Building a garden railway down south or Nobody warned me about the blackbirds

Phase 1
I’m slightly ashamed to admit that what follows started nearly three years ago and I’ve been promising to write a record for at least half that time. I’m slightly embarrassed to realise I’ve built only two model railways before – and finished neither - and I’m much more than slightly surprised to see how far we’ve got with our garden railway in the time, given the distractions and digressions we go in for.
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The whole thing started as a set of fairly random needs: thinning a hedge that we had allowed to encroach too far into the garden; providing a store for my growing – at the time - ladder collection; making a ‘roof’ garden, and, yes, building a garden railway. Our garden is small and an odd shape, so the intricate planning document simply indicated that an out-and-back line would run along the fence at the side of the house, make its way out into the garden over the new ladder store and somehow – possibly through Darjeeling style reverses – drop down to ground level, somewhere. Scribbling on the back of the envelope did not consider what to do with the swamp we called a path at the side of the house and the decomposing shed at the bottom of the garden, nor did it take into account ideas we would plagiarise from other garden railways. Most significantly, the sudden, completely unexpected collapse of my right hip played no part in forward planning: it just happened about three months into Phase 1, and the need to build part of the railway on the ground disappeared. (I couldn’t use the ladder collection much, either.)
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I actually made substantial progress with cutting the thuggish laurel hedge back and re-aligning the fence by the time the hip gave way, which was a bit of luck as I was able to lower the ladders into place and build their new home round them. My photographs show the new fence line, with new posts set in Metaposts and the existing pergola posts declared sound, because they never got wet when the laurel grew so thickly against them. I was able to build a very strong structure for the store/railway/roof garden by joining the posts with 75 x 50 mm tanalised timber. Fastenings are Screwfix's finest Turboscrew coach screws, dipped in gear oil before drilling them home, and cheaper by the 5 boxes. I got through a lot of them! See photo 1. The fence ran through the pergola posts for about 15 years, so all the hedge hacking did release some useful space.
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The railway base/store roof was made with 18mm tanalised ply, fixed with 50mm woodscrews, again from Screwfix. The complication here was to somehow arrange waterproofing, because I didn’t want to leave the ply exposed, neither did I want to drive nails through the waterproofing sheet. A solution came in the form of the PVC sheeting sold to make ponds. It’s more expensive than felt, but it lasts a lot longer and is much easier to wrap around the edges of the ply. See photo 2. The white material is non-woven synthetic fleece, recommended as a reasonably cheap protective layer, so the PVC is less likely to be punctured. The fleece/PVC sheets were wrapped over the edge of the ply on the fence side and the timber sheet was fixed down and covered. Photo 3 shows progress with fixing battens to hold the outer edges of the sheets.
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Observant readers will notice the wider part of the layout at the house end, about which I’ve said nothing so far because it wasn’t in the original ‘plan’. The determination to change ‘out-and-back’ into a ‘bent dog-bone’ followed on from seeing Derek’s railway. There really was only the barest minimum of room to fit the loop in, but I got on with it anyway. Photo 4 marks an important stage: the completion of raised sides to contain the ‘roof’ garden, mostly. Hobbling about on the structure, I felt very secure and happy to load it with soil, etc. I like over-engineering stuff, just in case, and I think the layout would survive a small meteor strike. I still thought my wallet would be pretty secure, too, despite the lavishness of the spec. There was a fair bit of re-used timber in the framework and decking came from B&Q at half-price, with a further 10% off due to old-age. The warm glow I was feeling was enhanced by re-using old timber and bits of refurbished trellis to break up the starkness of the fence, which was also re-used stuff. What followed was chilling, but we were so far in there was no point in being squeamish!
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I admit to not doing any joined-up thinking about the requirements for building a working garden railway in a usable roof garden, so it was only when I got to the photo 4 water-shed that I bothered to think properly about this. Reference to the Internet finds it knee-deep in sites which tell you all about building roof gardens and most of the explanations are backed up with offers of appropriate materials, all at challenging prices. It’s a serious shock to discover that you need another layer of waterproofing to line the box structure, with the associated fleece to protect the big investment from grit, soil and other assorted roof garden fillers. The cost really escalates when firms quote all-in prices, per square metre, so the discussion with my landscaper (SWIGTTPIAM) went something like this: I’ll buy the structural stuff and then you can cough up for the gardening substances and plants. This actually worked, even to the extent that Deirdre bought her own garden railway planting and landscaping books, and I pressed on with lining the box. I used butyl rubber sheet, mainly because D was very keen to use sharp grit and sharp bits of slate in the landscaping. Butyl sheet is very tough and I got a good quote for an end of roll, so there was plenty left over for a separate job in the front garden.
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Photo 5 shows the finished, 125 mm deep, lined ‘box’. It sloped down by about 1 in 40, away from the house, so the lower end was left mainly open to allow good drainage. (Nobody had told me to avoid gradients at this stage, but the garden slopes away even more steeply, so the layout wouldn’t look right, if it was level.) Progress to this point involved the use of skills I already had, such as cutting a piece of timber to required dimensions, drilling holes, fixing screws and cutting expensive waterproof sheet to get the most coverage for my money. My capacity for disposing of the latter was improving, though, and this was a good thing because the next stage depended on my worst excesses yet. New skills were also needed as I had never laid a single piece of 32 mm flexible track.
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The target was to arrange for the above-mentioned track to be raised above the butyl, but not the full 125mm box depth: we were aiming for a line in the landscape, rather than just sitting track on top of it. In what is really a shallow tray, this looked difficult: if we put a soil layer in first, there would be only 50mm or so under the track and fixing would be unreliable. Puncturing, many times, all that expensive butyl and PVC sheet was likely, so after much discussion, we decided to install the track first, on some sort of support, then fill in with soil once we were happy with the railway. We chose the recycled plastic product supplied by Filcris Ltd, because it doesn’t rot and making curves with it is a doddle: if you follow their instructions for construction of twin rails to make a base, you get smooth transitions leading into curves, and you can bury the base in the sure knowledge that it will last a very long time. The width, at 42 mm, was just right for our needs because the gardening department had already put down capillary matting and the combined depth of Filcris plastic and matting came to, near enough, 50mm. Photo 6 show work in progress, following, mainly, the instructions supplied on the Filcris website. My method deviated because I didn’t need posts to fix the track base down. Our track doesn’t move about because I added side and cross pieces, such as the one in photo 7, to lock the whole structure between the sides of the tray.
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The mass of grit, soil, compost and landscaping slate added helps to pin the track base down and, with the aid of a track bender, I found matching the track to the base and fixing it down fairly easy to do, for a beginner. Photo 8 shows how I ventured into building super-elevation into Groan Loop (no-one had warned me against doing this, at the time) and clearance checking to achieve proper narrow gauge appearance. And so it came to pass that the structural engineering department moved elsewhere and Deirdre started serious landscaping. More, about the next phases, and the Windamere Hotel, will follow.