Monday, 22 September 2014

Water Works

While the kids were in the Costa del Sol with their cousins, Mark and I had 8 days to ourselves. We could go out every night! We could have parties! We could watch the telly with the volume up after bedtime!

Instead, we built a pond.

Our garden is very long for an urban semi. This means we need to make things quite large to keep them proportionate. It also floods when we get heavy rain - damn that Yorkshire clay. Our former neighbour built a small pond in her garden that spread across the paved area every time it rained, which looked ridiculous and would hardly be good for fish or wildlife.

Therefore we needed a large raised pond.  The easiest way to have sturdy sides is to use railway sleepers. They require a lot less skill than building with brick or breeze block, they look good and they are pretty quick to build with.
The space to clear

Currently occupied by a fire pit, now partly disassembled

However, before we could build up, we needed to clear the space and dig down.  I cannot fully express how much we loathe digging. A square metre of sticky waterlogged clay is utterly exhausting to excavate.  But help was at hand - my Very Excellent Mate Cally most fortuitously married a madman who runs up mountains for fun and likes digging.  We dismantled the climbing frame (complete with labelling and photos as a primer so he could rebuild it for their 5 year old) in return for the lovely Seth digging for a day.

And dig he did.
With Seth digging, Mark barrowing the clay to the skip and me travelling by train to Manchester Airport and back to drop the lads with my parents in time for their flight, we had the pond footprint ready by nightfall. (I know the pond didn't require my trip to the airport but it was still a long day and I want to feel like I was involved.)  The skip was very full indeed.

After just 3 hours! Loads more to come
The following day Mark and I spent a fair bit of time laying the timber out to establish which order, orientation and sequence we wanted the finished timber frame to have. Then we built the first layer of the railway sleeper box and barrowed in loads of sand to the site. We spent just A G E S getting the thing level. Checking levels, moving sand about, tamping down, checking levels, move minuscule amounts of sand from one end to the other, check again. And again. I've never spent so much of a day peering at a spirit level in my life.

The timber we used wasn't actually reclaimed sleepers. We'd used old sleepers in our previous garden and found them gut-wrenchingly heavy and extremely hard to cut. Instead we were using new pressure treated, stained timber which was lighter, cheaper and easier to handle.

Once the first layer was complete we cracked on with the second. It was secured to the first layer by the longest wood screws I've ever seen. They must have been over a foot long.

Obviously I kept checking the levels were OK. I had spirit level fever - I'm sure Mark was rolling his eyes at me when my back was turned as I insisted on checking and rechecking each stage.

That night it rained. The weather had become very cold for August - only 10 degrees. Bother. Had it rained the next night instead it might have helped us fill the pond. As it was I needed to get into that deep muddy hole and bail the water out before we could proceed. It was an unstable surface of sucking mud, it was cold and I was not having any fun. 

After taking all the water out of a hole I planned to fill with water later, I needed to line the pond base with sand. This was to make doubly sure there were not stones or sharp edges to puncture the pond liner under the weight of all the water.  I barrowed, tipped, raked and tamped in the cold morning while Mark dug a trench to bury the electrical cable we'd need to power the pump.  His trench was filling up with water pouring in from under our shed and the neighbour's garden as fast as he could dig. Good job the cable would be protected in some conduit pipe.

By late morning the pond had a layer of sand and was ready to be carpeted.

Carpeting the garden is an odd experience.  It wasn't precisely carpet, more a blanket, but it needed to cover every last bit of the pond and up the sides.  This underlay was made from recycled material needle-felted into massive sheets. Where there was an edge or potentially awkward bit I used several layers as a cushion - for example, where we'd put a paving slab on the upper shelf to prevent a fragile edge from crumbling. I didn't want the edges pf the paving slab to rub against the liner.

Once the pond and edges were covered, I put the liner in.  Poor Mark; I'm a dictatorial rotter at times. I'd pictured doing the job in my head a few times to think about which way to install the 8m by 6m liner as easily as possible, tweaking my approach until I thought it would be pretty easy, then was exasperated with him because he couldn't see into my head to follow my instructions. However, we unfolded the liner and I got to work fitting it to the awkward shape as best I could.

When we paused for lunch I sent time googling how to fit a 2d liner neatly into a 3d shape with sharp corners on more than one plane at a time.  Eventually I found a website that referred to it - "Flexible liners are extremely easy to fit, unless you are building a formal pond with right angles. Then it becomes very difficult and a rigid liner is a simpler choice."
How unhelpful.

Once the initial liner is approximately in place, you are supposed to fill it with water and straighten out the liner as you go, using the weight of the water to hold it in place.

Can I just reiterate the part about it being 10 degrees Celsius? TEN. Cloudy, breezy, occasionally drizzly and 10 degrees.  Guess which lucky soul got the standing-in-freezing-water job?

So there I was in my swimsuit and a T shirt, trying to smooth out the liner at the bottom of the deep end. The previous night's rain made that deep end a mire that the sand and underlay only partially helped to stabilise, so as I moved around the ground was shifting about underneath me spoiling the bit of liner I'd just smoothed.  I had a very cold an frustrating afternoon.

Once I got out I found I couldn't force myself to get back in again. It took 2 1/2 hours to get the feeling back in my toes.  Discretion was the better part of valour and I called it quits for the day.
Yet again it rained overnight.  Mark's trench -  and the soggy area around it he'd dug out to fill with hardcore - filled up as water poured in from the neighbour's very-slightly-higher garden. It was now a waterway about a food deep.
This is not supposed to be the pond
He bailed and dug, I clambered back in the actual, intended pond and returned to smoothing the liner out. It was a lot of pulling, stretching, folding and then making exasperated noises but eventually the liner was as straight as I could make it, the folds were stuck down with pond tape and the pond itself was 3/4 full.
It was blessedly sunny all afternoon. Sitting in what was essentially a giant paddling pool in my swimsuit felt like an indulgence. No risk of hypothermia - indeed I caught the sun on my shoulders a bit. Definitely the most fun of the whole project. I needed to let the liner settle overnight before trimming it, so we move on to the electrics.
Mark and I fed the cabling through the flexible conduit and from the shed floor out alone the deep trough to the deck, where he secured it to the frame underneath the deck and to the junction box.  

The next day I folded and pleated the top of the pond liner to be as flat as I could get it and Mark knocked a few tacks in to hold it in place.  Then we were able to start on the capping boards.  These were to be laid flat on their broad side so we could sit on them rather than stacked on their edges. We manoeuvred them into place, pre-drilling some of the holes that would be inaccessible against the fence once they were in place, and screwed them securely to the rest of the frame.
Getting started on the capping level
Just the waterfall wall to build
 To build the water feature, Mark chiseled out a gully in the top of a short piece of timber and slotted the fountainhead in it. We extended the extra height around the corner a bit to give it a more finished look and topped that L shape with flat capping pieces to match the rest of the pond.

We popped to the rather astonishing Pike's Waterlillies in Garforth to pick up a few plants to get us started off. That remarkable business is down a long, rough farm track which ends at a slightly chaotic looking yard and a rather dilapidated house. Chickens and a dog came to investigate us as we got out of the car. There was a scruffy looking long green house filled with big bathtubs of plants.  To the side of the farm buildings were two massive ponds - almost lakes - completely covered in flowering waterlilies. I've never seen anything like it. Mark said the buildings looked like somewhere the serial killer stored heads in a crime drama, which looked incongruous next to the amazing display of waterlilies and bulrushes.

The bloke was very helpful and informative (and nothing like a serial killer). We chose some rushes - both dwarf and full size - and a deep pink waterlily as well as a pile of oxygenating plants.  To fetch the latter, he pulled on some waders and headed into one of the lakes to yank up a potful.
We only got a few plants because we were conscious of rising costs and that with luck the rushes would spread in the spring. We can afford to bide our time getting the pond established.

With a few plants and the pond wired for lights and water feature, we were all set for the kids to return home from Spain.

Ta Da!

Illuminated rill

The view from the deck as I have my cuppa
Since those photos were taken I've built an exit ramp of river stones into the corner against the fence and the deck railing so any beasties falling in can clamber out again. I used 2 upturned crates to make a shallow shelf. I put some transplanted dwarf rushes on the new shelf and covered any visible bits with the stones. Then I piled more stones in a slope from the shelf up to the capping sleeper.

We've added a couple more plants donated by my good friend Andy and introduced a few fish now  the water has had a few weeks to settle in.  They're busy scoffing the bugs and larvae whilst keeping out of reach of the cats' paws. Ferris Mewler and Isaac Mewton are VERY interested in the new occupants!

Come next spring we'll add more waterlilies and hope all the plants grow and spread.  As the pond is south facing and isn't obscured by any trees we hope for loads and loads of waterlily flowers.

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