Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Wasps and Drains

Jorgen, a grape-grower in our street, complained to me that wasps in large numbers were tackling his crop. Had I seen any nests?

Now, I’m rather adept at locating the homes of these little varmints, being given the task as a boy and when I worked on a farm. In those days Cyanide was the substance for destruction, which now seems incredible.

So I gave yet another look at gardens within sight of our own. There were no nests to be seen.

We were having 6 o’clock drinks in the garden of a partially sighted friend, Anne, in a nearby street, when Margreet, facing the garden, saw a lot of insect activity. It came from a wasp nest in the roof of the house extension. It was a huge nest, but unusual, inasmuch as there was no single entry and exit hole, but lots - all in between slates.

I volunteered to deal with the problem, returning when all the wasps had returned home for the night.

Nowadays, wasp killer comes as a white powder, and is easily applied from a plastic container.

So I climbed a ladder and squirted powder into the many cracks that I had seen used by the wasps.

The next day it rained in the early morning. Had my powder been effective?

In the light rain, all traces of the powder had been washed away. But there was not a wasp in sight. Sunny weather returned and I re-inspected the roof. The powder had been completely successful. Our district will at least be wasp-reduced for the remainder of the summer.

The rain that washed away my wasp-killing powder coincided with a blocked drain at the rear of our house. Something was preventing water from the roof, sink and washing machine from escaping to the main sewer. Where was this blockage? And what might it be? The use of caustic soda had no beneficial effect.

When our terrace of six houses was built in the 1830s there would have been no drainage. An alleyway was provided at the bottom of our gardens for night soil to be collected and dispensed with.

Later, a sewer was installed in the gardens, running the length of our terrace, which may have deposited the effluent in the nearby Thames. Then the Victorian sewer was built beneath the street outside. So now our waste liquid travels one way under our gardens at the rear and then turns right and right again to join the Victorian sewer to run back below and in front of our front doors. It is well-travelled sewage.

At one time the garden sewer for our houses became blocked, and we had to locate our inspection covers and open them - to view the overflowing liquid detritus before the blockage was dealt with and the drain cleared.

So when our sink water, etc. overflowed at the back of our house, the first thing to do was to see if there was, perhaps, another main blockage. But the pipes were seen to be clear when a retired doctor friend, Mike, at the end of the terrace, lifted the drain cover in his garden with the help of a sharp spade and lumps of wood.

So the blockage was local and belonging to our house.

Some water was extracted from the drain in a small jug. Then a flexible drain rod, borrowed from my sister June, was inserted into the drain, but proved to be ineffective.

Then Mike and I removed some flagstones in our garden to find and then lift off the cast-iron drain-inspection cover. The drain beneath was clear.

Therefore, somewhere between that sewer drain and the house was the blockage.

From where house drainpipes join the sewer, up the blocked pipe went the flexible drain rod for its full length, touching nothing. So the trouble must have been in the U-bend drain just outside the house.

There was only one thing to do. I rolled up my sleeve, lay on the wet and muddy earth and plunged my arm down the dark and caustic soda water to pull out handfuls of mostly white plaster – until, eureka, away flowed the murky liquid to where it should have gone in the first place. And it was bloody water, too, as I had somehow cut my hand in the operation.

We had had an extension made to the house 19 years before, when the plasterer must have thought that excess plaster would happily flush away if poured down this drain. It didn’t. But also it didn’t completely block the drain.

Gunge, over the years, must have been slowly building up on the plaster, now extracted and waiting in a pile nearby for disposal. But it won’t go back down the drain. That’s for sure.