Stiles – Places on the Edge

The Notion of Liminality

Squeeze stile at Lacock, Wiltshire

Liminal places are those on the edge – neither one place nor another – the junction between two known factors, where one fades to another but there are no clear boundaries. They are places of mystery and as such they have been regarded with awe and respect since the dawn of time. There are rituals that must be observed, tales that have been told and warnings issued about gates, bridges, fords and doorways since humankind first began to speak. Life too has its liminal times, birth, maturity, marriage, death, and each of those events is wrapped in protective habits. Indeed liminality is often behind the very behaviour that defines a culture.

Stiles are boundaries between two places. They are a break in the safe fence or wall that separates two defined areas. Although there are few rituals associated with crossing a stile it should be remembered that one form of such a gateway is the kissing gate – where a lover can claim a kiss in payment for walking through.

Power sources

For many years water was the only significant source of power to drive machinery. Mills were driven by a wheel, powered by the flow of a stream running past and turning the mechanism. It was not until the late 17th century when Thomas Savery, a military engineer, devised a system that he called the “atmospheric engine” that powerful pumps were available. Pumps were needed to raise water from mines to prevent flooding. By pumping out ground water it was possible to reach much lower depths and exploit new mineral veins.

Savery used atmospheric pressure to drive his pump by filling the cylinder with steam then rapidly cooling it by running water over the surface of the engine. The steam quickly condensed with a massive reduction of pressure that pulled water out of the mine shaft. The system was inefficient and dangerous because it was liable to explode, so blacksmith Thomas Newcomen designed a new version that was more reliable and it was first installed in the Earl of Dudley’s limestone mines below Dudley Castle (West Midlands) in 1712.

Newcomen’s engine was heavy and slow, but efficient, and it was adopted by mines all over the UK but in 1765 Scottish instrument maker James Watt realised that cooling the steam for each engine stroke wasted energy. He devised a way to keep the steam hot and to shift it to opposite sides of a piston and so produced an engine that had a powerful double stroke. His early efforts were dogged by technical difficulties but he was eventually taken on by Birmingham ‘toy’ manufacturer Matthew Boulton who created the massive Soho Foundry so that Watt could perfect his machine.

Watt later developed an addition to his engine that enabled the straight stroke of the piston to be turned to circular motion. The rotary adapter revolutionised industry and made it possible for the first time to drive production machinery by steam. The Industrial Revolution finally had a power source equal to the ideas of its leaders and factories sprang up all over the country to manufacture goods. Formerly cottage industries were moved to centres of mass production with the mechanisation of all kinds of crafts from spinning and weaving to pottery and metalwork.

The impact of industrialisation

A view of heritage

cow shaped cream jugs
A collection of cow creamers at Stoke Potteries Museum

Extract from Three Men in a Boat (1889)

Why, all our art treasures of today are only the dug-up commonplaces of three or four hundred years ago. I wonder if there is any real intrinsic beauty in the old soup-plates, beer-mugs, and candle-snuffers that we prize so now, or if it is only the halo of age glowing around them that gives them their charms in our eyes. The ‘old blue’ that we hang about our walls as ornaments were the common, everyday utensils of a few centuries ago; and the pink shepherds and the yellow shepherdesses that we hand round now for our friends to gush over, and pretend they understand, were the unvalued mantel-ornaments that the mother of the eighteenth century would have given the baby to suck when he cried.

Will it be the same in the future? Will the prized treasures of today always be the cheap trifles of the day before? Will rows of willow pattern dinner-plates be ranged above the chimney-pieces of the great in the years 2000 and odd? Will the white cups with the gold rim and the beautiful flower inside (species unknown), that our Sarah Janes now break in sheer light-heartedness of spirit, be carefully mended, and stood upon a bracket, and dusted only by the lady of the house?

That china dog that ornaments the bedroom of my furnished lodgings. It is a white dog. Its eyes are blue. Its nose is a delicate red, with black spots. Its head is painfully erect, and its expression is amiability carried to the verge of imbecility. I do not admire it myself. Considered as a work of art, I may say it irritates me. Thoughtless friends jeer at it, and even my landlady herself has no admiration for it, and excuses its presence by the circumstance that her aunt gave it to her.

But in 200 years’ time it is more than probable that that dog will be dug up from somewhere or other, minus its legs, and with its tail broken, and will be sold for old china, and put in a glass cabinet. And people will pass it round and admire it. They will be struck by the wonderful depth of the colour on its nose, and speculate as to how beautiful the bit of the tail that is lost no doubt was. In 2088 people will gush over it. The making of such dogs will have become a lost art. Our descendents will wonder how we did it, and say how clever we were. We shall be referred to lovingly as ‘those grand old artists that flourished in the nineteenth century, and produced those china dogs’.

The ‘sampler’ that the eldest daughter did at school will be spoken of as ‘tapestry of the Victorian era’, and be almost priceless. The blue-and-white mugs of the present-day roadside inn will be hunted up, all cracked and chipped, and sold for claret cups; and travellers from Japan will buy up the ‘Presents from Ramsgate’, and ‘Souvenirs of Margate’, that may have escaped destruction, and take them back to Jedo as ancient English curios.

Jerome K Jerome

The concept of liminality

five arched bridge across a river
The English Bridge, Shrewsbury

The passage of a person’s life is marked by key points where change is taking place. The individual is neither one thing nor another, but moving from one period of stability to a different, altered state. From childhood to adult, from single to married, from life to death, each stage is marked by movement through some form of gateway. Mankind has always celebrated those changes with special rituals, baptism, marriage, initiation or funeral rites. These times are often seen as sacred but also seen as risky, fraught with danger because the soul does not belong in either place until the change is complete.

Clear lines are defined to show the passage from one state to another and to remove the grey, hazy area between the two states. Holy water, jumping the broom, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Once the soul is across the line it is safe. Before it begins its journey it is safe. On the way across it is at risk. At a point of liminality. Hence all the superstition and tradition associated with the many rites of passage of a person’s life and death. The something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue are not just to ensure a long and happy marriage. It is significant that the bride must have the four elements on her wedding day but does not need them afterwards. They are therefore to protect her before the ceremony takes place. Once she is in the gown and on her way to be married she is no longer a part of her original family but has not yet joined her new one. It is for that time that she needs the talismans. Similarly the rituals of death are mostly associated with the time that the corpse is above ground or before it is consigned to the fire. Covering mirrors, sitting with the corpse, lighting candles and the hundred and one other rituals observed by the Victorians before a funeral were designed to ensure that the spirit would rest easy. To make sure that the soul did not wander the earth because it had no proper “send-off”. The burial, headstone and inscriptions ensured that the body stayed where it was put, the other observances were to guarantee that the soul went on its way and did not hang around to hamper the living.

two faces in a diamond
Janus face on Peterborough Cathedral nave ceiling.

In much the same way the boundaries between rooms or recognised areas in all walks of life were often associated with passage rituals. A captain is piped aboard his ship to mark his movement from dry land to sea. Many religions and cultures expect the removal of shoes when entering a house. In northern climes it is considered extremely bad luck to walk on the doorstep and for some Mongolian tribes treading on the door stone was a capital crime. There are many superstitions associated with bridges – not least the fact that the bridge in the tale of the Three Billy Goats Gruff was guarded by a troll. Many cultures believe that evil spirits cannot cross bridges, an idea that has been corrupted to the notion that witches cannot cross running water. Others are associated with doorways. The Romans, for example, had their own two-faced god Janus to guard the entrance to their homes and watch over those both entering and leaving – a truly liminal idea.

Social effects of industrialisation

A view of Saltaire with workers' houses and the Salt's Mill chimney
A view of Saltaire with workers’ houses and the Salt’s Mill chimney

The implications of mechanisation for ordinary working people were enormous. Workers were forced to move from small village communities to be closer to their employment. Towns began to grow into cities and the face of the United Kingdom began to change forever.

Some employers built houses beside the factories for their workers – indeed Matthew Boulton’s Soho Foundry incorporated employee housing in its wings so staff actually lived on the premises. It meant that families were entirely dependent on their bosses for work, money and accommodation, even if that accommodation was sumptuous compared to the neighbours.

After the mass move to cities took place workers were forced to live in increasing squalor with larger and larger families sharing smaller and smaller spaces. Conditions were ripe for the spread of disease and eventually some employers decided to move their factories – and their workforce – out of the city and back to the countryside where they believed everyone would benefit.

Social reformers such as the Quaker Cadburys created new towns on the outskirts of cities. But at least the Cadbury family retained the name of the local village where their new town was created – Bournville. Cloth manufacturer Sir Titus Salt was so proud of his changes when he moved his factory and workforce out of the slums of Bradford that he renamed his new settlement after himself as well as the local river – Saltaire.

Whether an employer built homes in the city or created whole new settlements it left the workforce themselves with little choice about their own futures. They were bound to live in their employer’s property and by his rules, or face losing everything.

This type of control continued until very recently. In 2015 workers at the Cadbury factory were given a list of 30 ‘unacceptable behaviours’ including using bad language, having a closed mind, and poor attention to detail.