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.
The side of the house is completely invisible from inside, but it is a total sun-trap. It faces more-or-less southwards. It therefore deserves a lot of attention. The plan was to make it into an area that we can actually use, rather than just hurriedly walking through on the way to the garage.
Over the course of the years we’ve lived in this house, the side of the house has been the biggest “unexploited” resources. There’s quite a big area around the side, but it presents several challenges that have made it either difficult to plan or low priority to complete. We originally planted a load of low-level beds and had some rather oversized plants in them. These gradually degraded over time as the plants became too large and the paving slabs around them discoloured and stained. We also has a pergola right at the narrowest part. This had a massive jasmine plants all over it, and the net result was quite a narrow opening from the back of the house to the side. It was a plant that needed chopping back 2-3 times a year.
There was also a step in between this area and the back of the house. I wanted to remove it by creating a sloping patio. Finally, the area to the side of the house has very few right angles. It’s narrower at one end than at the other, and at the wide end the wall of the garage is not at right angles either to the house wall or to the fence. When we originally had the area paved the contractor did a bad job. The paving gradually sank so that the lowest point was against the house, meaning that water pooled at the edge.
The area should be one that we love to go and spend time in. It’s a big area and it faces south and is quite sheltered from winds, so it catches the sun and gets nicely warm whenever the sun shines. We’ve never really used it much because it looks a bit shabby. It always made me think that it just needs a load of work doing on it. It should be a nice relaxing area to sit in the middle of the day or, alternately, an area that is more sheltered in the evenings if we’re having a go with the firepit.
So the overall plan was to address all of those issues (apart from the lack of right angles, which we can’t really address without buying the house next-door). The first job was to remove all of the old beds and the pergola so we could, as it were, see the size of the task. Then we made plans for several new, brick-built planting beds and I decided that rather than leaving the new sloping patio with a bare (and not straight) edge of slabs I’d build a retaining wall down the edge and lay slabs up to that.
When we originally did the patio here we laid a line of heavy-duty concrete blocks along the edge (to build up the land properly in comparison to next-door). We didn’t lay them quite straight because the fence line and house boundary aren’t quite straight. These blocks were still nice and sturdy, so it was easy to clean the old slabs off the top and then lay a brick wall directly onto the top of the blocks.
I didn’t really take photos of this area before starting. The first photo on this page shows how it looked after I’d already cleared the edges and started laying bricks for the planting beds. The second photo shows what it looked like when I’d put the wall down the edge.
Of all the areas to work on, this one has caused me the most headaches. How do I pave down a slope? How do I cut around the beds because of the shape? Where do I send the excess water? What are we going to plant in each bed? Many of the questions remain unanswered at the time of starting to write this post. But things moved on quickly as my level of confidence increased and as I applied further effort.
The third photo here shows how the slabs looked when I finished descending the slope. I hadn’t filled the joints or cleaned the slabs, but you can see the picture. The area around the corner and down the slope represents about half of the total area around the side of the house. I was at this point by mid-October 2020.
During the final week in October, I took holiday again and set myself the objective of getting all the slabs down in this area. It proved to be a challenging target when it shouldn’t really have been. Three things got in my way. Firstly, it became apparent that the original patio guys hadn’t done a great job with the base. It was a bit damp and I was sinking straight into the wet clay. There was virtually no hardcore under much of this area. I therefore lost nearly two days digging out a load of what Geordies might refer to as clart. And then waiting for delivery of a bulk bag of hardcore to fill the hole in.
On the Monday I spent the day dumping further rubbish into a skip I’d hired. I didn’t have the materials to do anything else. Secondly, on the Thursday it was precipitating quite badly. It was so wet that I really couldn’t do anything, so I went out and bought a new bike instead. There was rain on Wednesday afternoon too, but I kept going even though I should really have stopped. Finally, on the second Saturday I was interrupted by having to do some work. It rained much of that day too. I’d have got 3 hours in the morning and 2 more in the afternoon if I’d been doing this instead of reviewing technical documents.
The net result is that after a further week of effort I found myself with about 3 sq,m. of slabs still to lay. All required cuts, so I expected it to take at least another full day. On the bright side though, I did manage to reach the back step of the garage and the fence. All of the remaining parts could be reached by standing on the new slabs, so no more mucky bits. All the bases are laid, I just needed another day of cutting and mortaring down a few slabs. I guess I was being rather optimistic in assuming that a week in October wouldn’t ever be interrupted by rain.
The following weekend was dry enough to have a go at it. I didn’t quite get up early enough on the Saturday, so it was going distinctly dark when I’d finished near the garage. That left me with just a small area next to the house, between the two planting beds (against the chimney breast). I really didn’t want to leave that for the following day, so I worked into darkness to finish it.
The weekend after that I finished all the edges on the Saturday. On Sunday I cut enough coping stones to do most of the sidewall and all of the funnily-shaped corner bed.
And the weekend after that, I filled all the joints. This left the side of the house in the state shown in the fourth photo on this page. I needed to clean the joints plus clean and seal the slabs. And add coping stones onto the remaining three beds. If I finish this area before Christmas I’ll be happy.
We came up with a bit of a grand plan to rework the garden during the course of 2019. The original patio was a mess and slabs generally looked shabby. The old retaining wall was useless and the lawn was very uneven and mainly composed of moss.
As 2020 started, I got fed up and started planning in a bit more detail. I chose reasonable products, but still with no anticipation of actually doing anything about it for at least another year.
And then there was a global pandemic. All of a sudden it was apparent that we wouldn’t be going away anywhere on holiday, but I’d have to take the time off somehow. And also, we wouldn’t be spending any money on going away anywhere.
There was a period of time after the COVID lockdowns started when I did a lot of mental planning but was unable to do anything, as a result of not being able to get hold of any materials. By the middle of May that eased a little. I managed to get some deliveries of bulk materials like sand, walling blocks and hardcore. The DIY stores had started reopening, meaning that those “extra little bits” that a job always needs were now available again.
So enough of the potted history. Let’s talk about the plans. They were quite significant plans, reflecting the anticipation of a lot of time at home. The plans also reflected my total inability to estimate how long it takes me to get things done, especially when they are big, heavy things. But anyway, a summary of jobs we decided to attack:
- Raise the level of the standing space behind the garage – When I first had the patio done we left a step down between the patio at the side of the house and the back of the garage. The lands falls away to this side of the house. I decided to try to bring it all to the same level.
- Replace the old retaining wall of railway sleepers – 20 years of weathering had turned them into an interesting habitat for insect life that had little structural integrity.
- Remove some old planting beds that contained either no plants, or plants that were far too large.
- Remove the old pergola, which we were using to support a rather over-sized jasmine plant. It made the walk from back to side of the house feel rather claustrophobic.
- Build some raised planting beds – We’re a bit rubbish with potted plants but we used to have some raised, brick-built beds. Plants survived in those for years. More of those please.
- Improve the step into the garage – the old one was too small/ and low and the paving slabs were loose.
- Replace the fence between the house and the garage – a short length of fence that was the only piece I didn’t replace in the great fence-building programme of 2018.
- Replace all of the paving slabs – The old ones were cheap concrete jobs. The slabs were damaged and stained, plus some were not laid very well (not by me, I might add). They sloped the wrong way, resulting in water pooling against the side of the house.
- Build a path from the back of the house to the deck, so the deck can be accessed without having to cross soft, wet grass.
- Raise and flatten the lawn to remove all the bumps and unevenness.
- Split the back garden into separated areas of lawn and gravelled planting, like we used to have – using the new path from deck to act as a divider.
- Reshape the transition from the back of the house to the side, extending the planting area and replacing a step down with a gradual slope
Anyway, all of that amounts to a pretty significant amount of effort. More than enough to keep me busy during a year of no holidays, no weekends away, not much caching, no parkruns, and a distinct lack of other normal things to spend time on. And now it’s September as I’m writing this. We’re at the point where there isn’t enough light in the evenings to be working outside, and as a result I’m inside typing.
So what products did I decide to use? – Roughly as follows:
- All of the decorative bricks used in the walling are Marshalite Rustic in 300x100x65 buff – They give a pleasingly rough look and are ideal for someone who’s bricklaying skills are questionable. It proved easiest to order these directly from the manufacturer.
- For the paving slabs, I went for Natural Paving’s Classicstone in the Harvest colour(s) – It’s an Indian sandstone that comes in project packs of various sizes and colours. These came from an online retailer, pavingsuperstore.co.uk.
- I couldn’t find any coping stones that were the correct width. Well, not ones that I liked. I ended up buying a few more slabs and a lot of discs for the stone cutter. I’m making my own. The sandstone is plenty tough enough for the purpose. And I made a few offcuts anyway from areas where whole slabs didn’t fit.
- I got all my bulk materials from BuildBase – There was no particular brand preference here – it was just a matter of them being the first people who could supply the materials once the lockdown started easing. They won the business and have continued to do so ever since. They’ve provided breeze blocks, cement, building sand, sharp sand, concrete ballast, pea gravel and hardcore.
- And then there were some random products I hadn’t thought about or realised that you needed. Paving slurry helps bond the non-absorbent slabs to the mortar. A hydrochloric acid solution removes cement dust from the surface of the slabs. An “invisible” sealant keeps water out of the surface of the slabs (and helps keep them clean). I filled the joints between slabs with a brush-in joint filler. For the joint filler, slurry and sealant I used Natural Paving’s “Pavetuf” brand. I ordered these from the same online retailer. The hydrochloric acid is available on Amazon (as are long rubber gloves, face masks and goggles – stay safe).
- For the little bit of fence that needed to be done, I used the same products from Wickes as I used two years ago. It need to be identical to the other fencing and I needed so little that I could get it all in my car in a single go. I paint it with a Cuprinol One-Coat Sprayable colour called “Forest Green”
- And finally, I generated a lot of waste. At the start I dug out the old railway sleepers and smashed up random heaps of concrete. So I rented a 6 cu.yd. skip from a local supplier. They separate the concrete and crushe it for re-use as building aggregate. Better than sending it to landfill. The first 6 cu.yd. skip did the first wave of cack. The second got me round to the back of the garage. I may well need a third, but not until 2021, when I’ve finished all of the paving.
Replacing the small fence between the house and garage. I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed doing the fence in 2018.
One of the first jobs that I needed to do was to replace the bit of fence between the house and garage. It was in pretty bad condition. I needed to do it fairly early in the process because I was planning to put a planting bed right next to it. This meant blocking off a potential entry route for building materials, however I needed to build the bed before laying the new patio. And so I needed to do the fence before the bed. That’s all decided then.
The weekend after the great COVID reopening, I got the materials from my nearby Wickes store. I had a few bits of materials left over from the 2018 fencing effort but I needed more feather boards and one arras rail to be able to do the job. I used Wickes because I wanted this new piece to be identical to the work I did in 2018. OK, so eventually Kas made me hide it all behind a planting bed, but at least I know it’s done right.
The two supports at the ends were in good condition. I just needed to sand and repaint them. Well, obviously I had to take off the old boards and arras rails first. But after that, all I needed to do was sand and repaint them.
As the ends didn’t need any work it became a very easy job to fit arras rails. I cut some to the existing length and then nailed on some new featherboards. As with the 2018 job I used wider (150mm) boards. I think they look nicer than the thin ones.
I completed the whole job over a weekend with plenty of time to spare. Here’s a before and after shot so you can see the difference.
An attempt on the “Heal the World” series of 78 puzzle geocaches near Hadstock in Essex. The series forms a piece of geoart that looks much like a globe. Who could resist that, huh? I was accompanied by the Happy Hunter on a long day out.
When they appeared I solved them all fairly quickly – most were jigidi puzzles or simple “look it up” things, so they didn’t take a huge amount of time.
It’s a big enough series to deserve a day out, and also to deserve some company. I’m sort of going off spending all day on my own when there’s the chance to go with someone else. In this case, HHHP20 signed up for a joint mission, with me volunteering to drive from my house. He also created a breakfast event at a nearby fast-food outlet (whose name rhymes with Sack Ronalds). We’d be needing some sustenance before having a go at a big series like this. It turned out to be my last caching trip before the COVID lockdowns came into force.
The Happy Hunter arrived at my gaff nice and early, so we jumped into my vehicle and set off. We started really early because a) Hadstock is over an hour from home and b) we had a breakfast meeting to get to. But don’t forget c) we planned to find a few caches on the way.
Some time ago I completed the challenge of finding over 1,000 caches placed by ryo62. When someone does that, he honours the achievement by setting a simple “Congratulations” puzzle based on your caching name. My one of these is close to Duxford, so we agreed to head that way so that I could claim it for my Finds list. There’s a group of similar ones around the villages of Fowlmere and Thriplow, so we thought we might as well allow and hour on the way to get them. My one was quite easy to find.
The Happy Hunter set up an event cache at a branch of McDonalds quite close to the Heal the World series. In the preceding week a few people promised to come, and a couple said they might walk the series with us. So we were slightly surprised to sit out the duration alone. We had a hearty breakfast of McComestibles though, which is always recommended for a long day out.
A Long Walk
As nobody else had joined us we were free to approach the “big walk” however we saw fit. We saw fit to park in Hadstock and then start walking north and east. The series forms a big loop on the south side of the village, and we were walking in an anticlockwise direction. This would be bad karma for some, but it’s difficult to know what’s right when the numbered order goes anticlockwise.
The walking and the finding were both going pretty quickly. It was 10:15 when we started walking and by 1:30 we were sitting having a rest and a snack having just finished Heal the World #40. There’s not much to say about the actual caches – they were coming thick and fast and it’s all a bit of a blur. According to the track I uploaded to Garmin, the walk was 20km and took us 6 1/2 hours to complete. We found all 78 from the Heal the World series plus a couple of incidentals that we passed. We were back at the car well before darkness fell.
As a side note, I had some nervousness about my car all day. I noticed in the week that one of the tyres was losing pressure. Not quickly, but enough to notice. So I drove all the way there and back with the tyre pressures displayed on the dashboard, just in case. It was fine, and the car was driving normally, but I was concerned anyway. I had it checked a couple of days later. There was a massive screw stuck right through the sidewall. So new front tyre then.
A total of 90 finds over the day, which is a good number given the time we started the main walk.
Leap day is a day when geocachers traditionally lose the plot, as if they hadn’t already. They lose the plot more than usual. Leap day madness is a well-known phenomenon. And this time around, the madness could happen on a Saturday.
Why? Well, because the grid for counting “days on which I’ve been caching” includes February 29th. There’s the “365 Challenge” of doing one cache on every day not including leap day, and then there’s the “366 Challenge” of including leap day as well. As the chance only occurs every four years, people go out caching a lot. And they set themselves various ridiculous targets to get their statistics for February 29th looking as flush as possible.
My stats were already flush with finds on February 29th and they have a good spread of various types and locations. I wasn’t even really planning to go caching but then I saw on Facebook that someone was planning to see how many different events they could attend in one day. That sounded suitably insane, so I started having a look.
Various local cachers had (obviously without colluding at all) set up 11 different events between High Wycombe and Leicester that were all spread apart in time such that a grand tour was feasible. Just. It did look like a lot of driving for one day though, so I asked on FB if anyone was up for a car share. Simply Paul was. Just a matter of figuring out the logistics then.
There were events at midnight at both ends of the day. W attended those in our own cars. SP offered to pick me up and drive the morning stint. The trip from the fourth to fifth event of the day passed my house, so we changed cars and drivers there.
We were not the only ones attempting the feat. We may have been the only ones to complete it though. Anyway, SP and me spent the day, essentially, meeting the same group of people in 11 different places.
The leap day madness began just after midnight in Brackley with 00:00-00:30 Leap day – let the madness commence. As it was in Brackley then technically I guess the day began at 11 pm the previous day, as I had to drive there. I arrived far too early and sat in the car park for a while until someone else showed up.
The proverbial morning shift had four events on the radar. We set off from my house at an unearthly hour because we had a bit of a drive to reach the first event.
Enjoy Sunrise On Leap Day was held on top of a hill overlooking Dunstable. The plan was to see the sunrise there – it was scheduled from 6:30 am to 7 am. We didn’t. The weather was foul and the event site was at the top of a big hill. So we were soaked by the time we spotted Pesh, the organiser. It was a matter of signing the logbook and leaving. Story of the day, to some extent, but here it was mainly the weather rather than the need to be elsewhere.
The next “elsewhere” was Leaping for an early morning coffee? in High Wycombe. Paul drove us around the M25 and M40 and I was surprised we arrived in time for the 8 am start. It was a simple affair in a branch of a well-known coffee shop. We had time to cram in some breakfast whilst using their heating to accelerate the process of drying out.
Next we needed to be in Banbury for Leap Day in Banbury at 9 am. We were a bit late, and this was the shortest of our stops. There were a few people at the famous cross, so we paid for 10 minutes parking and ran over to sign the log. Then we jumped straight back into the car to head towards Towcester for 09:45-10:15 R65: Leaping Labs. This was another one inside a coffee shop, and it allowed us a bit more time to get settled, talk to a few people and imbibe some more caffeine.
Lunchtime near Home
From here we drove back down the A5 towards my house and we did the car swap. I was happy that Paul took the morning stint. SP was carrying a sleeping passenger for most of it.
BBH#144 Bordering on a Ridiculous Day started at 10 am, which would have been tight from the Towcester event, but thankfully it lasted for 90 minutes. We turned up about halfway through. It was in the cafe of a local garden centre in Woburn Sands. They’d redecorated since I last visited, and it was very unfamiliar. We queued for food and then did a couple of laps of the restaurant trying to find the event.
Through the Afternoon
After the early lunch (or maybe late second breakfast) in Woburn Sands we began the longest stretch of driving of the day. The next event was Leaping into the next challenge, starting at midday in a pub in Markfield near Leicester. We arrived after the start and had trouble finding somewhere to sit, but we did manage to have some lunch. We had loads of time before the next meeting, so we took a walk into the centre of the village to grab a couple of “actual” caches. On reflection, it might have been better to take the car, but never mind.
Northants Natters goes Leapy was at a McDonalds outside Wellingborough at 15:30. The drive from Leicester took a lot less than I expected, so we were able to stay at this one from (nearly) start to finish. More liquids escaped and were topped up.
By this time the schedule was looking very easy, unlike in the morning. There was a gap of a whole hour to get from Wellingborough down to 17:00-17:45 Leap Day Celebration day. This was in the car park at Northampton Services. We arrived early enough for a snooze in the car park. There were a few tired looking faces at this one.
Next up was Have A Break From Leaping Around, which began at 6 pm in a pub in Central Milton Keynes. We had time to stop at Newport Pagnell Services to find a puzzle cache before heading to the event. It lasted 2 hours, so we weren’t in much of a hurry. A lot of the Milton Keynes regulars were there, funnily enough. Many of them were people I hadn’t seen since, ooh, mid-morning.
The Witching Hour
After the Milton Keynes event we had a couple of hours to spare, so I drove SP back to my house to get his car, and we parted ways. I grabbed a few zzzzzzzzzzs on the sofa before getting up again to head for the final one. Izzy wanted to come with me, which was good because she kept me awake in the car. 23:15-23:45 Leap Day – did you escape the madness? was a quiet affair in the middle of Buckingham. Only about 6 people turned up, and they were all people we’d been seeing all day.
The drive back was quick but seemed slow, mainly because I’d had enough. I was in bed by 1 am and slept through until quite late.
Still, mission accomplished. 11 events attended, 4 other caches found.