Sunday, September 07, 2008

A garden of mud and stone - part 1

When we moved into our house in May 2004, we didn't do so because of the house, an unremarkable 1930s semi. We did so because of its location, on a quiet, almost semi-rural backstreet, some three miles South of Sheffield city centre, and its situation. The street sits in the S8 postal district, which encompasses Woodseats, Heeley, Meersbrook, Norton Lees, Meadowhead, Norton and Beauchief.

It sits within an easy drive or cycle ride of the Eastern edge of the Peak District, which was important and, even more importantly for us, short of money as we were/are, it was (and remains) one of Sheffield's relatively 'undiscovered' areas, in terms of its housing potential.

Whereas areas like Nether Edge, Hunter's Bar, Walkley and Crookes have been colonised by incomers, looking for good houses in a nice area, well served by amenities and transport options, the S8 districts are only just coming to people's attention in that respect. The housing slump has put a temporary halt to any potential influx of house-buyers but I can see this part of the city becoming one of the main areas of interest once the market picks up again.

Well, I digress: I'm not blogging about the housing slump and the up and coming suburbs of Sheffield. Nope, what I want to say about our house is why we are here; what moved us to buy it in the first place.

We'd sought long and hard for a house we could afford. I, being from Pudsey, had few preconceptions about where I wanted to live in Sheffield. Jude however, had fixed ideas about that matter, wanting a house close to Nether Green, where her last house had been, so as to be close to her son, and also to the people she knew and felt comfortable with, to her area.

But the houses over in Nether Green and nearby suburbs were expensive; too much so for us. We had to look further afield. One day, hard at work in Leeds, I ventured onto an Estate Agent's website to look at houses on the market in Sheffield, and came across this one. It was Monday morning, and the house had just been added to the website. I rang Jude, who showed little interest, it being miles away from where she wanted to live. Well, a 15 minute drive or an hour's walk anyway.

But it was affordable and the description enticingly said "Backs onto woods". That last statement was enough leverage to get Jude interested enough to go and view it. We did so on the Tuesday, negotiating unfamiliar streets and driving past the house twice, before we identified it as the one we wanted to see.

The house was nice enough; a bit small, but enough for two of us and two old cats. We made an offer the very next day. The couple selling were desperate to move, and wanted a quick sale, so accepted our offer of the asking price immediately. What had really swayed us, and particularly Jude, was not just the price, nor the location, nor even the house itself, but its physical situation and what we saw, as we looked beyond the house to what lay behind it.

The house sits, somewhat paradoxically, in a tiny valley, which itself is high on a hill, some 3 miles from, and 350 feet above, the city. No risk of flooding here.

The house sits on a scarp of sandstone lying just a few feet under the soil, on a steep slope which runs down into the little valley. Out at the front, a tiny, paved patio overlooks the street and the long drystone wall opposite, and gives no hint of what lies behind the house.

The valley is bounded by broad ridges on three sides, and itself runs down towards the distant city. This has a peculiar acoustic effect, whereby the traffic noise from the various trunk roads, which run less than a mile away in three directions, barely register here, being deflected by the aforementioned ridges. Conversely, the small valley serves to channel the sounds of the city centre up the hill to us, so that on a Saturday afternoon the roars of the crowd at Bramall Lane reach our ears, and we can hear the clang and boom of distant forges away on the East of the city. But overall, we are in a quiet pocket of the land, something we never anticipated when we moved here.

On an average evening, the ambient noise is dominated by the song of birds, the sound of occasional passing cars on the street outside, neighbour's voices or music from back-garden socialising, and the wind in the trees.

Ah yes, the trees. The trees are probably the real reason we moved here.

Go through the house, and out through the sliding doors at the back, and you emerge onto a flagged patio, some 20 by 25 feet, as big as the entire garden for some houses of this vintage. This, in turn, leads to a couple of steps down onto a timber decked area, 10 feet by 20 feet, bounded on its downhill side by a wooden balustrade.

This is what we saw when we first viewed the house, as we looked out of the patio doors. And, nice though it was, it was what lay beyond that which really fired our imaginations and sold the house to us.

The decking is perched atop heavy poles, some 6 feet above the top end of a steeply sloping garden. A long, steeply sloping garden; altogether, the garden extends over 130 feet from the back wall of the house, being around 22 feet wide along its length.

The bottom of the garden is invisible from the house because, as the Estate Agent's blurb said, it "backs onto woods", to the extent that the trees swallow the garden. In addition, because of the steep slope, the house itself lies level with the canopy of the trees. Even though the woods are just a narrow strip, Ashes Wood, which is an offshoot of the larger Carr Woods (see my blog article about these woods), they are all we can see, at least when the trees are in leaf, as we look out from the back of the house.

The trees consist of numerous sycamores, some of them old and huge, with crazed and shaggy bark, so unlike the smoother bark of their younger cousins, oaks of various vintages, a scattering of silver birches, some giant ashes and venerable willows, and an underclass of hazel, elder, holly alder and hawthorn. Elsewhere in the woods are giant beeches, at the northern extent of their range, and the odd yew.

So, we bought the house. But this blog article ain't about t' bloody 'ouse, it's about t'garden. It were t'garden wot med us buy t'place, and wot really fired up me imagination, as ah stood an' looked arr it that day when wi went t'view t'place.

S'cuse my lapsing into dialect. I'm from Pudsey you know.

The garden, when we first moved in, was barely worthy of the name. The only kempt parts were the fairly new patio and decking: the rest of the garden, the other 100ft or more of it(!), consisted of a coarse grass and weed-strewn slope, with a few remnant shrubs and a clump of rhubarb, defiantly reminding me of long-past cultivation. This slope ran down the hill, past a huge weeping willow, to where an Anderson Shelter still stood, relict of the era of the house's birth at the outbreak of WW2, when it was intended to protect the occupants from German bombs.

The garden continued for perhaps 25 feet beyond the shelter, but this entire expanse was a no-man's land of weeds, rubbish, hedge-clippings, broken plant pots, dead branches and other detritus, so deep and tangled that it was a fight to make a way through/across it all, to reach the true termination of the garden. This was marked by a series of concrete posts, which had once carried a strained wire fence, but were now relegated to the role of boundary markers.

More interestingly, the boundary was also marked by a hawthorn hedge, leggy and gappy, and with most of its semi-mature bushes half buried and bent horizontal by the weight of crap plied against and on top of them. Most were still alive though, green foliage fizzing with life amidst the rot.

Stepping past the struggling hawthorns brought me to the rounded top of a steep bank, where the ground dropped away into what can only be described as a ravine, along the bottom of which, maybe 20 feet below, ran a little beck. On the opposite, even steeper bank, bluebells and ferns carpeted the ground under the trees. That bank rose, 25-30 feet, to meet a ribbon of a footpath contouring along through the woods, the angle above that easing, flattening out, until rising steeply again to meet a high mesh fence, marking the perimeter of playing fields belonging to the University of Sheffield.

Looking at all this, at my new playground, ideas popped to the surface of my mind like bubbles in lemonade, most bursting uselessly, but some floating there, coalescing around three immutable factors:
  1. We have no money
  2. The garden lies on a steep slope
  3. The woods are full of stuff
These three facts are what led the garden to become what it is now. If you're interested in gardens, then revisit the blog and I'll tell the story. I have lots of pictures too, though unfortunately none of the garden as it was before I began to work on it.

It was late August 2004 before I even put a spade in the ground and well into 2005 before I began, in earnest, to form clear ideas in my head, and to begin to translate them into a physical reality.

One of my great personal weaknesses, almost to the point of inability, is concrete, scheduled, detailed planning. I tend to form ideas which become vague plans or intentions, and which I often begin work on without benefit of timescales or precise details. They develop organically, evolving and mutating as they go, depending on what problems may arise or whether my often unpredictable materials behave as I originally envisaged. My initial 'plans' were:-
  1. Clear the rubbish from the bottom of the garden, burning the woody stuff and binning everything else, unless I saw a use for it.
  2. Rescue the hawthorn hedge and lay it, traditionally.
  3. Dig away the soil at the bottom of the garden to make a flat area, where I could build a shed and have a workspace for woodland crafts, woodcarving and the like.
  4. Terrace the rest of the garden, to a greater or lesser extent, dividing it informally into 'zones', becoming wilder and more 'woodsy' as one progresses down the garden.
  5. Have a pond, somewhere amidst all that.
That was my starting point. I had, effectively, a budget of bugger all and no materials other than what I could find or scrounge. What I did have, however, was a collection of good tools, a fertile imagination, physical ability and some of the skills needed to cultivate my ideas to fruition. Occasional injections of cash from unexpected sources enabled the odd luxury in terms of materials I mightn't otherwise have been able to afford, and allowed certain bottlenecks in progress to be overcome but, generally, I worked with found materials and made it up as I went along!

The garden has been one of my passions since moving here and, even now in 2008, it still is. It has a long way to go before completion, and continues to evolve, guiding me as much as I guide it.

I should have told this story from the beginning perhaps, but I'm a relative newcomer to blogging, and was certainly not blogging when we moved in here. My partner, Jude, has described parts of the garden and its evolution, on her blog. It's elicited such interest from people that I decided I'm going to tell the tale myself, going right back to the start of it all. I'll do it in instalments, recalling what I did and how the ideas became reality, and I'll continue, once we're up to date, so that the continuing evolution of the garden is broadcast to anyone who may have an interest in such things.

The significance of the garden's location and situation will become ever more apparent as the episodes unfold, as will our lack of disposable income. With ample money, there is no way that the garden would have ended up the way it is and is becoming. Poverty is the artist, every bit as much as I am. Hopefully I can show you that, even with almost nothing, you can create a fantastic garden, and that the resultant garden will be all the better for it, because you'll be pushed into using that most powerful and creative of the tools at your disposal; your imagination.

I intend to tell the story of how this...

Was turned into this...


  1. Hi Brian

    Jude sent me :)

    Great blog - looking forward to future instalments (I'll be subscribing as soon as I finish typing this comment).

    Love the photos and looking forward to seeing more :)

    You might also find my friend Suw's blog,, interesting - she's on a mish to build a house that's both eco-friendly and cat-friendly.

    Debs x

  2. Hi Debs,
    Thanks for the comment! My blog's been a bit inactive for a while but I've decided the garden's worth telling people about.

    This first entry is a scene-setter, really; I expect future ones to have more photos and insights into how and why it evolved as it did.

    I'll check out Suw's blog later too: building a house! Hats off to Suw there, that's a huge project. I'd love to do it myself though, too. I love stone, so I'd want to use local stone in the build (reclaimed of course) but not dressed blocks - more of a drystone wall approach but with a natural filler in the gaps. Anyway, pie and sky and dreaming of pipes and all that eh? Maybe one day....

  3. Ah yes, Jude and I have been discussing the merits of my local granite and slate (I'm in North Wales, halfway between Caernarfon and Pwllheli), and how I used them in my pocket-sized garden :)

    Love the photos you've posted so far, and really looking forward to seeing more!

    Debs x


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