not-so-nimble people. "It was particularly favoured by the elderly as it allows a continuous flow of movement," explains Tom, adding that the results will be forwarded to the British Standard authority.

"Hopefully it will reduce the number of stiles with one step and a big legover and almost certainly result in at least one hand post, although two is better. Also we hope steps parallel to rails will not be recommended as these have come out as too difficult for most people," says Tom.

"The network of 150,000 miles of rights of way that we have in England and Wales is unique. No other country has anything like it. We must remember that a right of way is just that – and the right is along the ground. Fences and gates that break up this ground are for the landowners convenience," says Tom. "It is something to make more of and appreciate and we do need to get the right furniture for it."

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A popular design with lift gate for dogs. Crossed steps and hand post make climbing a continuous movement.

Above: The highest rated stile has a slatted platform which acts like a cattle grid. Right: This kissing gate will accomodate a wheelchair.

Though several local authorities use this stile, the top rail is too high

and the parallel step too narrow.