Glee 2005 - Part II
This is the second page of the three-page Pavingexpert review of Glee 2005 . Use the panel above to navigate to other parts of the review. This section takes a look at the Big Boys (and Girls) of the paving manufacturing industry. These are the national and indeed international players with multi-million pound turnovers, stock market listings and corporate headquarters. But did they have anything worth looking at?
Border Stone & StoneFlair
Working alphabetically, the first heavyweight to enter the ring is Aggregate Industries with the Border Stone / StoneFlair relationship on their left hand and Bradstone as their deadly right.
It's been a hectic 12 months for the Border-Stone-Flair conglomerate, and I approached Glee wanting to know if they knew where they were heading or whether the staff were too dizzy trying to keep up with what's what and who's who, and why and when and where, let alone the how. I recall a buzz at the Glee 2004 extravaganza regarding AI's acquisition of the Brookes Concrete business in Sheffield, owners of the Durapave brand of concrete block pavers, but since then, they've snapped up EJ Stone, who also showed at last year's event, and seen the two guiding lights behind the StoneFlair brand move on to what might be referred to as a different weight division, although there is a suggestion that the promoter is still the same.
Actually, there is a deal of sense in teaming-up Border Stone and StoneFlair; like bacon and eggs, both are needed to create a reasonable fry-up. Border Stone bring the aggregates and StoneFlair bring the flagstones. Add a helping of Durapave's block paving for the sausages, and a slice or two of EJ Stone as the black pudding, and we now have a proper breakfast! It's just the name – will they continue with both brands? Isn't one strong brand better than two middling names? I'm glad I don't have to decide!
At first, I was confused by the Border-Stone-Flair stand. Despite Marketing Manager Ian Wright's obvious appetite, enthusiasm and belief in the new entity, I suspect it will take me 12 months or so to get used to the idea of having all this on the one plate, but it does make sense….I think.
The basic product range remains much the same. Border Stone still have an excellent selection of deco aggs, albeit in new-look bags with distinctive marketing kit for the stockists; StoneFlair still have what is probably the best quality Indian sandstones and limestones on the UK market; the Durapave Monksbridge paving is as distinctive as ever; and the wet-cast is basically sound, but nothing spectacular. I was quite taken with the Kotah Blue limestone circle and squaring-off kit. I had to look at it three or four times to convince myself it was Kotah Blue – a combination of the orange-yellow hall lights and the sheen left on the flag's surface by that awful GeoFix jollop had me confused for a good few minutes. However, I asked and it was confirmed – definitely Kotah Blue, but one of the better implementations of a stone that is underused and poorly understood by many contractors and designers.
I was also pleasantly surprised when Ian told me they were going to be selling gabions – as regular site readers will know, I've been advocating the use of gabions for eons, as they are a wonderfully simple and eminently versatile solution to banking, terracing and retaining problems. However, the Border-Stone-Flair gabions are considerably smaller than those we used for riverbank and roadside reinforcement nearly 30 years ago. Coming in three sizes (305x305x305, 458x305x305, and 458x458x458mm), I was initially a little disappointed at the scale of these compared to the 2000x1000x1000mm baskets I spent weeks filling by hand, but now I've had a chance to mull over it all, I can see the sense. These are targeted at DIYers and arty-farty designers, so it's not fair to expect them to cope with the industrial scale of the site gabions, and there is a sort of cuteness to having a wall of mini-gabions as a retainer in the garden.
A hop, skip and a jump would take you from the Border-Stone-Flair stand to their siblings at Bradstone. However, my days of hopping, skipping and jumping are well and truly over, so I just limped along, leaning heavily on my walking stick as I went.
Is this really Bradstone ? No sign of an in-yer-face corporate logo dangling from the rafters above; no rugby-shirt clad sales bods ganging-up on unsuspecting passers by; no Charcon; and a display that actually draws you in, tweaking your sense of curiosity and inviting further investigation. Wow!
This is a diorama, not a landscaping products display; this feels far more like wandering through someone's garden rather than gawping at paving and walling in a big tin shed on the outskirts of Birmingham; in fact, this feels exactly like wandering through Bradstone's 2005 catalogue. The sense of calm, of subtle colours, gentle textures, cleverly placed furniture and planters, of a truly three-dimensional realistic and naturalistic experience.
I grabbed a few minutes with Alan Smith, the nearest there is to a Mr Bradstone, and he was grinning from ear to ear about the way the stand had been received. He revealed they'd opted to use a genuine garden designer this year, rather than an 'exhibition designer', and the result speaks for itself. I was pleased that he was pleased, as I felt the stand deserved all of the plaudits, and his brave decision to change course just a few weeks before the show was justly rewarded. I was even more pleased when I found out that the designer was one of this website's regular readers and long-time Brew Cabin Irregular, Leighton Powell of the Ability Garden Company in Weaverham. Congratulations, Leighton!
I could waffle on for hours about just how impressed I was with the Bradstone stand. I even stayed behind after the close of show on the Monday evening to get better quality photos uncluttered by reps and customers, and I gave serious consideration to video-ing a 'walkround' of the whole thing, to be uploaded to the website so that those of you not lucky enough to visit the show could get a sense of how it was all linked together, how the view changed with each twist and turn, how every change of direction presented a new styling and different products. But what about those products – zooming in from the overview, what was there worth looking at in close up?
Well, it would be churlish not to start with the product that won them the "Best New Product" award, and you may be shocked to learn it isn't a paving product, but a drainage item; in fact, it's a piece of SUDS kit, a slimmed down version of the storm crates used for attenuation systems and soakaways, just 150mm deep and intended for use beneath patios and driveways. Again, I was absolutely thrilled to see a SUDS idea win this award, as I've been banging on about the potential for SUDS for most of this year, and urging more and more contractors to give it a go. The installation case study page that was uploaded last spring shows just how easy it is to drop in a couple of storm crates compared to effing about inserting inspection chambers into existing drain lines. Although the literature to support this new product is still in development, I look forward to bringing SUDS to the attention of even more contractors and DIYers.
On the subject of greeny, environmental goings-on, a brief mention has to be made of the Old Town flags cast using recycled aggregates and given the name "Conservation". For years I've listened to manufacturers grumbling how inefficient, impractical and uneconomic it is to use recycled aggregates in concrete production, but Bradstone have had a go, and proved it can be done, if the will is there. Alan Smith swears he's not likely to break even on this product, and that he's losing money on every unit sold, but he felt someone had to set an example, and he deserves enormous credit for that. It won't persuade me to like the Old Town flags per se, but it might just soften my attitude a little.
What I did like, though, was the Charcoal Panache Paving. I always feel greys are more stylish than strong colours for modern designs, and these simple but effective 450mm flags offer understated design motifs with subtle colouring that combine versatility and interest. I'm less convinced with the terracotta colours, but then we can't all like the same things. The Panache paving is a perfect example of the indoor-outdoor combined use that is so important to modern design. The flags will look equally comfortable in the conservatory and out on the patio, allowing a design to be extended beyond the home, out into the garden.
Unusually for Bradstone, they've also explored the more meaningful possibilities of natural stone. It is no great effort to offer yet another Fossil Mint imported Indian sandstone, and I was somewhat disappointed to find that to be the case. Why have they done this? The country really isn't short of imported stone suppliers, and that line of stock has never been Bradstone's forte. I understand the need to present a rounded brand and a full complement of products but isn't that what StoneFlair does/did? The natural granite is pleasant enough, as are the sandstones, limestones and travertines, but we've all seen them a hundred times before. The Natural Stone Walling is based on the Fossil Buff sandstone and so you should be able to visualise it without the need for a photo. I did like the Chinese Slate, though. I know there's loads of that out there, too, but the Vijaya Gold looked rather fetching, and the quarry down at Delabole will not thank me for suggesting it would not look out of place on a Cornish patio or pathway.
The natural stone version of the ever-popular CarpetStones could have been (and was) predicted two years ago, but it's pleasing to see that the plan size of the 'mat' has been reduced to much more manageable dimensions. The only 'issue' with the previous CarpetStone products has been that the mat size makes them a two-person laying job. This new size should make it possible for one person to just about coerce the mats into position. Aesthetically, I quite like the gently rounded profile of the stone, and the colouring is sufficiently neutral to enable them to be used in almost any setting. I'm sure we'll see even more "Son of CarpetStones" offerings at next year's show!
Overall, there was a superb synergy in the Bradstone stand – the whole was very definitely greater than the sum of its parts and a refreshing change from their normal fare.
I'm going to forsake the alphabetical approach to this section and jump straight to the other big bruiser in the paving industry, Messrs Marshalls and their prodigious offspring, Stonemarket. As with AI, this is a two-handed approach to the market, but while one hand is capable of delivering knockout punches that leave the rest of the industry reeling, the other seems to have spent the last few years defensively guarding the head, fending off critical blows, and just about managing to stay on its legs.
Maybe Marshalls have decided that Glee isn't really the sort of show where they can flourish. As a brand, they've struggled to engender any affection from the Garden Centres and smaller retailers, and their real strength is the specification market where they can really deliver the punches, but it saddens me to report that this year's stand was pretty insipid, and they seemed to have far fewer Marshallites banging the drum than has been the case in previous years. They rolled out Diarmuid Gavin on a couple of days, and while there's no disputing the fact that he is a significant talent that has brought a new insight, vitality and irreverence into garden design, there is a sense that when you have to rely on celebrities to create interest in your stand, there really is trouble at t'mill.
I've waxed lyrical about the Bradstone stand, now let me attempt to paint a verbal portrait of the Marshalls space. Imagine a square, in which one whole quarter is taken up with a circle of decking. Yes: decking! Into that decking, place a few of the symbol-encrusted 450mm square flags that Diarmuid has produced for his benefactors this year. Build a high wall around the circle, stick a corporate logo on top, and then on the other side of that wall, re-create a lumpy-bumpy sett-paved path that looks incredibly concretey, is not particularly comfortable to walk across, and rises as a sort of ramp that would scare the living daylights out of a disabled person.
In the opposite corner, plonk half-a-shed and pave outside it with some uninspiring wet-cast flags. This leaves just two corners to cover, so put in a square metre of so of Argent block paving in one corner while you fill the other with an upright circle of the Duo tumbled blocks that premiered last year. Add a single computer monitor to display the virtues of the Driveway Visualiser tool, and that's it.
I'm not trying to be hard or hyper-critical; I've spent a couple of days thinking about this before hitting the keyboard; I've spoken to friends and colleagues who were at the show, and the almost universal opinion is that Marshalls really didn't do themselves any favours. I find this to be surprisingly disheartening. Marshalls are the biggest and best known paving manufacturer in Britain. If they can't (or won't) produce an inspiring stand for one of the premier trade shows of the year, how much longer will they be thought of in that way? I'm sorry, Marshalls, but you are capable of much, much better than this.
Looking at the individual products, there are a couple of hopeful jabs, but no lusty uppercuts. I can't take to Diarmuid's "Solar" flags. They are what they are, and what they are lacks versatility and potential. They are simply 450mm polished concrete flags with strange circular symbols shot-blasted into the surface. They might be used individually to break up a larger area, but like last year's offering from Mr Gavin, it's difficult to see an original or personal use for them, and the suspicion is they'll be similarly overpriced. Not everyone agrees with me, and a couple of visiting Charconians told me that they thought they were wonderful, that they offered cutting-edge, 21st century design and new way of thinking about paving, but I still can't see it.
The lumpy-bumpy setts, or "Cobblestone Setts" to give them their proper title, are a variation on the mesh-backed products that almost every other concrete manufacturer is turning out. The individual 'cobblestones' are bigger than most, and they have a distinct texture, but the colour is very much like that of the Heritage flags (which may or may not be a good thing) and they have wide-ish joints, that were filled with a 3mm grit for this show. The loose, stringy backing, a bit like a fishing net, makes them much more flexible than many of the competitor products, and this allows them to be laid with joints of varying width and to rather haphazard levels. The overall size of each mat, at roughly 600x450mm, makes them far easier to install, whether you're a contractor or a DIYer. No word about price, but they'll need to be keen as this type of product is now being produced by many of the one man-and-a-vibrating-table manufacturers.
One thing I did like was the half-circle and bonding-in kit for the National Trust inspired Polesden Lacey wet-cast flags. This is a product with genuine potential, and I'm particularly taken with the bonding-in kit, which is how circle feature were traditionally cut-in when laid by a streetmason. The 'squaring-off kits' are a designer inspired notion - no streetmason worth his salt would ever have wasted time squaring-off an awkward circle, cutting farty little bits and pieces that would break in next to no time; we returned to the coursed or random layout as quickly as possible and cut the flags as required to suit the circle edges. I know Marshalls aren't the first manufacturer to offer this bonding-in solution, but I hope that their patronage will bring it to the attention of more designers and contractors, and then, with a bit of luck, we might see an end to the overly-geometric circle-in-a-square designs. The decision to offer a half-circle is equally laudable, as it enables the use of semi-circle features at doorways. I also like the sizing – I reckon this half-circle kit is just begging to be used as a raised feature step at a doorway and I hope someone will take up this suggestion and send me a picture when it's done.
What else? Oh, the Driveline Elite block pavers are to be provided in a new colour, "Firebrick", which is a 3-colour blend of red, brown and marigold, and in a new circular format. I felt certain the new colour was remarkably similar to the Ramsbottom Brindle (which is still my favourite colour blend of all time), but poor belaboured Natalie, who had to try to jolly me along and convince me I was being myopic, assured me it must be a trick of them damned hall lights.
The Drivesett Duo is also to have a circle kit (restrain your excitement, boys!) and the Croft Walling, which is another poorly understood product, will be available in a new buff colour.
I can hear all you contractors out there asking if that is it. Well, the sad truth is that it is. That's all there is. A company with the resources and history of Marshalls has managed to come up with two new products, a pair of circles and a couple of colour additions. Feeling punch-drunk yet? I didn't think so.
However, don't drop your guard just yet, because at the opposite end of the hall Marshall's alter ego, Stonemarket , is waiting with one hell of a wallop. What a contrast! I lost count of the number of new products, but suffice to say there was summat there for everyone.
I suppose I'd better start with those that impressed me most, the so-called Concept Paving. This is a relatively simple idea that takes four different formats and allows them to be combined in all sorts of ways to create distinctive layouts and patterns to suit personal taste – it's that keyword again: versatility, the ability to take a paving product and use it in a way that could well be unique to you, to give it your own personal twist, to enable it to be used on a dozen different jobs in a dozen different ways. The most visually striking element of the Concept range is, for me, the cobble unit. Now, plenty other manufacturers in the past have knocked out cobble-effect paving, but the problem has always been that the straight edges of the individual flags has been obvious, creating straight-line joints within the cobbles that just wouldn't be there in real cobble work. Stonemarket's elegant solution to this is to use a flag with a wavy edge that interlocks with its neighbours and gives a virtually seamless covering of cobbles.
Many manufacturers might have been happy enough with that, but Stonemarket have extended the range by including compatible 300mm square flags, square flags with pebble-detailed joints, and a diagonally-aligned stone-on-edge, with the intention of letting all the units be mixed and matched and muddled as suits the individual user. There are even two colours, “Amber”, a strong browny-buff and “Shadow”, a darker, buff-dark grey mix that I found to be particularly striking. This range is, without doubt, the best new wet-cast product at the show by quite some way.
Over the last few years, Stonemarket have expanded from their traditional range of wet-cast products and dabbled with pressed concrete flags, natural stone and even with block pavers. This year, they have new entries in each of these categories, making Stonemarket of 2005 a much more rounded brand with a fuller complement of hard-landscaping products.
The most visually arresting pressed product was definitely the Rio Cascade paving, a new twist on the familiar shot-textured format that will be available in two colours options, “Sand” (buff-ish) and “Shell” (pale cream or ivory). I'm not sure that the photographs can do justice to this product, as it is a sort of optical illusion, changing as you walk around it and view it from different angles. From the ends, it is sinuous and compelling; from the sides it often looks as though it is rising and falling. It has to be seen 'in the flesh' to truly appreciate just how intriguing it is.
There are a couple of minor 'issues' with it, for me. Going back to the need for versatility, I struggled to come up with different ways to use it within a larger hardscape. It's based on five basic shapes that repeat to create the pattern, but I can't think of alternative patterning. It seems it can only be laid in the one way. However, instead of trying to visualise alternative two-dimensional layouts, try to see it in three dimensions, as a wavy-edged flight of steps or terracing. Now that is a superb design detail.
The second 'issue' concerns the “Straight Edge Kit”, the adaptor pieces that are used to tie-in to regular coursed paving. The fact that these pieces are available shows that the idea has been properly thought through and due consideration given to how it can be used, but the smallest of the pieces is only 50mm or so wide at its narrowest point, and I can't help feeling that it is terribly fragile and very likely to break if not laid with care.
In the natural stone offerings, there are new additions to the “Arctic Granite” range of sawn-edged flags that debuted last year. There's a dark, near-black stone cleverly named “Midnight” and buffy-red textured granite that has been dubbed “Sunrise”, but the more interesting product for me is the brushed/tumbled “Vintage Limestone”. Believe it or not, this is the Cotsdale limestone after it's been through the top-secret Stonemarket weathering-antiquing process that imparts a softer, creamier colouring. It comes in five sizes, so it can be laid in courses or as a random layout, and while I can't completely accept the claim that it is similar to reclaimed Portland flags, I can see what they mean. The “Vintage” range of mechanically weathered stone products has other new additions, including a circle kit, an assortment of smaller 'setts' in four sizes, and a walling stone that is already with the stockists. This soft, naturalistic texturing technique has proved to be very popular since its introduction and it comes as no great surprise to see it being applied to a much wider range of products. I've no doubt they'll do well and we're already seeing 'copies' emerging from other importers.
Block paving is not a product range you'd normally associate with Stonemarket, but they have been experimenting with it over the last few years. The word is that they've now bought themselves a Scottish CBP plant of their very own and it looks like they've been playing with their new toy, because they've come up with a couple of new ideas. The Cobblestyle pavers are a 200x100mm format paver with a distinctly domed surface. There's still some development to do with these, but my personal feeling is that the current 10mm dome is excessive, making them uncomfortable to walk across and probably very bumpy for cars and bikes. Sales Director Ken Edwards told me that they're going to try a 5mm and a 7mm dome, but I'm still not convinced. They'll be available in two colours, Brindle and Charcoal, and like 'em or not, credit is due for at least trying them out and getting feedback from the assembled masses.
The Pavilion Pavers are another new idea. A six-size mix of 'distressed' pavers that come in a single pack and will be available in three colours, Burnt Ochre (brown-multi), Bracken (brown-red multi) and Ember (red-brindle). Multi-size packs have been the subject of some debate amongst many of the contractors using the Pavingexpert website over the past 12 months, and at the moment, a slight majority prefer single size packs. From a manufacturer's point of view, there are considerable cost savings to be made using the multi-size packs, and it's Stonemarket's plan to pass on these economic benefits to the end-user by offering a good-quality distressed block at mid-range sort of price. The new distressing technique leaves quite distinctive marks on the surface, but these should disappear within a few months of laying. However, do the laying gangs really want to have to explain all this to the customers who are notoriously sceptical of anything a contractor tells them?
Overall, Stonemarket claim they have 20 new products, although their tally includes new colour options to existing products. Even so, it's a commendable turnout that should bring its own rewards. Some of these products have “winner” written all over them, while others will need a bit of fine-tuning, and one or two will probably disappear without trace in a year or two, but at least they've tried, and they've continued to punch above their weight.
On a sadder note, Tom Poole, long time managing director at Stonemarket, has announced his decision to move on to a new challenge in the house building industry. Tom has consistently supported the Pavingexpert website and I will miss his easy manner, his straight-talking and his wry humour. He's a rare character in this industry because I've never heard anyone have a bad word to say about him. He's universally respected both for what he's achieved at Stonemarket since taking over the reins, and for his affable, infectious enthusiasm for our industry. He's a major, major loss to Stonemarket and I reckon they'll be lucky to find someone just half as good to succeed him. Best wishes for the future, Tom, I wish you well in everything you do, and I know many others in the trade feel the same.
That leaves two more 'biggies' to look at in this section, so next up is Hanson . Although they're a ginormous name in the building materials industry, Hanson's involvement in the hard-landscaping trade has been relatively minimal, to say the least. They have provided a range of pre-packed mortars and concretes, and their SupaMix brand has supplied bagged decorative aggregates for many years, but paving, other than their sub-brand of Butterley Clay pavers, has never really featured.
So it came as a bit of a shock for me to see their stand paved with a range of washed exposed aggregate pavers and flags, not too dissimilar to those shown by Stone & Style back in 2003. I collared the Business Manager for these new concrete block pavers, Geraint Thomas, and spent a couple of hours talking about these new products and the CBP trade in general.
The Hanson CBPs are being sold under the name of SupaPave, and there are three distinct ranges within the brand; the aforementioned washed exposed aggregate pavers which will be known as 'Conquest'; a range of through-colour distressed pavers referred to as 'Vantage'; and a range of standard 200x100mm pavers that revel in the totally unoriginal name of 'Classic'.
The Conquest pavers attract attention because of their unfamiliar texture. The surface consists of an exposed concrete that incorporates naturally coloured hard-wearing grit-sized aggregates. The manufacturing process involves washing away much of the matrix to leave behind the coloured aggregate, which gives the cured blocks their distinctive texture. But that's not all; because the colour comes mainly from the aggregate, there's less risk of colour fade, so red blocks stay red for years and don't fade to a wishy-woshy pink as is often the case with cheaper coloured concrete blocks. Also, because the aggregate is so damned hard, it is less amenable to algae, lichens and general detritus, and the blocks stay cleaner for longer.
Back in Belgium where these Conquest blocks are manufactured, the full range includes a score or more colour blends and umpteen different size formats, but for this initial launch, Geraint and his team have decided to stick to just the one size, 150x150mm, and four colours, a light grey (Light Graphite), a charcoal grey (Dark Graphite), a red-black multi (Prima Red) and a lemon-yellow (Sahara). All the blocks are 60mm thick, so they're perfectly suitable for use on paths, patios and driveways, and there is a complementary edging kerb.
These blocks are exceptionally popular in Belgium, but a key part of their success comes from the range of sizes and colours. Having four basic colours is probably a good tactic at this early stage, but I do feel another size or two is necessary to improve versatility and encourage more imaginative design. A rectangular format would allow herringbone patterns to be laid – even a standard 200x100mm format would be an advantage, while a 200x300mm size would offer something bigger than a typical block but not as big as a flag.
The Vantage pavers are a range of tumbled blocks that are also popular on the continent, but they aren't worryingly new or outlandish to the more conservative British palate. There are five colour options (Charcoal, charcoal-red, red-orange, yellow and red-yellow-brown multi) but only the one size, the 150x150mm square at 50mm thick. While these blocks offer a different colour palate, the texture is familiar and a proven winner in the UK market. Price will need to be competitive if they want to challenge the more established brands, but the availability of coloured tumbled kerb/palisade units could be helpful in promoting sales.
The Classic blocks are exactly that - 200x100x50mm in Charcoal, Red, Buff and Brindle. You've seen them countless times before, and there's a lot of competition out there, so price will be a big factor in their success or otherwise. The surface texture is generally good; not too open (rice-crispie syndrome) but not completely tight, so there's a bit of interest therein. The palisade edging is a neat touch and not something we see very often on this side of the Channel – it makes a great riser for steps!
Somehow, I've managed to lose the info sheet regarding the flags, but, from memory, they are 400x400x35mm fine-textured units with an even colouring and a neat chamfered edge detail. Nothing too radical, and I suspect they'll struggle to find a niche in an already overcrowded market.
I'm really glad to see the exposed washed aggregate pavers back on the menu for British contractors. It was disappointing that Stone & Style didn't capitalise on the massive interest their products generated when first shown, so I hope Geraint sticks with these, and introduces further sizes and colours in the very near future. I'll be watching with interest.
Finally in this section, and due entirely to the arrangement of the alphabet, we come to Tarmac TopPave . TopPave have an excellent record of looking after their contractors, and the now-renamed scheme that used to be TopPavers was much admired and respected within the trade. Contractors are a discerning breed so to gain their favour they need to be well looked after and they have to be supplied with top quality products that they know they can sell to the homeowners. This understanding of the market has been critical to TopPave's success since taking over the old Marley brand way back in the Jurassic period.
Sharing a stand with their sister company, TruPak, allowed them to offer a fairly comprehensive selection of paving and aggregates, including CBPs, wet-cast, natural stone, decorative aggregates and pre-packed mortars and concretes. The stand itself wasn't radically different from last year, with a well-laid out main display area at ground level and a more relaxed discussion area at the top of a flight of aluminium stairs, the Stairway to Heaven. This arrangement, while being a bloody nightmare for someone like me with mobility problems, does give the TopPavers far more floor space and a secluded, comfortable (once you get there) area for more intimate business discussions. It's also a great place to get an overview of the show as a whole. One noticeable difference this year was the number of TopPavers and TruPakers on duty and prepared to talk to visitors. It was almost impossible to cast even a cursory glance at the stand without being politely and warmly invited to explore further. I remember last year struggling to get to talk to anyone for the first couple of days, as the seemingly low numbers of staff were either busy chatting to real customers or hiding somewhere off-stage having a crafty fag, so this year represents a significant improvement.
In terms of new products, there's not a great deal to report. Marketing Executive (I'm never sure what that means) Emma Reese gave me the guided tour and explained the thinking behind grouping many of the wet-cast products under one brand name (Bronte). This is their premium wet-cast riven-effect range and as well as subsuming some of the other poetic brands, such as Milton and Tennyson, a new colour option “Weathered Apricot” is being offered. This is a lovely warm almost orangey-yellow tone that suggests an sub-Mediterranean feel without being that strong terracotta colour that has been available for a number of years.
There's a new budget range (actually, Emma refers to it as a “Commodity” range, whatever that means) that shall be known as 'Byron' and comes in two no-nonsense colours; natural and buff. This had been laid at the base of the Stairway to Heaven and by the end of Day 3 it was beginning to suffer a little. In common with all the other 'budget' products from other manufacturers, it discolours with foot traffic, and, to be fair, it endured hell of a lot of foot traffic over the three days so I don't like to be too critical, but if I were designing next year's stand, I'd make sure a harder, darker coloured product was used in this key location.
The natural stone range, named Sheridan, also has a new colour, the ever-popular Mint. This stone is imported from India and is the lightest-coloured of the sandstones. It's bright and airy, but I've seen it laid to driveways where it is too easily marked by tyres. Lovely on patios and paths, especially in shady corners where it really brightens up the aspect, but be wary about using it on busy drives.
Moving on to the block paving, nothing new to report here other than two new colours for the Antique tumbled blocks. Harvest Gold is, as you probably guessed, a warm reddy-buff, or possibly a buffy-red, while the Desert Bronze has a more yellowy-brown tone. These new colours are valuable additions to the existing palette and will enable Antique to be used on a wider range of properties and gardens.
Emma was also keen to 'big up' the re-branded “TopPave Approved Installer Scheme”, specifically the level of assessment and vetting that takes place, and the way in which they try to engender pride in the work by promoting annual awards and Contractors' get-togethers, which I know are popular in some parts of the country. She was also wanting to promote the re-vamped, new-look TopPave website , which is now online and is going to be expanded over the coming months by having a dedicate web administrator as part of the sales and marketing team. Emma herself is moving on to a new role within the Tarmac group, and this may be the last time we meet, so she too takes my best wishes for the future.
Although I paid them scant attention at the show itself, I ought to mention the TruPak aggregates, which used to be CemPak. They are aggregates, in bags, and there are lots of different colours and sizes. That's all you can really say about bagged aggs – there's nothing radically new.