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Old wall of sleepersOur garden is about a foot higher than the neighbour’s garden all along one side. When we first set out the garden, about 20 years ago, we built a very simple retaining wall out of old railway sleepers to stop the clay soil from slumping against the fence and into next door’s garden. It worked well, but eventually the wood succumbed to 20 years of dampness and attention from insects. The top of the wall was also somewhat lower than the soil in front of it. All in all, I thought it would be best to replace it.

I chose to replace the sleepers with a brick wall. The sleepers were fine, but as I was planning to work with stone elsewhere I decided it would be best to continue the theme. Anyway, I could easily get breeze blocks from one of the few stores open during the first pandemic lockdown. I did the thing in several stages, as you can see from the photos.

Visible end of the new wallRemoving the old railway sleepers was a nightmare. They were rotten, they were heavy, and several plants had rooted between them. I had to cut some of them in-situ into sections small enough to remove. On one afternoon my neighbour asked if I was OK after a very loud scream of exasperation. I couldn’t get one of them to move, despite cutting it. Apparently I hadn’t cut it enough. I finished the job owning several fewer saw blades than when I started.

I had to work in a long trench with a fence down the side, which made it really painful. On reflection, it would have been better to replace the sleepers when I did the fence, two years previously. Isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing?

Once all the sleepers were out I dug a trench for a concrete foundation. This was also quite tricky to do whilst standing in a trench with a fence on one side. It took a while to dig it all out to a sufficient depth. I had to carry waste materials out along the trench in some areas. I refreshed my memory of how hard clay can be when it’s not wet. And how soft it can be when it is wet.

The concrete base was easy to lay except for, again, working below my feet in a very narrow trench. I didn’t quite get a perfect straight line, but it’s adequate. It looks home-built.

New retaining wallAfter the concrete hardened I laid a line of breeze blocks (eventually three courses high, but lying on their side). I figured that a breeze block laying on its side was enough strength for the retaining wall to retain things. Three courses filled most of the stretch from the back corner to the edge of the old patio.

I stuttered for a while here. I wasn’t entirely sure how I was going to build this section. Ultimately I decided to extend the planting bed in this corner, so I just extended the concrete base until it reached the “industrial strength” blocks we’d used to support the original edge of the patio. From here I was able to extend the wall with some decorative bricks. As breeze blocks aren’t that nice to look at, I covered the top of them with some nice bricks too.

I finally sealed the deal by adding some coping stones. I started doing this using offcuts from the patio behind the garage. These were just the right width for a coping stone on top of a double-width brick wall. I already had enough offcuts for about 3 metres of coping, but I needed nearly 10 metres in total. A few offcuts from the “back of the house” accounted for a couple of metres more. This left me about 5 metres to cut from new slabs. It looks pretty decent now it’s done.