Abbey Barns was listed as a potential site for a motorway service area when the M40 had not long been built. It went to tender in 1973, but no replies were received, so the idea was put on hold. The contract allowed it to be developed as one site or two, and they expected at least £700,000 to be invested in it. A footbridge would have been provided, as would a connection to the local road network.
At 24 acres the site is quite small, even by the standards at the time.
After being postponed and environmental concerns being raised, Shell tried to guarantee themselves the contract by buying the land and getting planning permission for a service area. This strategy did not work.
The completion of the M40 created a few problems because it created a 210 mile motorway route with no services along it. Abbey Barns was never considered (or at least, seriously considered) here, but a nearby site at Tetsworth near J6 was, also on the original section of the road. After this was rejected another site was considered at Oxford at J8a, this eventually opened in 1998, but it still left the southern end of the M40 (and adjoining section of the M25) without services.
The controversial Beaconsfield services opened in 2009, finally closing a gap in services that was created 40 years ago.