Sunday, March 15, 2009


Back on the road with Brett

It's been a while, but now the weather is bucking up, my peripatetic meanderings start once again, and first 'Day Out' of the year takes place courtesy of Messrs Brett and their site at Barrow-on-Soar in Leicestershire.

There’s little in life more satisfying than watching how concrete paving is made. The production machinery holds and obvious fascination, but despite over 40 years of visiting plants and looking at everything from a vibrating table bought off EBay for 2,000 quid to a 20 million Euro purpose-built facility featuring the latest and best of everything, I’m still mesmerised by the concrete products that emerge at the end of the process. I must have seen it a thousand times and more, but it still amazes me that freshly mixed concrete can, in a matter of seconds, emerge from a machine as a firm and cohesive paving unit, capable of maintaining its shape despite being less than a minute old.

Last Wednesday, I had the chance to tour the Brett factories at Barrow-on-Soar near Loughborough in Leicestershire. The site has passed through a host of familiar names over the past two decades: Steetley, Redland, LaFarge and now Brett have all, at some time, taken the distinctive pinky-red rock from Europe’s second largest granite quarry at nearby Mountsorrel and turned it into all sorts of concrete products, from ready-mix to Trief kerbs, from garden flagstones to shot-textured commercial paving.

The site has seemed to lack direction and purpose for the past decade. It was still churning out product, but with no strong strategy or plan driving it forward. Aggregates went in one gate while blocks, flags and kerbs emerged at the other because that’s what had always happened, but no-one really knew why. Now that Brett have taken up the reins, it does seem to have acquired a long overdue sense of purpose: someone wants this site to manufacture quality products as part of a wider scheme to create a credible force within the hard-landscaping market.

Blocks stocked in the yard, ready for delivery to site

For years, granite has come onto the site via a dedicated conveyor system that runs for 3km from quarry to site, passing over the River Soar and then under the A6 dual carriageway, but as manufacturing technology has improved, the use of granite dust and chippings for block making has decreased, and now most of the granite is transferred to dedicated rail wagons at the LaFarge owned and operated railhead sited on the main London-Nottingham line. The granite can be unpredictable, darker at some levels of the enormous quarry, and lighter in others, and this variability effects the colouring of concrete products so alternative aggregates now dominate, while the granite is reserved for uncoloured products such as commercial flagstones and the exclusive Trief and Kassel kerbs.

Trief kerbs cure in their moulds for 12-24 hours

What makes the Barrow plant intensely fascinating is the mix of machinery and technologies. Hand-finished kerb production contrasts with a state-of-the-art block curing unit where high humidity and silica fume helps accelerate curing and minimise efflorescence; BS flag production that is little changed from what I saw a child in the 1960s to highly-controlled shot-texturing. It’s strangely reassuring the see that, other than a change from the traditional paper filters to the modern so-called “Eco-Filters”, the method used to manufacture wet-press concrete flags is virtually unchanged. We’ve put men on the moon, created test-tube babies, invented t’internet, but flags are still made in the same way, because that’s what works best!

BS Flags are still made on a traditional 3-pan machine

Some things, however, do move on, and it was a real privilege to be given a sneak preview of a few of the products and innovations that Brett is working on in the top-secret development portacabin. I just wish I could tell you about them, especially the too-damned-clever-by-half p…..but no! All will be revealed in due course. You’ll just have to be patient!

There are also exciting developments in the area of potential bargains. Plans are in place to offer aged stock and end-of-line items at discounted prices to interested contractors and DIYers. There’s still a bit of t-crossing and i-dotting to be done, but with a bit of luck and a following wind, there should be an announcement on this site in the very neat future.

600 x 600 flags are shot textured individually

Inspiring, too, to hear of the company’s determination to extend their refreshing range of products northwards, to those parts of the country that haven’t yet had the opportunity to appreciate why so many contractors in the south of England regard Brett as their number one choice for hard-landscaping and residential paving.

Landscaping Products MD Chris Droogan reinforced this message of their commitment to contractors and customers with his passionate explanation of how the whole company is focussed on people, and how being a family business at heart, still under the aegis of Bill Brett, ensures they never lose sight of that.

Block pavers emerging from the humidity controlled curing chamber

I do hope Brett keeps its word to reach those of us in northern England, Wales and Scotland. Diversity and competition drives innovation and improvement, and it’s only by creating a truly diverse and competitive market throughout the country that the industry as a whole is pushed on to bigger and better things.

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