A Bit of Background
In the early part of August I was sitting at the PC one night and I got round to thinking about geocaching. I hadn’t done any for ages (not since March, just before the COVID lockdowns started). OK, I’d been a bit busy trying to fix up the back garden over the summer, and by mid-August I’d got quite a lot done. But there had been plenty of opportunities to go caching and I hadn’t. I lost my mojo, couldn’t be bothered with it, and generally felt a bit “Meh!” about the whole thing. So I got round to pondering on why that was. Whilst pondering I thought I’d attempt the Oceania and Asia loops of the Flags of All Nations series, to see if it got me back in the zone.
Two things sprang to my mind. One of them was that it was a continuation of the previous year, when despite not doing much over the summer I made a (relatively low) 650 finds in the year. A part of that was the absence of nearby mega-series. A part of it was the lack of GeoNord event in Northern France. I did drive up to Aberdeen for the 2019 UK Mega, and I enjoyed it, but that was definitely the highlight of my caching year.
So what to do?
I guess I’d got a bit weary. That had combined with a general sense of antipathy in the rest of the family. They weren’t quite trying to persuade me not to go, but equally they showed no interest in discussing it with me when I came back.
2019 was probably my first year when no others members of the family came with me apart from our family holiday. Even on the holiday I made most of the finds alone. So 2020 was a continuation of that, combined with the general misery of being in COVID lockdown and theoretically not being able to travel far, nor go caching with anyone outside the family. That wasn’t good.
The second reason was one that is more or less the reason for this post. It occured to me that I had started to think about geocaching almost totally in the context of maintenance trips I would need to do around the Flags of All Nations series. Once we were allowed to restart caching again I would have commit at least six full days to doing maintenance of those. At 2020’s rate of progress, six full days equated to the rest of the year. So, and I know this is not in the general spirit of geocaching, that the reason for my lack of enthusiasm was the perceived burden of having to spend time doing maintenance. There are, sadly, only two ways to address that issue – archive them, or adopt them out.
I’m never one to blow my own trumpet, but since I started work on them the Flags have developed a bit of a cult following, not just around Milton Keynes but across the whole of Southern England and beyond. I guess they are an easy way to score lots of puzzle finds in short order. I sensed therefore that there’d be a bit of a backlash if I just archived them all. They are still highly active. People still like them, so it would be a shame to get rid of them completely. That left me with the option of adopting them out. It’s a big series, so I contemplated approaching a number of local cachers, but then one night I was exchanging messages with Pesh and he pretty much volunteered to take them all off my hands. He apparently needs loads of places to walk his dog.
So in the middle of August a transfer was effected, and the Flags of All Nations were no longer mine.
I did still have a lingering sense of ownership (on the negative side). But then also found myself with a whole stash of new caches on my doorstep that I’m allowed to go and find. No armchair logging, you understand. I’m genuinely planning to walk all the way around every one, and as a gift to Pesh I will take a bag full of spare containers and logs whenever I do.
I’ve got previous
I’m afraid to say it’s not the first time I’ve done this. I’ve shed previous series at Stowe National Trust for much the same reason. The truth is that I quite like owning caches, and I like setting them, but I hate maintaining them. The only solution to that really is for me to stop setting them, and instead focus on finding more, but also on being a good citizen and maintaining those I find where they are in need of it.
All of the above is, then, a very long preamble into the point of this post. I went caching around a part of the Flags of All Nations series. And I enjoyed the experience of doing so.
The Beginning of the End
It was a Sunday and I’d obviously decided I needed a rest from laying paving slabs. It was a warm and humid afternoon, with a little cloud and a bit of breeze. Ideal for caching, you would think. Not too hot, not too cold, not too wet.
I decided to have a go at the “Oceania” loop and also the smaller (eastern) “Asia” loop. These are centred around the village of Whaddon, but as I knew I was doing both loops I parked in my customary spot on the edge of a housing estate on the west side of MK. I was surprised when I parked up that what had been fields when I set the original caches was now a full-on housing estate.
OK, not a total surprise because I’d reset the Oceania loop 18 months previously when it became apparent that the original route was no longer good. I placed the first of the Oceania loop in a hedge in the middle of nowhere. It’s now overlooked by a large house that’s no more than 20m away. Oops! This side of Milton Keynes is one of the two current areas of rapid growth. One week it’s a field, and the next it’s a housing estate.
I started by walking the Oceania loop in number order, but actually starting the walk from #249 because Pesh also placed a multi nearby and I wanted to know where the end of it was. I kind of guessed, to be honest, because there’s not exactly a lot of cache-free real-estate around here, but I started with that and then moved to Flags of All Nations #225. The Oceania loop is mainly urban, skirting down the edge of Tattenhoe Park. A lot of it runs alongside MK’s famous redway system, on sections that are also close to a main road. It’s therefore not the most peaceful part of the series, but it’s one of the fastest to walk round and it is accessible all year regardless of the weather. That was a good thing, because it rained a lot and I was getting wet.
So back to the plot. Once you’ve done the redways there’s a section where you cut through some woods and onto some open fields. About a year earlier I had an issue in this area because an old gate had been replaced with a fence, and a supposed route into the woods had become so overgrown, and blocked with barbed wire, that it wasn’t passable. On the very day I went to rearrange the caches on that part I discovered that the farmer had fitted two spangly new kissing gates and the footpath was now properly accessible all the way across again. Irritating on the day, because the maintenance was unneccesary, but very handy when trying to find them because the integrity of the original route is preserved.
After this section there’s a brief walk out onto a road and then back into another problem cache. A problem because the hedge it’s in borders a field which often has cows. I don’t like cows unless they are accompanied by pepper sauce and chips. Or Yorkshire puddings. I think they understand this, so they don’t like me either. On this day there were no cows in this field, but two fields along there were some. They looked intent on getting in my way, so I had to back-track around a 2km loop to avoid walking through 400m of field. At least there were no caches in that field though.
This bit leads to the outskirts of Whaddon village, from where I joined a bit of the Asia loop to get me back home again. The whole course for the day made sort-of a figure-of-eight shape, if you look at it in a certain way. I was getting a little tired, because it was warm and I was running out of drinks. My speed over the ground reduced, but I was still finding the caches easily enough.
There’s one on this stretch that disappears very regularly, so I replaced it. Where this stretch joins the old North Bucks Way, which forms the boundary of Milton Keynes at this point, there was another cache where essentially I’d moved the final location, changed the puzzle, and then went to the old location and found a cache. What the actual? I had to go check everything when I got home and a couple of days later I went back and removed the old one and signed the new (proper) one.
Along with these Flags caches there was a smattering of others that Pesh had laid nearby. So by the end I’d made a creditable 42 finds. Not a bad afternoon out. I’d walked just over 13 km in 4 hours to find them.
I wanted the back of the garage level with the rest of the patio, and a little bit wider.
When we first did the patio we wanted to use up a bit of space behind the garage. The area was below the rest of the patio. It consists of a narrow strip into which I could only just fit the builders’ “large” paving slabs. It was also low enough down that we needed a step.
That arrangement lasted for a large number of years and went through several iterations. At one point it housed a plastic shed full of children’s toys.
For the grand rework project I wanted to lift it to the same level as the rest of the patio. The step downwards was irritating. I’d also paved it with a mix of left-over building materials. This included a mix of some of the builders’ 900x600mm heavy slabs, some of the newer 450mm square slabs, and a little bit of poured concrete. Did I mention also that the space originally wasn’t straight-sided. The builders put the fence at a slight angle to the wall, with the narrowest part at the entrance.
When I re-did the fence in 2018 I discussed this issue with my neighbour. He was happy for me to straighten it out to be a consistent width. It meant we also straightened out an area of slate-covered border on his side. I nicked a bit of land at one end, and gave him a bit at the other end. He now has a fence that’s parallel to his garage wall too. After building a straight line here (we moved no more than 10cm) I was able to rejoin to the line of the original fence. The fence is now a consistent 105cm away from the garage wall. The original patio was 90cm deep, so I had a few extra centimetres I could use for paving.
So having made myself a straight space two years ago, it was time to exploit that.
To raise the level I would need to add about 120mm. I tried initially to lift some of the old slabs to clear out the whole base and start again. That proved to be a nightmare. I switched solutions and decided to just “chop” the edge off the old slabs so I could lay a course of heavy blocks as a base for the new area. When I say “chop”, I should more correctly say that it was a troublesome activity, which broke a number of lightweight tools and generally caused a lot of swearing. It was hard going and I generated a lot of waste concrete.
I eventually managed to break through the surface of slabs and get down to a combination of hardcore and clay, which is a lot easier to work with. It was dry enough that I could separate the two and use the hardcore as aggregate in a concrete base. That’s just as well, because I was doing this part in April, when it was quite hard to get hold of building materials. I had a couple of bags of cement and some sand left over from the fence work, and it was just enough to get the job going.
When the shops reopened, I was able to get mortar and I quickly upcycled some big concrete blocks that next door gave me (they used to be a base for their shed). They were of the very heavy 300x200x150mm variety. These formed a nice base which I subsequently left for a while until I had finished a first pass on all the planting beds and was ready for some actual paving.
As with the fence, I wasn’t really sure what I was doing when I started laying paving slabs, and the area behind the garage is both hidden and only accessible by carrying materials all the way around the house. So this was my starting point. The next job I had to do was to raise the level up to where I wanted it. I hadn’t really planned this bit. However, I’d bought a lot more breeze blocks than I needed for the retaining wall. These were cunningly just thick enough to bring the level to where I wanted it (at the back at least). They also cunningly fit four across into the 800mm gap I needed to fill. The previous paving made a stable base, I just to chucked down a thinnish layer of mortar and dropped the blocks straight in.
Closer to the house the level came up a bit, so I had a thinner layer to fill. I bridged this by making some concrete out of the rubble. I also had about 300 block paviours left from another past exercise. These had been going to waste for 8 years. I wouldn’t build walls out of them, but I reckon they’re more than adequate for filling a hole. Even closer to the house I only need 50mm of depth, which I just filled with some hardcore. In fact, I suspect this bit of patio base will still be there after the apocalypse. At the end of this, I’d managed to make myself a flat platform of about 5.5m long and 1m wide.
This put me ready to do a bit of actual paving, so I began on that one weekend with a bit of assistance from Ami, who helped me mix some concrete and paint some of the slurry. We also had to cut slabs for this section as it wasn’t possible to make a 1m width without cutting slabs.
As an extra learning point, I’d drawn scale plans of each area of the new patio so I knew what slabs to lay where, but for this area I’d drawn it as if I was starting at the house end. I couldn’t work that way due to lack of access, so I was working all back to front. I had to begin by laying slabs at the opposite end. It sort of worked though.
Laying the slabs turned out to be fairly uncomplicated. It’s a little slow if you mix the mortar by hand, but we got into a nice routine of mixing mortar, laying flat bed, and then putting a slab on the top. We used a semi-dry mortar, so the bigger slabs were actually OK to walk on straight away, but it was still best to be working by reversing out of the narrow space. I spent about 8 hours of total effort in laying the slabs here. It was awkward having the wall of the garage right alongside us, and I left rather a large joint to be filled, but I couldn’t really do it any other way.
The slabs then stood untouched for a few more weeks while I got on with a few other parts. Finally, at the start of September, I got around to experimenting with the joint filler and sealant. Again, when I started I had never done it before. The instructions said to brush the filler in, but I found it easier to use a hand trowel and a small sweeping brush. The filler isn’t cement based, so it doesn’t leave grey strains. It does need to be wet throughout to stop it from sticking to the slabs. Once settled, you have to leave it in place for a couple of days to harden. When it’s hard you can use the edge of a trowel to scrape the surface to remove irregularities, high spots and so on. It was quite easy to do and the finish is really good.
The final stage of the process is to clean the slabs with a hydrochloric acid solution and then (after rinsing and drying) paint it with the water sealant. This only took a couple of hours on a warm day. I bought an “invisible” sealant rather than a “wet look” one. The effect is quite pleasing. The surfaces of the slabs look a little dusty and the original grain shows. When it rains they look a little darker, but the water doesn’t absorb into the surface very much. They don’t look as dark as untreated slabs.
Anyway, I finished this area behind the garage well before anywhere else. I like the overall finish and (as a bonus) I can use the space to store little-used outdoors items again.