It’s more or less exactly 2 years since the last trade show I attended – we all know why that is, no need to bore everyone with the whys and wherefores – and I’m not sure they’ve been as sorely missed as they might like to think. Certainly, my own over-riding thoughts when preparing to drag myself 90-odd miles down the once-again-as-bad-as-ever M6 was one of contempt for the traffic and the inevitable delays rather than heightened expectation and excitement at meeting up with colleagues, friends and sparring partners that had largely existed only via Zoom or Teams for far too long.

The Landscape Event (Landscape Show? Or is it just "Landscape"?) had previously crammed itself into a giant marquee in Battersea Park for a day or two in the later days of summer, and it had, for me at least, become something of a favourite. Early morning train to that London, tube to Sloane Square, onto the always available, chauffeured charabanc, and out to the park. Just enough to make for a fun-packed but not overstuffed day out before the reverse journey late afternoon and back to proper vowels and decent ale well before last orders.

Landscape Event logo

The two criticisms I often voiced about that iteration of the show were that it was ridiculously London-centric, with precious few visitors from beyond the protective moat of the M25; and secondly, how could it grow? The tent had reached maximum capacity; some exhibitors had spilled over into the car park; there was nowhere for it to grow…then came the Great Sickness, a re-evaluation of what the industry might need and, at incredibly short notice, the whole shebang upped sticks and took itself to the seemingly limitless capacity of Birmingham’s NEC. I first heard a whisper about it back in September, saw an official notice in mid-October, but only got a pre-booked ticket a fortnight back. Notably, and an original experience for me, I’d had to track down the organisers and ask to be included rather than being inundated with emails, texts, social media posts and mail shots for weeks in advance, 

A few exhibitors revealed they’d had a couple of months’ advance warning and, for several of them, it was a toss-of-a-coin decision. Having done nothing “live” for a couple of years, it could be handy for getting back into the swing of things.

So, follow the signage to the disabled parking only to be shocked out of my extra-width bay by the Dick Turpin inspired command that to rest my wheels there for any length of time would relieve me of a whopping and wholly unjustifiable sum of 16 quid. Six. Teen, Effing. Quid. Ouch! To occupy a few square metres of blacktop for the duration of a long lunch. No concessions – I don’t expect freebies just because my spine and hips have corroded to something with all the structural integrity of a soggy Malteser, but it’s always a good sign when you get a free hour or two, or a bit of a discount, yet nothing at all from the vicious sharks now in charge of the NEC.

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16 quid would sting anyone, but when you then discover that the disabled car park is a good 15-minute hobble (624 metres, according to Googly Maps) from the actual venue, well that’s just taking the colostomy bag. Welcome to hedge fund capitalism, folks. They care about nothing but cold hard cash, Bastards.

I struggled to make it. My hips and spine were screaming for respite by the time Hall 12 revealed itself as the last in a sequence of vaguely landscapey-civilsy co-exhibitions. I didn’t want to traipse around any stands or displays: I wanted a sit down and a brew. Luckily, the very first name I saw as I staggered inwards was NCC StreetScape, promoting the superlative GftK 850+ and 815 jointing mortars, and with a chair going spare.

MD Dave Mackay admitted they’d taken a gamble to get back onto the trade show treadmill but had been pleasantly inspired by the quality of visitors. Yes: it was a bit quiet, and could appear sluggish, but his notebook was crammed with contact details for active contractors, engaged landscape architects, local highways depts, term contractors, utility co’s and more of the very people he had prayed for the week before.

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NCC StreetScape with GftK mortars

I’d recently updated one of the more popular VDW mortars videos for NCC - one of the things I admire most about the GftK products is they never, ever rest on their laurels, but continually tweak and improve their already class-leading resin mortars – and that revamped video was taking centre stage, acting as the magnet to draw in interest and then stimulate discussion, all of which allows NCC to display their own impressive depth of knowledge and understanding when it comes to pavement engineering.

Pain levels slightly subsided, time to go and pester someone else, and back-to back with NCC StreetScape are industry behemoths, Marshalls, making a very, very significant statement of intent. For any trade show to have clout, it has to include one or more of a very small number of mega-brands, and they don’t come any more mega than Marshalls.

Nothing earth-shattering to report, other than Marshalls seem content to support this event for a three-year period which is e-bloody-normous news, because it enables the organisers to draw in so many other businesses, from the one-man niche product manufacturers through mid-sized suppliers and distributors, right up the other BIG names in the trade. So, it matters not that there were no major unveilings, no expositions of plans for next season, no jaw-dropping displays: the presence of Marshalls at the relocated and re-engineered show is enough in itself. They bring that most intangible of essential ingredients for any trade show: credibility. And a very generous goody-bag!

Marshalls at Landscape Event
Marshalls stand at Landscape Event

Round the corner and another huge name – Welsh Slate. It’s just such an iconic material, so immediately identifiable, and yet, because it’s such an integral part of our landscape, from paving, to walling and, of course the, unmistakeable roofing, it’s all too easy for us on these islands to overlook it…and then you’re in some far-flung corner of the world – it was Port Elizabeth for me – and you spot a wall, a pathway or a roof that you immediately know is Welsh Slate, and the homesickness kicks in!

Like Marshalls (and so many other exhibitors at this last-minute event) it’s not the wow-factor of the stand, but the presence. Don’t get me wrong: it’s wholly functional, perfectly adequate, covers all the bases, but it’s not going to pull in the crowds. That can be developed for future events: being here is all that matters and judging by the fact that there never seemed to be a quiet moment on the stand, I suspect Welsh Slate and their parent company at Breedon are more than happy with the results.

Welsh Slate at Landscape Event
Welsh Slate's display

As Marshalls and Welsh Slate had shown, it doesn’t take much to make an impact, but, for far too many alleged exhibitors, even that minimal effort was too much to ask. There was a worrying number of abandoned display stands, The shell was there; the name plate up in position, but bugger-all content! I was told these were exhibitors that had confirmed in advance, booked their spot, stumped up the readies, then completely failed to turn up. Why would you do that?

The reason that was most commonly put forward was the c-word: covid. They’d booked then been laid low by staff sickness; or they’d paid then figured visitor numbers would be too low due to covid so didn’t bother, or even that they’d paid, then then got panicky that it would all turn into a super-spreader event, so gave it a wide berth  and a tax write-off.

no show
They paid a lot of money for this empty space

Whatever the reasons, it did undermine the atmosphere, giving it something of a Ghost Ship feel, but that reflects more on these unknown businesses than on the organisers. You can only lead a horse to the water…..

Having said that, it took a couple of checks to determine whether the stand from London Stone had suffered a similar fate and had been left abandoned, or whether someone had just emptied their car boot of all the promotional nonsense that had gathered in there while we all worked from home, and piled it up on the floor. As a stand, it made no sense at all, but despite their best attempts at sabotage, it did manage to work, luring-in unsuspecting passers-by who, like me, weren’t sure whether it was a live stand or a pile of freebies waiting to be plundered.

I know London Stone often go for a pared-down minimalist look, but even minimalism has summat worth looking at!

I didn’t recognise anyone – London Stone have grown so big so quickly, the core staff I might recognise are probably engaged in far more critical affairs and far too busy to be haunting a fairly shambolic stand at a will-it-won’t-it event somewhere in the Midlands, so I didn’t speak to anyone.

London Stone
London Stone's very minimalist presentation

I thought I might get a brew, recover from the smouldering sense of injustice about the piratical fee to park within a 5-mile radius, but then I saw the catering charges, and remembered the bottle of water in my bag. They really do screw you every which way, the scumbags.

A constant buzz around a cupboard-sized stand for the latest ‘must have’ measurement gizmo, Moasure, which uses GPS, InstaTikTok or summat, along with a magic stick to measure whatever needs measuring. It certainly looks interesting, and I’d like to know more, but never got a chance thanks to a never-shrinking queue of onlookers.

Feedback I’ve had from folk I usually trust in the trade is running at a fairly respectable 75-ish% “not bad” to less than 25% “waste-of-effin-money”, so my search for validation goes on.

Back in the days of old, when we had politicians who only lied every other sentence, one of the greatest joys of any hard-landscaping show was turning a corner and espying the unchallengeable class of the display by Westminster Stone. Never the biggest manufacturer or supplier, but they could do amazing things with a budget one-twentieth of that available to others. At one point, their lead designer even found himself being ‘poached’ by one of the very big boys, yet Westminster Stone plodded on and are now spearheaded by the third Clifford generation to maintain the family honour and tradition.

This stand of 2021 may not have aspired to the lofty heights of yesteryear but, as simple as it was, it said ten times more about what the company does than practically any other stand at the show. Simple, clean, effective, eye-catching, obviously low-cost but never, ever cheap. If I was still doing awards for Best Stand in Show, it would once again reside Chez Clifford.

Westminster Stone and National Trust Paving
Westminster Stone and their National Trust Paving

Westminster Stone have stood by their real passion, wet cast concrete paving, while others lost their nerve and threw their lot in with the race to the bottom involving imported sandstone. Now, as interest and understanding of the unique benefits of wet cast concrete are once again attracting attention, they are superbly placed to capitalise on the resurgence in interest. Much of that has to be attributed to the shrewdest bit of business they ever did: acquiring the rights to manufacture and distribute the National Trust range of reproduction flagstones.

Gorgeous stand, lovely people, quality products. That sort of sums it all up rather succinctly.

Opposite Westminster Stone, lurked the low-key stand from the Stone Federation, the trade body of Britain’s stone industry in its many guises. They offered a basic booth-like stand offering advice, rather than pushing any specific product or bit of kit or particular member.

StoneFed have now assumed administrative control of the travelling circus that NHSS30 had become. Just to refresh everyone’s memory, National Highway Sector Scheme Part 30 is an attempt to agree a standard set of working practices and methodologies for modular paving that should be employed on any public realm or highways’ project, but with a hoped-for trickle-down effect to all other sectors of the market. Admirable aims, but it all sort of lost its way amid pretty politics and indifference, but in the more pro-active hands of StoneFed, there’s renewed enthusiasm and a growing sense that we might finally have a sensible, practical and achievable agreed future for modern paving projects.

Stone Federation logo

Steve Burton is usually to be found explaining the technical advantages of the standard-setting Steintec range of bedding and jointing mortars, but he’d set aside his Steintec hat (if not the Steintec Polo Shirt) for the day and was gallantly fielding all sorts of weird and wonderful queries from show attendees, be they jobbing contractors asking about the relevance of the new BS7533-101 (for which Steven had written a very useful explanatory document), to Landscape Architects seeking quarry contacts, and developers seeking ‘cheaper’ alternatives.

Another regular from the Big Battersea Tent next, in the form of Grundon with a wonderfully well-constructed and very much hands-on display featuring their extensive range of engineered soils, self-binding aggregates for paths and driveways, gabions and fill stone for all sorts of hard-landscaping applications, and lots of incredibly useful bits and bats that would enrich almost any project.

Grundon are one of those under-recognised, under-appreciated ancillary businesses without which the hard-landscaping trade could not exist, but which we all too often manage to overlook. They are damned useful company to know: they tend to be the go-to guys for many of the borderline soft/hard landscaping touches that can make or break a project. Do yourself a favour – put their name and telephone number in you little black book. If you have any sort of future in the landscaping trade, at some point, you’ll be grateful you know Grundon.

Grundon Sand and Gravel
Grundon Sand and Gravel

Another oft-overlooked stalwart for our industry is External Works, publishers of an incredible  range of docuemnts ranging from chunky directories, to email updates and a fantastic online facility. Basically, when looking for almost any product for the hard-landscaping trade, whether it's a particular manhole cover or a textured edging kerb in a certain colour, it's likely External Works will have the data sheets you need.

Another one to add to your little black book.

Overall quick impressions?

  • There’s a lot of low-cost ceramic paving (I can’t be sure it’s porcelain, as claimed) from companies completely new to me. I suspect some may be floor tiling suppliers looking to move into hard-landscaping, but it’s a safe bet some are merely traders, plenty of stock piled high but no valid technical knowledge.
  • Absence of students sent by local colleges for “the experience” which usually involves stumbling around in inappropriate clothing looking for anything they can take with them, regardless of its actual usefulness or relevance. Pens are a perennial favourite; novelty memory sticks may have had their heyday; anything in a bag; branded T-shirts are always very welcome; and the ultimate prize? A cuddly toy of any form or size.
    I know some of them will be the future of our industry but a good 90% of them are little more than aisle-blockers. Their reduced presence is, maybe unfairly, something of a blessing.
  • No Show Guide. There used to be a printed Show Guide that was handed to you on arrival at the Big Battersea Tent, but no sign of one this year. Maybe it was just a question of time; maybe it was a deliberate decision to reduce potential waste. Personally, I always found them useful if somewhat overpopulated by adverts. I only realised there didn’t seem to be a Guide when I stopped to check the details of a particular exhibitor. As the song says, You never miss your water till the well runs dry.

There was a sprinkling of other exhibitors that I would have liked to chat with, had my decrepit body been capable of taking any more punishment, but after a couple of hours, full of a bad cold, 72 hrs following bowel surgery, I’d had enough. And I still had a 15-minute hike back to the outright thievery of a 16 quid parking square that could hardly have been more inconvenient.

Of the show itself, I fully applaud the move to a more central location, and the promise of a 3-year future plan with the commitment from heavyweight names is encouraging news.

other exhibitors
Other exhibitors

It would be unfair to in any way blame the organisers for the no-shows. I felt the management did the best they could with a bad hand. However, the seminar sessions: far, far, far too heavily skewed to soft-landscapery and gardens, with nothing of any real interest for the hard-landscapers, despite it being less than three months since the publication of the biggest update to the relevant British Standards in a generation. If the NEC is to succeed as a new home for The Landscape Show, it has to finally learn they there is more to a landscape than plants, trees and flowers.

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This is not the first time I’ve made this criticism. They got away with it in the Big Battersea Tent thanks to the prevalence of trendy inner-London garden designers attending the show, but those folk are far less common in the Midlands, but there are plenty of hard-working contractors, designers, architects and specifiers willing to travel a couple of hours from Hull or Preston or Bedford or Shrewsbury…and they *will* expect more than a nice day out of the office, in the park, on a bit of a jolly.

How much can be done about the excesses of the NEC’s owners is unknown. The catering is pretty crap and overpriced; the parking is vastly over-priced – more than I pay to park at a gig at the Manchester Arena – and the outdoor disabled facilities are non-existent.

Maybe it’s a good thing that, if I do attend the NEC again, I’ll look at using the train. 16 quid to park, plus 14 quid for the M6 Toll - I can get a 20 quid return on the train with a bit of pre-planning, and I’ll bring me own butties! The thought of tipping out my pockets to the sort of plundering lowlifes that now own and operate the NEC sickens me to my stomach.

However, no matter how I get there, I do hope I'll be able to find my way to the next appearance of this very useful show.