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Getting Rid of the Pen

December 14, 2009
The pen! Or the trough! Or the beast! It had a lot of names, none complimentary.

The pen! Or the trough! Or the beast! It had a lot of names, none complimentary.

So, I’ve been spending a fair bit of my free time working on the garden, and it’s coming along nicely. I need to recap what I’ve done, starting with:

Getting Rid of the Pen

The lady who owned the house before us had an infirmity which stopped her gardening as she would have liked. As far as we understand it, she had the garden paved over and had a breeze block pen filled with soil built at the far end, so she could do a bit of gardening without bending low. However, the pen is 20 feet wide and more than 6 feet deep, and it would take a person of some agility to garden with any degree of proficiency. I’m guessing that it was too much for her. The pen became filled with brambles, bindweed and ivy, (and *huge* spiders) and was a thoroughly overgrown mess. The roots of the brambles snuck out down the garden, reappearing between the cracks in the flags.

When we bought the house, for the first six years or so, the garden was way down on our list of priorities for refurbishment. It became a bit of dumping ground, and when the fence fell, we didn’t particularly feel like going out there. When we finally got the fence fixed last summer, we felt more inclined to tidy up the rest of the garden. I painted the pen white to try to make it look bearable, and hacked back the brambles, but still when I got chance I knew it would go. It was going to be a big job, undoubtedly, something I was going to have to build up to. But once I decided that the whole garden was going to get the once-over, then the pen was certain to go!

Soil Redistribution - taken from inside the pen wall and stacked against the brick retaining wall.

Soil Redistribution - taken from inside the pen wall and stacked against the brick retaining wall.

The pen stood three breeze blocks tall on a base that dipped below the level of the patio flags so I couldn’t see what the foundations were like, with a line of foot wide concrete flags to top it off. The soil inside came to just over the second block, so there was a lot of muck in there to remove before the sides could be taken apart. And before I got to the soil I had a crazy mess of bindweed, grandmother’s bonnet and random weeds to ditch.

The flags from the top of the pen came off easily

The flags from the top of the pen came off easily

I bought a compost heap for the weeds, and spent a day filling it. That in itself was surprisingly pleasing – it was the first step in the redevelopment process, (frankly, the easiest one to date) so I felt this project was going somewhere. Buying a compost heap and filling it felt like a commitment to something which I hadn’t embraced for a long time, a move back to the natural world, after living in cities for 12 years or more. Or maybe it was the making mentality asserting itself again, and what I was getting excited about was creating something new. I don’t think those are mutual exclusive possibilities, and they are both pretty health stances to take.

The initial cracks where I got my chisel in - the footmark is where I tried - in vain - to kick the pen over.

The initial cracks where I got my chisel in - the footmark is where I tried - in vain - to kick the pen over.

So, the next problem was the soil, the issue being I’d nowhere to put it. The best solution I came up with was not to try to clear it all out but to dig down against the inside of the pen wall, making a space about a shovel wide which would allow a hammer and chisel in. The removed soil was stacked on top of itself against the retaining wall that backs onto the railway tracks, making a pleasing slope. I was working through the rain, and, while it was a pain in the arse at the time, looking back that probably helped as it made the soil a little sticky, which meant it piled up better than if it had been dry. I’m not sure if that makes up for getting soaked, but there’s always an up-side!

There was quite a lot of crap in the soil, including what I suspect were small sheets of asbestos, which I donned my swimming goggles and a face mask to bag up. Other things I dug up were corrugated iron, lots of toys soldiers, (all plastic, all broken), cutlery and plenty of broken bottles. At first I was careful to separate everything out – crap, stones, roots – but as the job only seemed to get bigger the longer I was at it, it didn’t take long before I didn’t give a tinker’s cuss what I was digging up, it all went on the same pile. There were plenty of roots of brambles and ivy running deep in the soil, and they liked to run around the inside walls of the pen, where I’d guess there was less resistance to their progress.

The pen wall, half dismantled

The pen wall, half dismantled

That done, it came time to dismantle the pen itself. The row of flags which topped it came off very easily. The cement had lost it’s grip over the years – some of them lifted off by hand without any chiselling, others just needed a tiny bit of persuasion. I was hoping the breeze blocks themselves would be just as easy. As it turned out, some were easy and some were particularly tricky. I had to get my chisel in between the cracks and leverage them up. As I chiselled away, I keep looking for the tell-tale fissure along the cement which indicated that the breeze block was about to give up its hold on the wall and to embrace life as a free breeze block. I bought myself a pair os protective specs to look after my eyes, which was probably a wise move. Bits of masonry were flying off in all directions, and it wouldn’t surprise me if one or other of the neighbours collars me next time they see me and complains about the fragments of stone which appear in their garden every time they hear me braying away with the lump hammer.

The difficult bottom layer

The difficult bottom layer

The chiselling would have been straight forward for anyone skilled with a chisel, but a clown like me who is a tad accident prone was setting himself up for if not disaster then at least incident. I managed to miss the chisel with the hammer and clattered into my hands on many occasions. I was wearing gloves, so no individual blow was too bad, but culmulatively, my hand took a battering and the bruises between my thumb and index finger showed me I should have been more careful. Anyway moving between the hammer and the crowbar and back, I got the top two layers up.

The breeze block pen - she is gone

The breeze block pen - she is gone

The bottom layer was hardest. It didn’t want to give up its status as wall as readily as its brothers and sisters above had. I dug around the sides and saw that there was a foundation of cement and broken bricks, and they were sticking in the ground like a rotten teeth in rotten gums. I could isolate any individual block from its neighbours, but each one was embedded tight. I knew the first one would be the worst, as after that I could attack from three sides instead of just two. I ended up chopping away at the broken bricks in the foundation, and wobbling the breeze block backward and forward until eventually it leveraged itself out. After that it wasn’t too bad: the rest came up reasonably quickly and all that remained was to tidy up after myself. The pen had gone. Yeehaw!

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