The ingenious Tapsell gates of Sussex

Tapsel_gate_at_St_Andrew's_church,_Jevington

Image from Wikipedia

On one of my regular wanderings up on the South Downs, I recently chanced across an intriguing type of churchyard gate.

For my undulating perambulations I often carry a day-pack filled with waterproofs, extra layers and ‘emergency rations’ (in my youth I was a Boy Scout, so ‘Be Prepared’ is my motto). So conventional gates are an unsatisfactory ergonomic experience.

The most common obstacle is the stile, which often involves an unsteady climb and descent on frequently wobbly and slippery planks of wood. Kissing gates appear more straight-forward, but the hinges are often rusty, and half the time your rucksack gets snagged as you squeeze through the narrow gap. Then there is the traditional five-bar gate, which if new, requires Herculean strength to prise the spring-lever open, or once old, has collapsed on its hinges and has to be lifted out of the mud and dragged open and closed again.

As you can see from the photo above the Tapsell gate is a much more ingenious device, as it balances on a central spindle. The gate opens with the slightest of touches, and can be pushed right round so it comes to rest on the fixed stops of the gate posts in a closed position. In effect you only ever have to open the gate, and you never have to wait for someone coming the other way as they can pass by on the other side simultaneously.

According to the little leaflet I picked up in Jevington church written by Rosalind Hodge, the Tapsell gates even allow coffin bearers to comfortably pass on either side without breaking step. Apparently, the bearers could even rest the coffin on the gate if they needed to pause before entering the churchyard.

Sadly, very little seems to be known about who invented this style of gate or when. The most likely source seems to have been a branch of the Tapsell families of Sussex, some of whom were carpenters.

For me, the most intriguing thing of all about these gates is just how few there are. Currently only six examples survive, but it seems not that many were made even at their peak.

This brings me neatly back to a regular discussion I have with inventors. So often they assume that their great idea must be entirely new because they haven’t come across it before in the shops. I explain that of the seventy million or so patents registered in the UK, only a tiny minority ever actually became commercially successful.

The sad truth about inventing (or any innovation come to that) is having a good idea is not nearly enough. I fact I would say it is the easy bit. The hard part is proving the commercial viability of the idea (usually to understandably cynical investors), and then find a way to market it successfully.

Too many follow the path of Ray Kinsella the character played by Kevin Costner in the film Field of Dreams, “If you build it, he will come”. And this proves to be very much the exception rather than the rule.

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