Glee 2004 - Part II
Turning our attention to those companies specialising in wet-cast and garden paving, I felt that three companies stood out, and in the interest of fairness, I'll let the new boys go first.
EJ Stone from Ashington in the North-east of England are Glee debutants and to their credit, they seemed to have more paving on their stand than anyone else, as well as producing what I thought was the best new wet-cast product at the show. The Alnwick Slate feature features a new texture in a new colour and it would have been easy to get it wrong with one or both of these critical factors. However, the colour is a near-as-dammit match for the legendary Penrhyn slate from North Wales, and the texture is undeniably accurate. Sales Director Neil Cox (who also had the best tea-making facilities at the show) told me how he'd spent two days scrambling about the slate heaps of Northumberland in his search for the perfect pieces to use as models for his moulds. It was time well spent, as the resulting flags are spot on!
EJ Stone offer a wide range of wet cast patio flags and walling products in a range of colours and styles, and they have plans to move into CBP production in the very near future. Neil's hoping to have his new block plant on-stream before the end of autumn, and was showing a few of the test blocks he's planning to produce. There'll be new here, on Pavingexpert.com, as soon as the plant is functioning.
If I had to give an award for most attractive stand at Glee, then there's absolutely no doubt in my mind that it would go to Westminster Stone , and I think that everyone else in the industry, if they were being totally honest and 'off-the-record', would agree that, year in and year out, John Clifford and his dad Paul produce a superb display that shows off the products to their very best.
And the attention to detail that they use to create their display is mirrored by the attention to detail they make with their range of flagstones and other garden hard-landscaping products. The Old Lancashire and Old Yorkshire flagstones are as good a reproduction as I've ever seen, and the Old Provence range is virtually impossible to tell apart from genuine terracotta tiles.
You can talk to some people in this trade, and their main interest is the business: the making money, the wheeling and dealing, the shifting units. And then there are a handful of folk who have an all-consuming passion for paving, and could never imagine being involved in any other industry. This dedication often shows through in their products, and there's no finer example than Westminster Stone. The quality of the product, the quality of the display, the quality of service - maybe that's why the tv crews used this stand as a stage for their interviews. Pure Class!
That's a fiver you owe me, John!
Stonemarket have a long pedigree of producing quality and innovative wet-cast products, and over recent years they've proved that their eye for detail and originality works equally well with natural stone products.
Although they've added new product lines to their wet cast range it was three items in natural stone that really took my eye at this show. The most visually striking was the new Provencal Sunflower, a superb creation combining buff and grey sandstone flags, cut to exact shapes and fitted together to form a simply stunning circle feature, easily the best at the show. The basic circle kit has a diameter of 3200mm, but it can be extended by addition of the outer ring, shown here, which pushed the overall dimensions up to a diameter of a little over 4 metres.
The ever-affable MD of Stonemarket, Tom Poole, had played about with various colour options for this new flagship product, but decided on this combination and I have to say I think he's got it dead right.
The second natural stone product from Stonemarket to which I want to draw your attention is this simple but elegant star in a flamed granite.
It's no secret in the trade that we're all looking for the product range that could take over from the imported sandstones, and I have a sneaky feeling that public taste will shift away from the traditional, rustic riven-flags to something with a bit of class and elegance about it. These flamed granite features, and the complementary rectangular paving, could well be an indicator of what's to come. Crisp, clean lines with a basic, classic palette of natural colours - very European and minimalist in looks: could it be right for the notoriously conservative British taste? I hope so!
The final item in this quick survey of the Stonemarket offering is the one I suspect could well be the most successful. It's a weathered sandstone, which may not sound terribly exciting at first, but when you see it close up, and when you feel the texture, then you'll know why it's sure to be popular.
Although the stone is brand new, it's been treated in a method that's top secret, and no amount of cajoling, trickery or pestering could force any of the Stonemarket people to reveal the process, even though I reckon I know how it's done. The special treatment produces a flag that appears to be worn smooth with time, giving it a much more authentic 'aged' appearance than any of the stained versions that are doing the rounds. It's a truly intriguing texture and it offers a viable, believable and affordable alternative to those poor souls condemned to live in Lower Britain where genuine reclaimed yorkstone flags can cost well over 50 quid per square metre.
It'll be available in two colours, a soft grey and a mellow buff, and it's being sold under the name of "Vintage Stone". I urge you to keep your eye open for it next Spring!
While we're looking at Stonemarket products, I really ought to mention the "holy grail" computer software they've been developing which generates random-ish layouts for all sorts of modular flags. Just how random is each layout can be determined, to some extent, by the end user, so you can define sets of rules, such as 'no-straight-lines-over-3-metres', or 'no-4-corner-meetings', and then the software creates a layout using your chosen flag range, in your chosen sizes, in a matter of minutes. Depending on how pernickety you've been, it could be 1½ minutes or 8 minutes or 15 minutes, but it's still quicker than working it out with pencil and graph paper!
I've been involved in developing similar computerised random layout generators since way back when I had my first ZX81, and I have to admit that this is the best implementation of the idea I've ever seen. The user interface is neat, clean and simple, and the end product is very attractive-looking. Tom Poole admits there's a way to go, but it's leaps and bounds ahead of any of the other commercially available programs I've played with. He plans to make it available as a web-based tool for selected designers and contractors and has promised to keep me up-to-date with developments, so I shall hold him to that, and see if we can get hold of some screengrabs for a later news item.
As I told Tom, it's the best "not-actually-paving" item I've seen at the show by a long way, and I wish I had more time to play with it.
A quick jog around the other wet-cast producers - this does not imply that their products are inferior or less interesting than those already mentioned. They tend to be smaller manufacturers with a reduced geographical coverage, but good products and good ideas, nonetheless.
Having said all that, the first up is StoneFlair , a company with some serious people behind it, not least of which are the Aggregate Industries crowd. They certainly do provide nationwide distribution of their products, but I have to be honest and say that there wasn't much in their wet-cast lines on show that demanded my attention. They are good products, as I said, but there was nothing there that I hadn't seen anywhere else, which was disappointing.
However, the big news from StoneFlair is that in the last couple of weeks or so they have acquired Brooks Concrete in Sheffield, erstwhile producers of Durapave CBPs. The CBP production will be maintained, although I'm not sure whether it will be under the old Durapave name or the new StoneFlair badge.
Although most of the display area was covered with the usual StoneFlair fare of wet-cast and imported stone flags, there was one corner given over to the CBPs and it's good to see Monksbridge pavers making an appearance on the national stage.
Longborough Concrete, manufacturers of the Lonstone products, have a history of paving manufacture stretching back almost 60 years, and they've developed a reputation for attractive garden paving, at an attractive price, without needing to cut back on quality.
Based in Gloucestershire, their products are most commonly found in the south-west midlands, but they deserve a wider audience. I particularly like their gully channel and kerb, as shown opposite, which would look at home in a cottage garden anywhere in the country.
Sunday was a long day and despite being in the hall for over 9 hours, I still hadn't managed to see everything. I just wanted to get back to my hotel and crash for the night, recharging my batteries (and those of my digicam) for the following day. I was trying to find my way back to my transport when I got into conversation with a man who turned out to be involved in Living Stone, a name I had seen on the exhibitors list, but about whom I knew nothing. It turned out he's a big fan of the website and so I couldn't help but promise to make sure I made my way around to the Living Stone display at the first chance the following day.
Living Stone is a new incarnation for what used to be the Bowland Operation in Lincoln. They decided that they needed to forge a new image for themselves and decided to strike out on their own, and although they still offer some of the traditional and well-loved Bowland products, they've developed new products exclusive to themselves. Managing Director, Phillip Moss, is particularly proud of the lovely Sunstone circle feature shown here. Phillip reckons this unique feature should retail for under £300.
Although they've strode out on their own, Living Stone maintain good relations with the remaining Bowland members, but plan to extend coverage from their Lincoln base and existing territory on the east coast of England, and ship their products throughout Britain.
Meanwhile, over at Bowland , things haven't stood still since the Lincoln posse decided to plough their own furrow. They, too, have new products, as well as the full range of all the older Bowland favourites.
The one that seemed to be attracting most attention was the Lakeland Star, a honey-toned eight-pointed star feature set against a background of ash grey. It's so new it hasn't even made it into the current catalogue, but that should be put right by next Spring.
Finally, for this page of what seems to be an inordinately long review, comes Pavestone . They've been bring paving over from the continent and further afield for a while now, and have found a niche for themselves with some of the independent Builders' Merchants. They've a knack of finding new products and getting them into the British market, but many contractors seem to be blissfully ignorant of their existence.
I have to admit that I've never found it easy to talk to the Pavestone people. Whether they simply don't want anything to do with me and my website, or whether they are only interested in talking to people who can sell for them, I don't know, but I had a very cursory conversation on the Sunday, was ignored completely on the Monday, and when I went back on Tuesday afternoon, determined to make some headway, they'd packed up and buggered off to wherever it is they hide when not at Glee!
Regardless of their attitude, I spotted this polished sandstone while I was there on the Sunday, and thought it was possibly the best thing they had. Sadly, the chap from whom I was trying to extract information seemed to be more interested in sloping off for his dinner, so I know nowt about it.
It's nice though!