Rock of ages prospers in the 1990s: Gloucestershire stone quarry discovers niche markets

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FARMINGTON STONE is a business that traces its origins back to Roman times. For hundreds of years a few men had dug out the occasional pile of stone from its quarry near Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, for a local builder.

Captain John Barrow took the quarry over in the mid-1980s, after the manager who was running it for his family retired. A builder from Bristol approached Capt Barrow, whose family had owned the quarry since 1902, with a view to expanding the operation.

Capt Barrow invested pounds 500,000 in a new 10,000 sq ft shed, machinery including a profiler (a programmable cutting machine), offices and workshops. With the massive boom in the construction business, things were looking good. But it came to a grinding halt two years ago.

So he and Martin Robins, his marketing manager, started looking at different ways to attack the market. 'We saw the house-building market expanding first,' says Mr Robins. 'Bradstone (the artificial stone) had been popular, but with the growing environmental lobby, along with the fact that it didn't last or weather well - together with the price of natural stone halving because we were running it properly as a business - there was quite a demand (for natural stone).

'Companies such as Berkeley Homes are looking for an edge when they are selling their homes, and natural stone gives them that. In the past, they wouldn't have used it because of the price difference.'

Turnover rose from pounds 10,000-pounds 20,000 a year to pounds 500,000 in the 12 months following Capt Barrow's investment. Now far more involved with Farmington Stone than farming, Capt Barrow says: 'Thank heavens for the quarry. I love working with the stone. I think it is marvellous.'

His recently converted barn on the estate is full of the soft mellow limestone. Farmington Stone flagstones pave the kitchen and hallway, and there are two massive stone fireplaces. There is also a splendid stone circular table outside. 'Did you know,' asks Capt Barrow, 'you can tell good stone by tapping it?' He demonstrates by tapping the top of the table, which rings as if it is hollow, although it must weigh a ton.

Planners have helped them by encouraging builders and architects to use real stone. Robert Parkinson, architect for West Oxford District Council, said: 'We promote the use of natural stone in this part of Oxfordshire because it is the material that looks best and recent technological developments have made it easier for builders to use the stone.'

They hope there is enough stone in the quarry to last for well over 50 years. Phil Edwards, mason and production manager, reckons that it takes four to five years to exhaust an acre and they have 48 acres left. 'Even if we double output, we can go on for years. At the moment, we are in production 24 hours a day. Every piece of stone that is taken out of the ground is accounted for. Martin recently wanted a small slab to put up outside the office, I couldn't even let him have that.'

Another reason for the company sailing out of the doldrums has been its diversification into two other areas. It always made fire surrounds on request but in 1992 designed a standard range of stone fireplaces - at half the price of artificial ones.

'We've set up 80 distributors in this country and have just had an exhibition in Belgium. We are exporting fire surrounds to the Middle East, America and Hong Kong as well as supplying housebuilders,' says Mr Robins. This year, he hopes to sell 2,000 to realise about pounds 500,000 - bringing turnover up to around pounds 2m.

The other market is flagstones, which are going down particularly well in the Middle East. Charles Smallbone, the kitchen furniture man, who has a shop in London's Kings Road, started them off.

'He got an order for us for 25mm-thick ones, which we had never done,' says Mr Robins. 'They had always been 50mm before. We thought they wouldn't survive, but they did.' The company is even exporting building stone to Australia. Andrew Kroger, who came to the area for a holiday before Christmas has ordered around 200 tons for a house he is building back home.

(Photograph omitted)