Open the photo gallery >>

Our garden is about a foot higher than the neighbour’s garden all along one side. When we first did work on 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 for a while, but as time progressed the wood in the sleepers degenerated after 20 years of dampness and attention from insects. The top of the wall was also somewhat lower than the soil in front of it.

I decided it was therefore time to have another go at that section.

As we had plans to rework everywhere else too, I decided that replacing the wall with more sleepers just wouldn’t cut the mustard. It needed to be done with something a little harder (and cement-based). So I decided I’d replace it with a brick wall.

I did the thing in several stages, as you can see from the photos.

Getting the old railway sleepers out was a nightmare, partly because they were partly rotten, partly because they were still heavy, and partly because various plants had got their roots embedded into the sleepers. Net result was that I ened up having to cut them in-situ to reduce them into pieces small enough to remove. There was a famous moment during which my neighbour asked if I was OK after a very loud scream of exasperation. This resulted from me being still unable to remove one troublesome chunk despite having (or so I thought) cut it into manageable-sized blocks. Apparently I hadn’t cut it enough.

The whole process was made more painful by having to work in a very long and narrow corridor alongside a fence. On reflection, it would have been better to replace the sleepers at the same time as the fence, two years previously, but hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Once I’d got all the sleepers out I then had to dig a trench in which to lay a concrete foundation. This is also quite tricky when you’re working a foot below the ground surface and have a fence on one side. It took a while to dig it all out to a sufficient depth. This part of the process also refreshed my memory of how hard clay can be when it’s not wet. And how soft it can be when it is wet.

Laying the concrete base was fairly easy except for, again, having to work below my feet.

After this had hardened I laid a line of breeze blocks (eventually three courses high, but lying on their side. This filled most of the stretch from the corner of the garden to the part where the wall would become visible at the front end. I remember havering a while here because I wasn’t entirely sure how I was going to build this section. Ultimately I decided on a plan to extend the planting bed in this corner, and as a result I extended the concrete base a little further until it reached the “industrial strength” blocks we’d used to support the original edge of the patio, and then built an extension to the wall using the decorative bricks. As breeze blocks aren’t that nice to look at, I also laid some of the decorative bricks on top of the breeze blocks.

The deal was finally sealed by adding some coping stones. I started doing this using offcuts from the patio behind the garage (because the offcuts were just the right width for a coping stone on top of a double-width brick wall. So I’d already generated enough offcuts to do about 3 metres of the total length, but the wall is nearly 10 metres long in total. A couple more offcuts from the “back of the house” section of the patio accounted for a couple of metres more, but the others had to be made by cutting new paving slabs. It looks pretty decent now I’ve finished though.