In the years since the first ones opened at Newport Pagnell and Watford Gap in 1959, they have become, for many travellers, a necessary evil. Yet despite being the butt of criticism and jokes - about the high prices of the food and drink in their cafes, the poor standards of service by their staff and the dull décor inside buildings that are frequently uninspiring and little different from one another - a recent survey has revealed that some of our motorway service stations are actually very good.
Those two pioneering pit-stops were built to coincide with the opening of the first part of the M1 motorway, a 62-mile stretch, with no speed limit, between Watford (Hertfordshire) and Rugby (Warwickshire). The arrival of the M1 was greeted with tremendous excitement nationally and was the first stage in what became a massive programme of motorway construction across the United Kingdom. Today the M1 (now 193 miles long) is just part of a sprawling, many-numbered network which most of us use when travelling any great distance.
As the motorways gradually covered the country like veins on a hand, so the number of service stations providing fuel, rest and refreshment for motorists on these busy routes also increased. Today there are 112 nationwide, all of which were included in the survey by travel-watchdog Transport Focus who asked 8,700 members of the public to rate them on a range of factors: food, staffing, parking, lavatories etc. The top five were: 1. Reading West Services (M4, Berkshire); 2. Rivington North Services (M61, Lancashire); 3. Corley North Services (M6, Warwickshire); 4. Gloucester South Services (M5, Gloucestershire); 5. Gloucester North Services (M5, Gloucestershire). Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale were: 108. Toddington South Services (M1, Bedfordshire); 109. Rownhams North Services (M27, Hampshire); 110. Rownhams South Services (M27, Hampshire); 111. Stafford South Services (M6, Staffordshire); 112. Heston East Services (M4, Middlesex). Curiously, the best and worst ranked are both managed by the same company: Moto.
I think I may have called at one or two of these over the years, but my most vivid memories of service stations stem from my childhood and frequent journeys in my parents’ Rover and Ford Cortina up the M6 towards the Lake District. I remember wondering, whenever I saw the sign at the side of the motorway, what on earth Charnock Richard could have done to have such an establishment named after him. And then, as we approached Lancaster, it was time to look out for the incredible hexagonal tower of Forton Services where, inside a structure that resembled a space ship or air-traffic control centre, families could enjoy a bite to eat (served by waiters and waitresses) while looking at spectacular views of the surrounding countryside. Although more stringent fire regulations meant the closure of the restaurant in 1989, the Pennine Tower as it is known was recently awarded Grade II listed status so at least its survival as a familiar landmark for travellers heading north is assured.
I am sure that many people will have similar memories, because although they might lack the romance of old coaching inns or the legendary status (especially among generations of lorry drivers and sales reps) of some famous transport cafes, like them or loathe them, motorway service stations are a part of our history and way of life that is impossible to ignore.