GARDENS: Men at work

Diary of a Dorset garden; When it came to creating her new terrace, Anna Pavord used a combination of local materials and skilled craftsmen
FITTED KITCHENS have never been my thing so when we came to do some very necessary sums on the cost of our building works, it did not surprise me that we had spent rather more on the terrace outside the house than on the cupboards inside. The original terrace was laid in herringbone brick along the south-facing front of the house. It was just over 50ft long, but in its middle section, only four feet wide. Arms at either side curved out to embrace the lawn, so at either end the terrace was wider than at the centre. The lawn itself slid down and away from the house towards a boundary hedge of pyracantha.

From the beginning, it was clear that we needed to arrange things so that the house, too, did not give the impression of sliding down the hill. It needed to sit on a wider platform. Almost twice as wide, I thought, which would give me the opportunity to make deeper borders along the front of the house, as well as give breadth to the terrace itself.

So when the masons Bob and Larry, assisted by Darren, had finished building the new walls of the house (stone - mostly released on site from things we pulled down), we started to think about this terrace and how it might work. This was seven months into the project and it was already obvious that Bob and Larry were the kind of craftsmen who could turn their hands to pretty much anything in the building line. They pegged out a shape for the new terrace, showing where the edge might finish, and I began to worry about brick.

By the time we started on this part of the project, much of the old brick terrace had already been pulled up to lay new drains. We wanted to re- use the original bricks but the new terrace would absorb almost twice as many as before, and we couldn't find any that matched. If you are laying herringbone pattern, bricks have to match exactly in size. So, from necessity, was born the idea of the rugs.

We could stretch our hoard of bricks, I thought, if we incorporated panels made of other materials into the terrace. Being hoarders by nature, we already had cobbles of various sizes, slate slips from an old fireplace, and masses of roofing slates that were too damaged to go back on the house. The roofing slates, set on edge, could make the fringes of the rugs and could also be used to hold strips of the smallest cobbles in place.

But having hauled together all our own salvage, we still didn't have enough stuff. At a reclamation yard in Somerset, I bought four slate slabs, each 6ft 2in by 2ft 4in. They'd come from the base of a billiard table said Bob, when he went to fetch them. These slabs set the tone. The three rugs would all be blueish-grey, set into the weathered terracotta colour of the brick. From the same reclamation yard we got vast slabs of blue lias. Lias is a Jurassic stone, common on the coast round us (newly declared a World Heritage Site), brittle, so always cut thick.

On the back of an envelope, I sketched out how the three rugs might be put together. At the far end we could lay two of the billiard table slates to make the outer edges of a rug, with two matching panels of lias between them, big cobbles running down the seam between each panel. At either end, the roofing slate fringes, making a rug roughly 10ft by 6ft.

The middle rug was to go directly outside the old brick porch on the front of the house. It turned out more complicated than the first, a rectangle 8ft by 6ft, bounded by the old slate slips, 8ins wide. In the corners, big pebble roundels, such as you see on the fireplaces of houses built at the same time as ours. Inside the slips was a symmetrical pattern of letters laid out in pinkish- grey Highland pebbles contained in a double line of roofing slate set on edge. To infill, medium grade cobbles (50-70cm - the reclamation yard worked in imperial measurements, the gravel merchant who supplied the cobbles in metric).

The third and final rug had to take account of various drains and manholes with recessed covers, disguised and infilled with herringbone brick. It was the simplest: a single billiard table slab, stretched out with four lines of cobbles at either end and framed with blue lias slabs, in an 18-in border. It measured roughly 10ft by 5ft 6in.

I'd had the fun. Bob, Larry and Darren had the hard work. We've never done anything like this before and I learnt a great deal. As with so many other enterprises, the preparation was more critical than the final laying of the terrace. Hardcore, scalpings and a final top dressing of sand provided the base. Immense care was taken to get the levels right, a 2-in fall over the 8ft width of the terrace, so that rainwater would run away from the house rather than into its footings. Bob and Larry seemed permanently welded to spirit levels.

From the same reclamation yard, we'd bought old handmade bricks (they call them Tudor bricks) which, laid soldier fashion, made the edgings to the borders and the lawn. They were the first bricks that Bob and Larry set in place, haunched up in lime mortar so they'd provide a solid, firm framework for the rest of the terrace. Then they began on the rugs. It wasn't easy because the materials were all of a different thickness, the slate slabs relatively thin, the cobbles much fatter.

But like all highly skilled craftsmen, they made it look easy, choosing the cobbles carefully, tamping them down level into the sand, moving vast slabs of stone around as though they were made of card, swiftly cutting the old roofing slates into 4-in chunks and painstakingly packing them side by side to make the fringes. It had taken me only seconds to scribble the fringes on paper. It took hours to lay them. Regularly they set boards across the surface of their work, checking that, despite the disparity of the materials, the surface at least was smooth and comfortable to walk on. When a whole section was finished they brushed it over with a dry mix of one part mortar to three parts of fine sand.

Nothing in our entire building project has given me more pleasure than the terrace, magicked out of rubble by this brilliant trio. We were lucky with the weather, which turned soon after we'd completed the work, and luckiest of all with the guys who did the work, who didn't shake their heads, suck their teeth and say "It'll never work, love." They just set to and made it happen. And there's one slate slab left over, just right for the top of a breakfast table, set in the morning sun. Hooray. E

What it cost: slate slabs (6ft 2in x 2ft 4in) pounds 100 each; slate slips expect to pay about pounds 14 each; blue lias stone pounds 65 a square yard; Tudor bricks 60p each. All these came from Castle Reclamation, Parrett Works, Martock, Somerset TA12 6AE. Tel: 01935 826483, Fax: 01935 826791, or visit Cobbles (50-75 cm) pounds 4.70 for a 40kg bag, cobbles (75-100cm) pounds 4.70 for a 40kg bag, Highland pebbles (25-50cm) pounds 5.45 for a 40kg bag. Ours came from J C Phillips & Son, 162A South St, Bridport DT6 3NP. Tel: 01308 422179, Fax: 01308 421956. Check local suppliers in `Yellow Pages' under Sand & Gravel Suppliers. The work on the terrace was carried out as part of a larger project by Hillbuild, Burley, West Coker Hill, Yeovil, Somerset BA22 9DG Tel: 01935 862400