I know, I know, I know! You're right in thinking that I swore I wasn't going to waste my time at Glee ever again, that the 2012 staging of the annual Garden and Landscaping event had been so incredibly poor and underwhelming, I put it in print on this very website that I'd never sacrifice another late September day for this derisory crap-fest, that I would find some paint that needed supervising during its drying process rather than waste time, fuel and over a tenner on the M6 Toll Licensed Robbery that it costs to have ones idealism crushed beneath the tidal wave of tat to which Glee has succumbed in recent years. So why am I here again?
Lame excuse, I admit, but an old friend called to tell me he's retiring and this would be his last ever visit to the caverns of consumerism before he replaces his order book with a fishing boat and sales off into a Welsh lake in search of the monster pike which has eluded him for the last 20 years. It would be great to grab a last ever barely-drinkable NEC tea and put the world to rights one final time.
Wandering around the much-shrunk Hall 4, once a cathedral of hard landscaping optimism but now barely a side-chapel, the overwhelming sense is that the event and all its exhibitors have completely, totally and utterly sold out to the seemingly unstoppable march of the garden centres. Respectable brands, with quality products, were showing selections specifically tailored to the "I'll get three in the boot of me car" impulse buyer who whiles away the weekend browsing the sub-lets, the Scottish-ish Woollen Mills, the US-ian Golf Bat Shops, the overpriced caff and the frickin' futile furniture which clogs the floor space of any medium-sized garden centre these days. Oh, and there might be some plants to see.
Extended discussion with the sort of people who I know would much rather be flogging a wagon-load of Indian granite setts or a couple of pallets of high-end bush-hammered limestone , reveals the true extent of the despair. The general public don't buy paving from garden centres. They might buy a handful of 25mm thick setts which will get used as coasters, or they might even buy a couple of 450mm flagstones on which to plonk the cutesy 'statue' of a couple of children plucked straight off the front of a Hallmark birthday card aimed at doting dotty grandmothers.
But if they want a new patio or driveway, they don't buy from the garden centre. If the designer of a new retail park is looking for hard-landscaping inspiration, they don't look around a garden centre. If a contractor is wanting to learn what's new and fashionable for the next season, they don't check out the garden centre.
Garden centres and paving are not an ideal pairing, and so we now see an unedifying race to the bottom. On one hand, we have a slew of suppliers who have always, and unashamedly, dredged the benthos, supplying bags of chippings and slate waste at three for a tenner, and pinholed-to-the-point-of-permeability wet cast flagstones of varying degrees of incredulity, while on the other hand, we have strong, national brands who have built a solid reputation in the paving trade over many years but are now chasing the garden centre pensioner pound by creating ranges determined by a price point rather than a quality threshold, all geared to ensure maximum profitability for minimum commitment by the all-consuming glass-and-aluminium bazaars.
Maybe Westminster Stone, via their National Trust Paving imprint, haven't completely lost the plot. There is a hazy sort of empathy between the garden centre shoppers and the Downton wannabes, and so it's easier to understand that the NT brand is probably better suited to a garden centre route to market than Westminster's own brand paving.
However, this licensed offering differs from much of what is available elsewhere in Hall 4 in that it maintains the integrity on which Westminster Stone and the Clifford family have built their reputation. This is no down-market option: it's top quality, beautifully designed and carefully manufactured wet-cast paving and selected aggregates worthy to bear the brand of both Westminster and the National Trust.
Obviously, there will be buyers tempted mainly by the fact that it's a fund-raiser for the charity, but it does represent good value for the money and if your garden suits a particular style, you really can't do much better when choosing wet-cast paving than to opt for Westminster Stone, and if the selling arena is a garden centre (GC), then the National Trust range is the logical choice, I suppose.
Global Stone are one of only two exhibitors offering the stone paving which once took up more than half of this hall, but in a nod to the fact that the buyers here are not likely to be interested in containers, bulk bags or even pallets, they've created a GC-friendly imprint: Garden Style. This sub-brand offers a range which might be thought of as 'convenient' rather than comprehensive, with snazzy Point-Of-Sale (POS) kit which takes up minimal floor space for maximum return, just the sort of thing the GC's like. Nothing too heavy, nothing too bulky, all very car-boot-friendly and priced to catch the eye of the casual shopper.
A measly 60p for a 100x100x25mm polished granite "sett" is just the sort of thing to tempt the GC crowd, but for those of us more attuned to a contractor's view, that's 60 quid a square metre for thin stone, when we know we can get the full 100mm deep versions for less than that.
However, there is a market for just this sort of thing and, to be fair, I'd rather these customers bought from a reputable supplier such as Global Stone than get a so-called bargain at some dodgy online landscape supplier who is buying-in container loads of cheap, nasty seconds of dubious provenance and providing buggerall in the way of customer service and support.
The other stone exhibitor is Strata Stone , who have announced that the public face of the company since its inception, Gary Sergeant, is moving on to pastures new. I know this has been a hard decision for Gary, not least because Strata has been his baby for so many years, and it's a genuine wrench to leave, but he has dreams to pursue and Strata's behind-the-scenes paymasters have designs that conflict with those dreams. He's not leaving the industry: he's due to pop up at another well-known paving supplier at the start of next month, but I'll not steal their fire just yet.
At this show, Strata's strategy seems to be to hide their paving as much as possible, and again, this is due to the inescapable truth that GC's and paving are not happy bedfellows. Consequently, a good three-quarters of the large stand is given over to what we might term 'stoneware' rather than stone paving. Vases, planters, boxes, tables, benches and water features abound, and that may be a sensible move, as this is just the sort of thing that *does* sell at GCs.
Meanwhile, at what might be considered the 'back edges' of the stand, subdued displays of what is very good quality stone paving remain largely overlooked. There's no outright attempt to play the paving to the GC audience, as Global have done, or to debase themselves by going cheap and downmarket, all of which is laudable, but it does beg the question of just what they expect from a show such as this.
Gloucestershire's Lonstone saw which way the wind was blowing a few years back and although the bulk of their manufacturing and sales is still the inimitable Cotswold wet-cast flagstones and walling, for Glee they focus on their planters, tubs and ornamentation, because that's what sells at GCs. They have tweaked the paving a tad this year. They've introduced a thinner, lighter, simple 450mm square riven-effect flagstone that falls into that impulse buy category, so gives them a package that probably has more appeal to GCs looking for a touch of that Cotswold charm without having to stock very much in the way of product.
And while Lonstone downsize their flagstone paving range for the GC market, Meadowview Stone , formerly known primarily for their bagged decorative aggregates, have gone the other way by adding a significant selection of flagstones from national manufacturer, Brett Paving , some of it concrete, some of it stone.
Now this seems like a strange move altogether. Can't Brett cut their own deals with the GCs? Does a whale-sized national brand really need to tag along on the tail of what is, with all due respect, a small fish in a big pond? And why would Meadowview want to take on heavy paving that will be sold at better rates in the Builders Merchant, given all that has been said about the difficulties of selling paving in GCs?
The poor salesbod whose ear I bent was out of his depth. He knew next to nothing about Brett as a company or the standing of their products in the wider market. He knew nothing, or affected to know nothing, of the reasoning behind taking on such a venture, but I left him with the dubious benefit of my view: it's going to be a steep, uphill struggle to sell paving along this route!
Talking about big names, LaFarge Tarmac are just about as big as it gets, but rather than struggle trying to sell paving to a dis-interested audience, they brought to the show products which probably do have a place in the GCs: pre-packed concretes and mortars for fixing flags, fence posts and the like. There was a prominent display showing bags of various cement-based products under a non-stop cascade of water to emphasise the plastic packaging, which is certain to promote the traditional belief amongst civilians that half a bag of cement can safely be kept in the shed for years without a problem.
Again, this is astute marketing. It shows the company has figured out just who buys at Glee and have tailored their offering accordingly. Leave the big, heavy stuff back at the plant, and just bring the nifty, manageable packages that can be lifted into the car boot. That's what sells at GCs!
Kelkay and Deco-Pak are regulars at this show, and they, too, understand the market. They both specialise in selling bags of 'stuff', which might be gravel, or bark or rock salt or whatever else the GC crowd want to acquire. And now that Aggregate Industries (Bradstone/Charcon/StoneFlair, etc) have, for reasons which no-one seems to understand, decided to close down Border Aggregates, there's a big gaping hole in the market which needs to be filled.
Over the years, these companies have expanded into selling cheap paving, and I don't mean this to be disrespectful, but the paving is generally just hovering slightly above the crap category. No serious contractor would ever lay, or want to lay, this bottom-rung wet-cast nonsense, but there is a huge market of blissfully uninformed DIYers for whom this sort of Noddy's House-For-One paving is exactly what they want. It's basic, simple, cheap(ish), with no pretensions of grandeur and to many people, there's absolutely nothing wrong with it.
While I might prefer to drive an Audi or ride a Triumph, many folk are quite happy pootling along in a Daewoo or throwing a leg over an unpronounceable Chinese 125cc. It gets them where they want to go, and probably for a lot less than it would cost me, so what's not to like? It's easy for a paving snob such as me to dismiss this sort of flagstone and edging as fluff, but it sells and it makes people happy, so let's leave them to it.
I did have an interesting chat with Dave Hall (I do hope I've got your name right) from Deco-Pak and he was refreshingly honest about what they sell and what their market expects. He knows it's not the best paving, and they can't offer the best technical advice or laying guidance, but they do try to provide a value-for-money range that includes all the accessories, such as jointing and sealants, which a keen DIYer might want to complete their own dream patio. The fact that their sales increase year-on-year tell us all that they must be doing summat right!
And speaking of jointing, Sika , EverBuild and EasyJoint were all pushing their variations on a theme, which is largely polymeric jointing mortar for flagstone patios.
The Sika stuff, PaveFix, has never really caught on, despite having one of the construction industry's biggest names behind it, while EverBuild labour on with the god-awful Geo-Fix which sells because too many people are unaware of the alternatives. EasyJoint has been building a strong reputation recently but with no product for the heavier, commercial applications, it seems they are limiting their own aspirations, despite shifting manufacturing over to East Anglia from its traditional home in Germany.
And in yet another nod to the GC crowd, EasyJoint have partially unveiled a 6.25kg carry-bag of their mortar. The fact that it is in a placky-bag, no matter how much the salesbod tries to convince me it's a better-than-average placky bag, means just one pin prick letting in air will render the contents unusable. This barely-half-a-shovelful packaging might suit the ultra-careful DIYer carrying it home on a plumped-up cushion with the seat belt around it, but I wouldn't give it 5 minutes in the back of a Tranny van.
So: apart from meeting up with old friends, it was yet another major disappointment. It's an uncomfortable feeling, looking at screens erected to close off more than half of a hall that just a few years ago struggled to squeeze in all those paving manufacturers, importers and distributors clamouring to wow the trade with their latest and greatest. Oh! for the days when Tarmac had a two-storey display tower, when Marshalls had a plethora of massive plasma tellies that heated the entire hall, and Bradstone had a car on their stand. Nostalgia ain't what it used to be!
I probably definitely most likely won't bother in 2014. It's depressing, and I can't see even a whiff of a hint of a suggestion that there's any desire on the part of the organisers to address the decline in support for the hard-landscaping trades. But then, I say that every year……