What is concrete?
Concrete is a mix of cement, water and aggregate - rocks and sand. It is liquid when first formed (the less water in the mix, the stronger it will be), and is poured into a mould where it then ‘goes off', setting hard. Though concrete sets relatively quickly, it takes some time for it to reach its full strength; it's assumed to reach half strength 28 days after pouring. Most of the time, it is mixed at a plant, transported by road and poured at the construction site. However, prefabricated concrete panels are growing in popularity.
Though very strong in compression, concrete needs reinforcement with another material - usually steel - to increase its tensile strength. Its load-bearing qualities mean that concrete is often used for foundations and structural walls. However, it needn't be the dirty little secret holding a building up - it can be used decoratively too. You can use concrete to make fire surrounds, bathrooms and even kitchen worktops - though you'll need to make sure the material is properly sealed.
If you think the raw concrete is too harsh under grey British skies then there are plenty of softer options. Decorative shuttering can create beautiful textures for internal feature walls. Concrete Blond produces walls with many different textures and effects. And you don't need to leave concrete grey: the aggregate used will subtly vary the colour and, for vibrant effects, companies such as Crete Designs use pigments and stains to turn concrete any colour under the sun.