It was the last day of Glee yesterday, the erstwhile jamboree for the paving and garden industry that has been on a downward spiral for at least four years and, on the evidence of a three hour visit on Monday, is now just millimetres from smashing into the ground and bringing to an inglorious end one of the sorriest stories of the economic downturn. What was once the highlight of the residential paving trade's entire year, with the big manufacturer's splurging six-figure budgets on ever more lavish displays, is now, at best, a complete irrelevance, and, according to some, nothing more than a joke.
Oh! for the glory days when it would be a challenge to get to see everyone in the three days of the show. On Monday, I'd seen everyone worth seeing by lunchtime. And I only got there at 10:30!
With the loss of show stalwarts PaveStone and veteran exhibitors Westminster Stone , the number of pure paving displays was down to two. Two. Just two stands showing nothing but paving. Global Stone soldier on bravely albeit with some concession to the all-consuming garden centre trade, while Natural Paving worked a modern miracle by building a show stand to be proud of in just three days, the build-up time for the show having been hacked to the point of insensibility by the disOrganisers.
Border Stone , the Aggregate Industries brand specifically targeted at Garden Centres, had some paving on their stand, but you had to wonder whether it was there solely because they needed summat to walk on and they had some flags left in the yard, while Lonstone have all but succumbed to the demand for bird baths, sundials and troughs and had an upright rack of paving tucked into a discreet corner on the off-chance that someone might ask about it.
Living Stone had a bold upright display, but even they have fallen into line with a new line in "Statuary" to augment their expanding range of pre-packed decorative aggregates and, of course, the salt sold by their financial saviours, Peacocks. Strata hedged their bets by having paving and fripperies such as water features and decorative boulders more or less equally mixed on a large but never busy stand.
Back in the glory days, the new products for next season would be launched with much fanfare, press releases, banners, plasma tellies, or even robots. This year, there is almost nothing new. Admittedly, now is probably not the time to be launching new products nor investing in risky development, but even the handful (and I use that term in its widest sense) of newbies that were on show seemed to have been sneaked in with the hope that the Garden Centre Overlords wouldn't notice.
And this is the central problem with Glee in 2012. It is no longer even vaguely interested in the paving and hard-landscaping industry. It has sold its soul, lock, stock, barrel, keys and bloody pin code, to the Garden Centres.
And Garden Centres just don't sell quality paving. They sell the sort of cheaply produced crap churned out by faceless non-entities in soulless industrial units, in one or two sizes, in one or two colours.
People don't buy paving from garden centres. They might buy the odd two-by-two to use as a base for a bird bath, or a couple of ugly mis-shapes to create so-called stepping stones, but they don't buy the sort of highest quality, professionally developed, tried-and-tested paving which used to be brought to us by Marshalls, Bradstone, Brett, Stonemarket, Cemex and the rest who have long since fled, taking their ample marketing budgets with them.
But these manufacturers rarely sold to the GCs anyway. They sold to Builders' Merchants and independent landscape retailers, and they brought these people along with them to the show, along with contractors, developers, designers, specifiers and self-builders. Now, none of them come. None of them spend any money at Glee, and so the slow, sorry death spiral takes yet another turn.
It's not just the paving lads and lasses that have been ignored and allowed to fall by the wayside. The plant growers, the trade that was in a previous century the life and soul of the GC business, no longer show up at Glee.
The Purveyors of Pet nonsense have gone too. All we have left is two partially filled halls (it used to be five packed to the gunwales) piled high with chuffing flowerpots, cutesy wet-cast Disney-fied hedgehogs, and every conceivable form of flimsy garden tool as made in the Guangdong province.
Anyway, what was there that managed to take up a whole three hours of my time on a bright but breezy Monday morning?
Borderstone had tactfully forewarned me that there'd be lots of stuff I wouldn't like on their stand, but if I dropped by, they'd at least offer me a brew, so that seemed like a good place to start. The whole BradStoneBorderStoneFlair nexus is beginning to assume some form as it slowly condenses from the nebula. Bradstone is the proper paving brand with all the connotations of innovation and quality that we rightly associate with the name, while BorderStone is now the brand that does basic paving (individual two-by-twos and stepping stones sort of thing) along with the bingo prizes of concrete Buddhas, Graeco-Roman water carriers, and dilapidated old boots so beloved of the befuddled who fritter away their pensions in the GCs of this country.
However, they do have a clever new idea, and it's worth a quick peek. It's nowt world-changing, but it is something that is proving to be very popular – a raised planter. Dead simple idea: concrete base panels in a wooden sleeper effect that interlock to create a neat rectangular raised bed, ideal for a few flowers or, more commonly nowadays, home-grown veg. There are two heights available, but only one colour – dirty sleeper brown, of course. The great advantage is that unlike timber, concrete doesn't rot and it doesn't need to be steeped in nastikemmickles for a month and a day to prevent it being eaten by all sorts of invertebrates. OK, it's a bit heavier, and it looks, well, concrete-y, but once it's filled with soil, it's going nowhere and within a season, the algae, lichens and mosses will have given it a real sense of character.
The plan is for them to sell at under 50 quid for the low version and less than 80 quid for the big 'un. I think they might be on to a winner!
As mentioned earlier, Global Stone are one of only two 'proper' paving displays, in that all they were showing was paving and, by Monday lunchtime at least, they hadn't succumbed to the GC imperative and started flogging replica goblins or pet memorials. They had, however, unveiled a more GC-friendly imprint, albeit with the respected Global Stone brand still attached to it. Garden Style by Global Stone is their attempt to provide a basic package to the GCs with simple products (150mm square shallow sandstone setts, the inevitable two-by-two flag, etc.) with the sort of Point Of Sale (POS) promotional nonsense that persuades GC owners to dedicate a dusty corner and entice weekend garden warriors to part with their dosh.
I hope it does well for them, but what really took my eye was a new stone with a shot-textured and lightly polished finish to accentuate a slightly marbled looking character in what seemed like a light rose colour (sodding sodium lamps in the NEC don't do any favours!). The only problem with it was the name: Global Artisan Collection Serenity Paving Monsoon really doesn't trip off the tongue. I reckon if you were to ask for Monsoon, they'd know what you mean. It's being touted as a new colour in the Serenity range, along with the strangely named "Sandlewood" (sic) but I think it's actually a new stone. Mirage also has two new colours; Castle Grey shouldn't require any explanation (it's a polished grey sandstone if you couldn't guess) and Sea Breeze, which is slightly more enigmatic but turns out to be a sandy-buff polished sandstone.
Bonus points to Global for not giving in and selling tat, but I did notice they had a carved stone bench, which seemed to be mandatory amongst several suppliers this year. BorderStone had a very good looking one tucked in at one side, and Strata had a selection of very decorative styles which seem fine until you spot the supports are made from that God-awful Rainbow stone…so they'll be green with algae the day after going out into the garden, then!
While Global Stone have built their reputation on sourcing better-than-average natural stone, Living Stone come from the other end of the paving continuum and made their name with wet-cast. It's been a busy couple of years for Living Stone. The company got bought up by Peacock's Salt (wet-cast and de-icing salt - a lethal mix if ever there was one!), they built a new production line at the Lincoln HQ, and then brought in a new MD to replace Phil who's off on what is being referred to as a "sabbatical" studying for a MBA. Isn't running a business the best training for business?
Anyway, unlike Global, Living Stone are probably better suited to the GC model. They do home deliveries; they do bagged aggregates; they do lots of bright POS stuff; and they've even started doing the cheesy garden statuary. To be fair, the statuary they are selling is of a very high quality and has a relatively low cheese content (only spotted a single cutesey bunny) and it does make the whole package more interesting to the GCs, as they can get wet-cast, natural stone, aggs, statuary and de-icing salts all from one supplier.
And it was a bigger, brasher statement from Living Stone this year. No more being hidden away in a remote corner or pinned against a wall, they had a bloody big stand that stretched across at least one aisle, and smack bang in the middle of the hall. There also seemed to be more sales staff, so obviously someone thinks Glee is the route to success.
That, however, is not a view shared by near neighbours, Natural Paving , who have been tightrope-walking along a tether with Glee for a couple of years and now seem to have reached the end. They have been pushed to this point by the intransigence and folly of the organisers. Natural Paving were the only exhibitor to actually lay any paving, to show paving in its intended position, at ground level, laid flat, there to be walked upon. To construct a high quality, exhibition standard display of many different types and forms of paving takes time, and by cutting the permitted build time to just three days, the organisers have effectively put an end to this sort of stand. The Natural Paving build team were in at one minute past midnight on Friday to have any chance of being ready for opening on Monday morning. What they achieved in that time is a near miracle. Obviously, it's not perfect: that would be impossible for any team building such a large and complex stand in such a limited timeframe, but it is certainly impressive.
It's apparent that the organisers prefer the 'wheel-it-in, stack-it-up, piss-off-quick' exhibition model, which runs counter to what is the best way to display good quality paving. It's fine if you're selling bagged aggs or pallets of stepping stones, but when your offering is the real premium stuff, quality paving that needs to be laid to a sizable area to truly show off its charms, then three days is an insult and can only be interpreted as another indicator of the "we don't want your sort here" attitude that seems to have blighted Glee over recent years.
In a desert of tat, cheese and bargain basement offers, Natural Paving's stand was an oasis of serenity. Lovely stone, well presented with friendly, knowledgeable, passionate staff. There was plenty to enjoy, but then there usually is with Natural Paving, and if I had to choose just one highlight it would have to be the delicious British (yes: British!) limestone which is being offered next year as a gauged width/random length small flagstone. It's from Dorset and, despite being a limestone (as already mentioned) is probably going to be sold as "Purbeck Sands".
It's a warm, creamy fine-grained stone speckled with fossilised shell debris, sawn to a wonderfully smooth surface which shows off its full character. And I don't want to steal their thunder, but the proposed retail price is fantastic. In fact, I had to get MD Paul Shephard to repeat it because I thought I'd misheard him at first. If all goes well with the supply deal, you'll be able to get your mitts on a delicious British stone that has the light tones of the inexplicably popular sandstone Mint rubbish but with a much better pedigree and all for just a few quid more than you are currently paying for inferior imported stuff.
They are also considering a range of clay pavers. They've decided to drop the concrete blocks they were offering but have alighted on a charming range that has never been properly marketed in Britain. It's a combination I've used myself on previous design projects, and I think natural stone with clay paver detailing is a match made in heaven, so I hope Paul and the gang will persist with this. I think it would be good for Natural Paving but I also think it would be good for the clay pavers which are teetering on the edge of invisibility in the current market and deserve so much more.
For Gloucestershire's Lonstone , Glee is more like their local show, and so the turn up promptly every year, despite the show's move away from paving. A few years back, Lonstone saw which way the wind was turning, and started to experiment by showing a few 'alternative' castings they had created. Stone-effect troughs in the distinctive Cotswold Honey colour they do so well might be just the thing to appeal to the GC crowd, and so it proved.
This year, their stand is dominated by these alternative castings; not just troughs, but staddle stones, bird baths, sundials and the inevitable cutesy animal figures. It may not be to my taste, and not what I come to Glee to see, but in an ultra-competitive world where money is tight, if this sort of nonsense sells, then I'm delighted to see smaller, regional firms such as Lonstone take that money, as it means they can continue to manufacture their distinctive, locally-tailored paving which works so well in that part of the world.
And so on to the last of the recognised paving exhibitors, which would be Strata Stones. The plan seemed to be to straddle both camps by attempting to appeal to the GC crowd with the pots and balls and benches, while aiming for the attention of the landscape supplier and professional contractor by showing off what has to be acknowledged as some very fine stone and very attractive paving features, particularly several of the circles.
However, I'm not sure how successful a strategy this was proving to be. I perused the stand a couple of times, but despite being there for several minutes each time, staff didn't seem to think it was worth interrupting their own personal conversations to enquire if I needed any assistance or required any information. You could tell the boss was away! I'm sure Gary wouldn't be sat on his haunches surfing the interweb when there were potential customers to serve.
But maybe it was the general air of despondency that hung over many of the paving stands that had got to them. It's not what you expect half way through the first day, but nearly everyone was commenting on the lack of footfall, the dearth of customers, the loss of interest and the overall sense that it was all futile in the face of the unstoppable onward march of pots, planters and paraphernalia. Some of the… of the…well there's no other word for it, some of the shite that was being touted on other stands simply beggared belief.
In the glory days, I used to award a jokey prize for best new product, but in these latter days, it seems more appropriate to give an award for 'worst bit of tat' and thought I'd found an early winner with the 1.5 metre-high "Yoda dressed as Santa" model which would surely be the perfect centrepiece for Buck House or Number 10 this Christmas, but I'd been a bit previous.
I know this is supposed to look like Father Christmas hugging Rudolph, but at first glance, it does look as though, to use the vernacular, Santa is giving one to the poor red-nosed reindeer from behind. Real Class!
And somehow it's a metaphor of what Glee has become.
Glee 2013? Forty quid's worth of diesel, plus a tenner to park and eleven bleeding quid on the Toll Road Robbery, and then twelve quid for two butties and two cups of tea in the “restaurant” makes it a dear day out. If I came away feeling positive about our industry and looking forward to the new season, I wouldn't mind paying twice that, but I'm left feeling despondent and uninspired. Unless there is a compelling reason next September, I think this may have been my last ever visit, and that is a very sad thing.