Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Staddle Stones

How a toadstool-shaped stone transformed itself from utilitarian farm object to coveted garden ornament.


A small hay rick with thatching at Bunratty Folk Park, Co. Limerick
photo by Jessamyn via Flickr
Before the advent of mechanized hay production and more modern storage systems for agricultural products, the use of ricks and granaries were the common methods of storing the annual harvest on the farm. A rick is simply a large stack of loose hay, corn or straw that has been compressed under its own weight and left to cure. On the farm, the rick was usually kept in the 'rick yard' and was often covered by a tarp or thatched roof to protect it from the weather. In addition, many hay and corn ricks were raised off the ground and supported by staddle stones. This served to protect them from the damp as well as from vermin.

The granary at Weald & Downland Museum, Singleton, West Sussex.
Photo courtesy Oast House Archive licensed for reuse.

The same was true for small buildings that were used to store grain and other crops.  Structures called "helms" that were supported by staddle stones and used for the storage of crops are mentioned on a number of occasions in 15th-century court rolls in England.  

Photo of hay barrack courtesy of Wikipedia.com

Other structures, known as "barracks," had adjustable roofs that could be raised or lowered to accommodate the height of the hay stack.  
Photo courtesy of Bill Searle via
Felbridge & District History Group
Hay ricks could be small or enormous, requiring huge ladders to reach the top of the stack.  The photo on the left shows thatcher, Bert Searle thatching a large hay rick in England in 1937.  The thatch was used to keep the rick dry.

Photo by Robin Tucker
The cured hay in a rick could get very thick and hard and needed to be cut with a specialized tool called a hay knife.  Slices, or flakes of hay were then fed to the animals over the course of the winter.

Photo by Benjamin B. Turner courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum

The above photo, taken at Compton, Surrey in England, shows a huge corn rick on the left.  It has been raised on staddle stones to protect it from water and from rodents and has been thatched to further shield it from the weather until it could be threshed.  There is a smaller rick of hay on the right, which would have been intended as winter feed for the livestock.

Originally, staddles that were used to support buildings were made of wood. Over time, stone became the preferred material, both for its durability and its ability to support greater weight.  Stone staddles are known to have been used as early as medieval times. 

Staddle stones are almost always made of two parts, a base and a top.  The choice of material used was dictated by what stone was available in a certain area.  They could be made of granite, sandstone or, in some cases, slate.  The tops of staddle stones were usually rounded and curved-- giving them their mushroom appearance--in order to deter rodents from climbing into the hay or grain that was being stored above. Unlike simple square or rectangular foundation stones, rodents have a difficult time climbing up and around the mushroom shaped tops. 

Staddle stones were used throughout Europe but were especially popular in England.  For a time, there was such a demand for staddle stones in England that their quarrying and production contributed significantly to local economies.  The intricacies of the design of the base and top of staddles differed from region to region in England.  Some had flat tops, others were more curved.  The bases of some staddles were cylindrical, whereas others were more pyramidal.  Some experts in antique staddle stones can look at the shape of an individual stone and tell you exactly what part of England it came from. 

Staddle stones line a drive at Rodmarton Manor, in England.

Once newer methods for the production and storage of hay and grain were developed, the use of staddle stones fell out of favor and many of the existing ones were either discarded, once the storage buildings deteriorated, or they were used ornamentally around the farm.  The many thousands of staddle stones that, in a manner of speaking, once "supported" England's agricultural economy were now scattered across the country being used as ornamentation to line driveways and fencerows, to mark entrances and walkways, as makeshift seats, and as features in the garden. I can recall not long ago on a visit to the Cotswolds in England, climbing the steep hillside that connects the lower garden to the house at Kiftsgate Court Gardens, where the entire path was paved using just the tops of staddle stones!

A line of staddle stones decorate the top of a stone wall on this Cotswold farm.

Although several manufacturers are now producing replicas of staddle stones, many that you see are centuries old and have developed a wonderful patina of lichens adhering to their surfaces.  This, along with their whimsical mushroom shape, continue to make them appealing today as garden ornaments.  So appealing, in fact, that the exporting of antique staddle stones from England has become a huge business. Prices for genuine antique staddles have skyrocketed in the last decade.  The price here in the States for an antique staddle stone as of this writing, usually approaches $1K.  Along with those price increases have also come an increase in the theft of staddle stones.  Just a few years ago, there was such a rash of staddle stone theft in Wiltshire and South West England that it made all of the London papers and television news.  Many of the country houses and farms in rural England have now resorted to either storing and displaying staddle stones out of the way of public view or securing them somehow to keep them from disappearing.

A grouping of antique staddle stones offered for sale.
Photo courtesy of English Garden Antiques.

The word "staddle" is derived from the Old English "stathol" meaning a base or support.  I have heard these stones referred to as mushroom stones, toadstool stones, and mispronounced as saddle stones and straddle stones.  But whatever you choose to call it, if you're lucky enough to have an antique staddle stone in your garden, you can not only cherish it as an object of great beauty but also as an important link to Europe's agricultural past.

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