Patio, Pergola, Pandemic and Precipitation

It’s been longer than I expected since the last post and it feels like a lot has since happened, but also there’s not very much that has happened.

I started taking up the patio, in an effort to level it out. I’ve been carefully lifting the patio slabs, cleaning them up, removing the grout, setting them aside and clearing down to a base layer, ready for lots of mortar and to relay the slabs as “properly” as a DIY-non-enthusiast with no previous practical experience can. One of the few things keeping me going on this is the thought that no matter how it turns out, it couldn’t be worse than it was before.

Lifting the current patio has revealed..another patio. This one being the original that came with the house and is made of laid red brick. It’s actually quite beautiful and it does feel a shame to cover it over again but this original patio has shifted and moved in the decades since and it’s very uneven. Having said that, the five-spot mortar method the current patio is laid on isn’t exactly more rock-solid either.

I can also see where the patio was extended beyond the original red brick patio and why the patio has the distinct kink that causes a whole row of slabs to rock and tilt. The area where the patio was extended out from the original was back-filled with compacted material, which over the years has compacted further and caused the last four rows of slabs to sink. It’s unlikely this ground will sink any further so I “just” need to “top-up” with more material, compact down and re-lay the slabs evenly over the top.

I’ve started with a patio section at one end and will work across. I’m not planning to relay all the patio, just the uneven/broken parts. The patio area closest to the house is the most stable and the best laid, it’s almost like it was started off with plenty of time, money, materials and enthusiasm and the further out from the house the patio extended, the less of everything there was left until at the end, they were probably just flinging out blobs of mortar and throwing slabs at it, going with what stuck.

Work on the patio took a sudden pause though as something quite monumental – literally – turned up. Going back to early summer, the rhododendron hedge received a major renovation and we cut it back hard, back to the main framework of branches from which it would re-sprout bushier and thicker and hopefully more flower-y. Our neighbour with whom we share the hedge took the opportunity to install a fence along the boundary line, now that the hedge was cut back, regaining over a metre width of space in the garden.

With the fence up there was a strongly defined path across the top of the garden between the fence and the final border. This path would be at the higher point of the garden in full sun and so it seemed a good place to site a pergola along the length. It was an idea that has been in my mind for a few years. It just needed a spark of initiative and the hedge and the fence was what did it.

The pergola length turned out to be nine metres with a two-metre-ish width and almost two and a half metres in height. In the summer I set about looking for companies for building the pergola as a kit form that we would assemble. I went through a range of materials, styles and designs. I kind of knew what I already wanted though. I was after an oak pergola (so that it lasts and doesn’t rot), with closely spaced posts (to look like an arcade or colonnade) with a “window” on one side in the centre to have a view out over the largest garden border and to the rest of the garden. Nothing off-the shelf was available that would come close to the size and scale I needed.

It took a few months to engage with various companies and come back with drawings on quotes, finally settling on one in late summer, to be built by autumn and delivered by early winter. The whole process was much longer and drawn out than I expected.

The kit-form pergola is finally here and part of it is still sat on the front drive, the parts we’re immediately working on are round the back on the patio. In the weeks leading up to the delivery of the pergola I’ve been trying to prepare an un-even, sloping, mixed-material (soil/border/grass) site to build the thing on.

Currently we’ve set the first two anchor posts, off which the rest of the pergola will lead, the structure is now finally self-supporting, which is a great relief given the coming winter winds and storms.

For both the patio and the pergola we’ve been beset by problems caused by the season and the pandemic. The winter – with its short, cold, dark days and wet weather means we might only have a few hours to progress work outside, if it is dry. Things need to be generally dry otherwise heavy beams and the ground become slippy and dangerous to work on and mortar washes away before it can set. The pandemic has meant that we can’t have family and friends round for additional help in lifting heavy pergola pieces or moving patio slabs. We’ve had to improvise with stacks of pallets and buckets of hard-core to hold up pergola posts and as there’s only two of us, we tire quicker from moving, lifting and positioning heavy pieces high in the air. It’s a situation that would be only half as hard, if we just had another person to help.

Work is progressing, but slowly. The pergola frame is being constructed and the patio is waiting to be levelled (we already have the sand, cement, slabs and materials we need to resume after the pergola build is complete).

I was hoping to have the pergola fully up by Christmas, but I’m actually now just happy with the fact that it is self-supporting and I don’t have sleepless nights, listening to the wind and wondering if the whole thing is going to blow over and take the neighbour’s fence with it.

I am optimistic though. We can lift and set the heaviest of the pergola pieces between the two of us using stacks of pallets, ballast, string and ladders. We’re now just past the shortest day and so the days will start getting longer and lighter. I’m more confident about mixing mortar and levelling (from working on the pergola) so have a better chance at the patio when I come back to working on it.

The pergola is a dream of mine and the patio is a necessity for safety and for the NGS opening. We’re doing the work together in some rather challenging and unexpected conditions, improvising workarounds to the problems we’ve come across. We’re feeling the aches and pains from all this work now, but these two winter projects will have serious, amazing and long-lasting impacts to the garden.

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