I've never really fathomed out the real name of this exhibition, now into its umpteenth year in Battersea Park, central London. I've seen it promoted as 'Landscape', Landscape Show' 'Landscape Event' and even 'Landscape London'. What I have managed to fathom out, though, is that it's one of, if not *the* best show for the hard-landscaping trade of the entire year.
Pound for pound (or is that kilo for kilo? Square metre for square metre?) there is more to see and enjoy in this rather modest marquee in a riverside park than there is in the cavernous halls of ExCel with EcoBuild, and certainly an entire world more than you'd find in the contemporaneous Glee at the NEC, which, following a prolonged death scene worthy of the most hammy am-dram performer, has finally kicked the bucket as far as our industry is concerned.
I spent just over six hours on the Tuesday and, even without taking a break, I still didn't manage to catch-up with everyone on my 'must-see' list, so if I missed you, please accept my apologies - maybe next year I'll go the whole hog and book myself in for both days.
As ever, there is a fire-drill assembly of exhibitors showing their wares in the car park, many of which have no real interest except from yet another resin surfacing supplier/installer (and there's no shortage of these as we'll see once we get inside) along with a name from the dim and distant past, Anderton Concrete of Northwich, Cheshire, erstwhile producer of some not-very-good block paving back in the early 1990s. Thankfully, they've long since moved on from those best-forgotten pavers and now are focussed on high quality retaining wall systems. I have to admit that these 'stack-and-lock' retainer blocks are not my area of expertise, but it was good to see that it's no longer possible to scratch with a fingernail the concrete products from Anderton.
On what was proclaimed to be the hottest day of the year (really?) and certainly the hottest, sweatiest, muggiest September day I've ever known, there was no great desire to shuffle through passport control into the big marquee-cum-sauna, but if the exhibitors won't come out to Tony, then Tony must go inside to them, and as soon as you pass through the big doors, the first name to grab your eye is NCC StreetScape , making a mighty push with their highly respected GftK resin mortars.
From relatively small beginnings (I was there when NCC brought in their first pallet of the German-produced jointing mortars) this is a product group that has seen amazing growth in the last decade, and is now being used quite regularly on all sorts of impressive refurb and new works schemes the length and breadth of the country.
Nowadays, the GftK mortars form such a key part of their trade (they also supply just about every significant construction chemical you can think of) that they're looking at having one member of staff dedicate themselves to the range, offering customers a single point of very knowledgeable contact, whether they want a couple of tubs of the best-selling VDW850 or a couple of pallets of the phenomenally good narrow joint formulation, VDW815 . And as their portfolio of stunning projects grows ever more impressive, the potential for a high-quality, proven, resilient and reliable jointing mortar can only continue to expand.
A few of the more specialised stone suppliers were showing their wares, some more enthusiastically than others. Stone Traders had nothing of note, or, at least, nothing that would make me stop and stare. In a market that has matured and where discerning clients are looking at honed or polished or textured stone, the chances of yet more riven Indian sandstone or G603 granite inspiring anyone has to be pretty remote. It's not that there is anything wrong with these products, they're perfectly fine if that's what you want, but I don't feel this show, in particular, is the right place for such basic fodder.
As if to hammer home the point, look at what CED had to show. Almost every piece of stone on their stand had an air of mystery and intrigue. Is that a diorite? And what's that dark one: a basalt? Look at the texture of that, and the sparkle in the one over there. This is how to attract attention - tempt us in with something we may not have seen before, even if, as is increasingly the case, it's porcelain rather than natural stone.
Having said all that, the big news, in fact, possibly the biggest news of the entire show, is that CED, in partnership with co-exhibitors SteinTec , are about to launch a pre-batched highly permeable Part A compliant bedding mortar, and at the sort of price that makes it competitive with bog-standard coarse sand with cement. We had some discussion about what name we should use for this increasingly important group of permeable bedding mortars. I've always referred to them as 'Trass', a term I picked up in Germany, but also hear used in BeNeLux and Scandiwegia. However, there is some debate over whether this is a Germanic word for a particular type of stone or, as I've always believed, the name of a grit-based mortar. Investigation continues....
Regardless, the basic idea is for a 6-2mm clean, hard, angular crushed aggregate, a form of grit, to be mixed with a particular blend of cements to create a mortar that, once prepared, is similar in appearance to the Rice Crispie cakes made by schoolchildren: absolutely riddled with voids, through which any collected surface water can disappear and drain away.
No product name, just at the moment, as CED searches the databases for a suitable and available tag. I suggested 'Permabed', based on the idea of it being PERMeable and PERManent BEDding, and if thet ends up being used, I will be expecting more than a pint as reward, but there are other names of indeterminate appeal floating around. As soon as I know what they choose, I'll announce it on the website.
Make no mistake: while this form of bedding may seem like a bit of a novelty just now, it *is* the way we will be laying stone paving in the years ahead. It has so much going for it, not least of which is the permeability and the elimination of moisture clinging to the underside of flags and setts and kerbs. It's a little harder to work than the more familiar grit sand based mortars, and it doesn't compact quite the same, but any competent pavior or streetmason will get the hang of it in a day or less. This really is the future.
In comparison, arch rivals to CED, London Stone , had a muted stand, relying on a big, friendly, bench-height table taking centre stage, with discreet mini-displays mounted on the enveloping walls.
I'm not sure this worked. Stone is such a tactile material that customers want to touch, to feel, to have that intimacy with the product, whether its flagstone or sett or even if it's porcelain. The ease of conversation around the big table has its appeal, but I go to these shows to see products. I can see pictures of products and swatches in brochures and on websites. I want a 3D, in-yer-face, living, breathing encounter of the close kind with actual paving. A very cosy chat, as pleasant as that can be, is not quite enough at an event like this.
So, look at Global Stone , positioned like some noble buffer between CED and London Stone but targeting a slightly different market. Their allotted space was perhaps half of what the aforementioned companies had, but they used it really well, with plenty of stone, and the inevitable porcelain, on display, ready to be touched and smelled and tasted and felt and rubbed and admired.
MD Julian Woods has to be one of the most affable and enthusiastic personalities in the stone business just now. He's never less than delighted to talk, to show off his latest find, and to re-affirm his commitment to giving the Global Stone customers a considered and eclectic world of choice and quality. I'm never less than impressed at the amount of work they put in to making sure their offer is as rounded and versatile as possible. They are a classic example of a business that really understands their market.
What impressed me beyond the gorgeous porcelain was the range of accessories they've sourced to make the installer's job that bit easier and that bit more professional. They have a handy little manually-operated vacuum lifter to ease placing the flagstones, and a range of special purpose diamond blades for both stone and porcelain, plus a choice of table-mounted saws to make the job even more professional.
It's this willingness to support the installer, to help them up their game, and not to be content with simply flogging stone to them, that gives GS a serious edge in what is a highly competitive market overstuffed with suppliers whose entire strategy is solely based on price.
Trans-European Stone and BCA Materiaux Anciens have made a habit of showing at events in and around London, but don't show much interest in venturing much further north or west. The Belgian Blue limestone is lovely stuff, world renowned, in fact, but sorely underused in Britain, and barely seen in Ireland which has more than ample supplies of its own, native blue limestone. As for the salvaged setts and kerbs, undeniably gorgeous, but we have millions of tonnes of similar, and arguably better, salvaged street stones stockpiled in the fascinating yards dotted up and down the country. While there is some undeniable charm in having a little bit of France or Belgium or The Netherlands in your project, is that really any more impressive than having a piece of North Wales, Cornwall, Scotland or the Pennines?
McMonagle Stone were the only stone specialist from Ireland, so their delicious quartzite had a significant advantage in being the only exhibitor offering 'native' stone (as in native to these soggy islands drifting off the edge of western Europe), especially given the no-show from Yorkshire's Johnson Wellfield . That's not all they had, of course. They supplemented their offer with some lovely, select imported sandstones and their patented wall-cladding system, Stoneer.
Exciting news that the company is about to revamp its marketing materials and are looking to offer a more in-depth technical support service to their new and existing clients. This, they hope, will help further build their solid reputation as one of the most clued-up and experienced stone suppliers in Ireland and one with a growing reputation in Britain, Europe and further afield.
And while we're thinking of suppliers based on the island of Ireland, Tobermore had the dubious distinction of being the only concrete paving manufacturer to show at the event (given that there was no sign of Schellevis ). Due to limitations of time, I never got the chance to talk to the people of the stand, but there will be more news about the company and their plans in a couple of weeks' time after a special invitation-only promotional day being staged near Manchester.
If I had just a quid for every sodding enquiry that came in via the website asking for advice on choosing a paving sealant or how to remove a ballsed-up sealant, I could retire to the West of Ireland tomorrow and never have to lift a finger, other than to order another pint, ever again. There's a FAQ on the site explaining why I won't recommend any particular sealant, but still they ring and email and text because surely that FAQ doesn't apply to them, does it?
However, if I was ever daft enough to create a shortlist of paving sealants that, generally speaking, more often than not, on the whole, most of the time, all things considered, tend to give good results, Dry Treat would be somewhere on that list. Not just because they don't gild the lily by making extravagant (and usually unfounded) claims, and not just because their range of products very often does what it promises, but because they are so knowledgeable and straight-talking. If only a few other, less competent, manufacturers would occasionally put up their hand and admit their particular jollop just isn't suitable for such-and-such an application, then maybe my inbox wouldn't be quite so overstuffed.
A clean, simple, and compact stand that succeeded by focussing on personal contact and developing relationships rather than hoping the sight of a few bottles of a clear liquid would dazzle visitors and convince them to order a thousand litres there and then. Works for me!
And very often, the same, formulaic questions about sealants are accompanied by a request for advice on cleaning. Well, if Jason from Eco Clean Tech , representing Belgium-based Terrazza MC , had any say in the matter, we'd all be using one of the too-damned-clever-by-half brushes he's importing from that Europe. A clever combination of hard-wearing nylon bristles with patented steel inserts which can be fitted to a variety of standard cleaning machines (including the ones that Jason conveniently supplies) whereupon they whirr away and clean even the grubbiest of pavements. He has a bloody impressive video showing it cleaning setts, block paving, flagstones, concrete and more to great effect.
I'm always slightly suspicious of videos showing stunning results from a process I've not actually seen for myself in real life, but if this brush system is half as good as Jason makes out, then it's got to be worth a second look. I did see something similar in Germany around 2009, which had a page-wide compound-noun German name which definitely included the words 'Clean' and 'Witch' somewhere along the way, but the promoter spoke almost no English (apart from the usual " Bob Bee Sharl Tonne ") and relied on pointing at pictures in an attempt to tell me all about it. If it is 'similar', I'd be exceptionally keen to see it in action for myself.
And at around two grand for the cleaner and the basic brush set, it offers cleaning contractors they opportunity to seriously professionalise themselves at relatively low cost. I'll definitely be keeping my eye on this one!
Finally, a very quick and brief mention to Tarmac who had a little stand tucked away near the back where they were underselling the news that what was the widely respected and specified MasterTint range of coloured bitmacs is now lumbering under the new corporate-devised nonsense name of Ulticolour. Why? If it's not broke, don't fix it!
So: sorry to Probst, Long Rake Spar, Grundon and several others who cleverly managed to avoid me as I bounced about, from pillar to post, stand to stand, like an errant pinball. It's nothing personal; purely and simply a shortage of time.
And although the organisers went to a deal of trouble to arrange a full schedule of seminars, not one of them help any appeal for someone addicted to the hard stuff. Soft-landscaping holds no great attraction for me, and, other than a single session on Day Two, there was buggerall on the menu that addressed hard-landscaping. Is it really that difficult to get hard-landscapers and HL suppliers to talk about our trade? Most of the time, it's more of a challenge to get them to shut up!
So, once again, despite Richard Bleeding Branston's best efforts at emptying my pockets to ride aboard his comedy West Coast train set (the booked train back to Warrington was cancelled without notice, unsurprisingly, so had to jostle aboard a later "service"), this show is still worth the time, the effort, the expense and the indignity of public transport, sufficiently enough to draw me south for the umpteenth year in a row. Even without any of the recognised "big names" there's just enough here to fill the day, and there's actually a good argument to be made that the presence of a Big Name would require a bigger venue, which would probably mean the whole shebang being shipped out to the godawful ExCel. The balance between boring greenery and the interesting paving stuff is just about right, with neither side dominating (at least not on the exhibition floor), but always plenty to see. If we can get them to put on a few interesting talks about half landscaping, this could be the perfect show.