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History of Heston services

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Heston food hall.jpg
The old westbound food hall.

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Heston owes its heritage to a planned maintenance compound at M4 J3, known as the D-Ring junction. With concerns lorry drivers would need a place to rest before entering London, it was decided this should be combined with lorry parking.

Choosing Location

The new combined maintenance compound and lorry park was initially going to go in the south-west corner of the junction, and then the feasibility of the north-east quadrant and Church Road were investigated. This plan quickly grew in scale, until it was realised this would be attracting far too much traffic to what was expected to be a very busy interchange.

A 14-acre alternative site was found on the disused Heston Aerodome (which closed in 1947). This had a problem with a nearby street called Grange Close, that had specially been built around the planned site of the M4. To build the services in the exact place that had been suggested, some of the new houses would have had to have been demolished to make way for the eastbound onslip.

Expecting that to cause an outcry, the eastbound services were shifted west slightly. This created an area of unused land and the link road to the rear access. As a result, the contract for the services stated this area must become a landscaped picnic area, which the operators had to consider.

As these issues would cause the services would be opening after the M4, a footbridge was not included in the plan. The westbound services were originally set to be opposite the eastbound side - it's not clear why it was ever moved.

Rejected Designs

The contract to design the services received seven qualifying responses, of varying quality.

Unlike many other services which had been designed at the time, the land here was particularly flat and offered no enticing views. The government were also aware of the close proximity of both London and Heathrow, and reminded applicants that the services should not be trying to attract local traffic, especially from high-end Chiswick. They ruled that any facilities above the minimum requirements must be on the eastbound side only, to reduce the likelihood of this happening. Partly for that reason, they insisted no bridge be built here.

As this was a fairly urban development, low buildings were requested. The main user of the services was expected to be lorry drivers.

W.H. Turner Properties

This company built houses and industrial units. Their building design, road layout and kitchen set-up were all separately described as "unacceptable" by an expert on each subject. The building design was "unimaginative", but at least the rest area "nice" albeit "unexciting". The financial proposals did not meet expectations. Needless to say, this proposal was not examined in detail.

John Willment Automobiles

John Willment owned garages and petrol stations in south west London. Their financial proposal fell significantly short of the requirements, and when they were informed of this they withdrew. Normally companies who had misread the financial brief would be encouraged to resubmit, but a brief look at John Willment's landscaping and kitchen design caused the Ministry to leave things as they were.

Highway Restaurants Ltd

"We promise to offer an outstanding example of service station design, with the highest standard of service."
Highway Restaurants Ltd, 1964

Highway Restaurants was a combined offer from Blue Star (frustrated part-owners of three services) and Trust Houses (who were later taken over by Fortes). They initially submitted a non-qualifying financial bid but quickly corrected this with one which qualified but offered disappointing returns for the Ministry.

Highway Restaurants' experience in catering clearly showed in their plans, with a "very efficient and flexible" kitchen. They proposed one long building at the back of each side, with an entrance at each end. On the ground floor were toilets and a shop. The upper floor would have been furnished with banquette seating and offered 374 seats across two restaurants: a coffee bar/café and a grill/café. The buildings were intended to be light and airy, with natural daylight coming through, and a "warm and comfortable" appeal.

Most interesting was that the westbound sliproad onto the M4 would have gone through the middle of the amenity building. They called the sliproad layout "simple and direct", although the Ministry went for "confusing and long".

The rest area would have been landscaped with soil dug out to create the rest of the site. It would have had a snack bar which had access from North Hyde Lane.

It was the poor financial offer which really held this proposal back - it came last of the qualifying examples.

Regent Oil

Having had bids for Trowell, Hilton Park and Aust all rejected, Regent tried their hand at Heston.

In this case, their financial offer and traffic flow were "poor", while their buildings "left a lot to be desired". A small 17 foot cafeteria provided both self-help and waitress service catering in one place. The landscaping was at least good, and the Ministry approved of the buildings being at the back of the site.

Esso

Before Esso were to go on to operate Washington by change, they had their eyes on Heston. At Heston, their financial offer was fantastic - so good, in fact, that the Ministry were concerned Esso would be paying so much rent they would be running the services at a loss. This was a clever strategy: at the time, the growing motoring industry was often about getting their before your competitors. A motorway service station on the way into London would have been brilliant advertising for them.

The Ministry were sceptical of Esso's new-found enthusiasm: a few years earlier, Esso had said they weren't interested in any services. Seeing as Esso were now trying to lock themselves into a 50-year contract to pay a lot of rent for the services, the Ministry were concerned a new board member may demand that Esso makes the site profitable by cutting investment. Ironically, this happened a few years later.

The buildings offered 712 seats, with the upper level having a central kitchen with a café, on the northbound side, a restaurant and transport café. The entrance foyer had lounge seating, timber walls and a ceiling with slatted wood. There was a takeaway restaurant selling sandwiches, and toilets on each level.

Esso were most proud of their patio and terrace, which was designed to offer "complete physical and mental refreshment". It was a conservatory planted with thick trees, acting as an illuminated glass pyramid. The staircase was "timber and glazed", and covered in plants.

The rest area had a "semi-mobile kiosk".

One interesting party trick was that Esso took time to explain that the whole site was designed so that traffic flow could easily be reversed, if the UK were to start driving on the right.

A third of the site was dedicated to a vehicle repair bay, despite requirements that such facilities provide the bare minimum. The whole setup was described as "unsuitable" and the car parks poor. The Ministry decided not to fall for what they felt was an attempt to bulldoze your way into the industry and rejected it, reluctantly.

Fortes

Fortes' financial offer was good, but not the best. Their 600-seat restaurant was too small. It was assumed this was because Fortes had recently-opened the London Airport Hotel, and that this could take the high-end trade while Heston took what was left. Although clever, this idea didn't impress the Ministry who were set to gain rent from the services only.

Fortes nearly got the sympathy vote though. They had recently submitted many good designs, which had come second and lost out to another operator. The rumour was they desperately wanted to win this one.

Ross

Still enjoying the success of Leicester Forest East, Ross wanted a go at Heston.

They noted that the views from the services would not be particularly interesting, but still went for a two-storey design to make the most out of it. The building would have been centrally placed, and the westbound one would have been visible from the motorway. There would have been large signs by the motorway to make up for the poor eastbound visibility.

The waitress service restaurant would have played "soft background music" to offer "complete relaxation". The toilets would have had attendants.

On the ground floor would have been toilets and offices, and a simple, self-contained transport café with its own entrance.

Due to the unusual site layout, the eastbound petrol station would have been split into a completely separate commercial and private vehicle filling areas. The rest area would have had shops and toilets.

Ross were furious that they didn't win, believing that the whole process was unfair.

Granada's Winning Bid

Granada branding at Heston.

The opening of the bids was a year late, as the local authority had been very difficult to get approval from. Ministers wanted it open in time for the motorway in 1965 but this was missed significantly. In their bid, Granada suggested temporary buildings be provided at first, but this idea was rejected, as was the idea of a phased opening.

Granada had won the contract and typically they wanted to build a big service area here, despite the government policy preferring smaller services. They argued that a lot of local traffic would be stopping for a meal. Although this suggestion was accepted, they were still told they would have to down-size their plans, to such an extent that the whole building needed to be redesigned, instead building long, thin blocks. They originally wanted 1048 seats across a grill room, waitress café, self-service café, and transport café.

They had won because their financial offer - once you ruled out the ridiculous - was the most promising. The Ministry were reluctant to let a large firm win another contract, they were also concerned by how late Toddington had opened and how difficult Granada had been to work with over it, but they accepted their plans were one of the best and that the result at Toddington had been "a good showing".

Construction

After winning the contract, Granada asked the Ministry's contractors to get the site ready for them to build on as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, they realised the cost of building the services was going to be £875,000, and not the £600,000 they had forecast.

"They have no intention of providing a service until it suits them to do so."
Highway Services division, 1966.

As a result, they asked if they could reduce the seating from 1048 to 940 by removing the waitress service restaurant. They had hoped to reduce it to 880. They also moved the transport café upstairs, reduced the size of the toilets and removed the toilets from the picnic area. The first floor was supposed to hang over the ground on a cantilever but this was cut back.

Concern was raised at the Ministry when Granada were three months late when they handed in their final plans for the petrol station and rest area. Next, they asked if their offer to provide a variety of fuel brands could be revoked. Although they had produced final plans for the amenity building, they weren't detailed enough, and kept being amended - including moving the location of the whole building. Finally, they asked for a reduction in their agreed rent because of the delays.

By this point, having witnessed Granada cause chaos at Toddington and Frankley, the Ministry were minded to take away the contract for Heston. They only held back because they thought it would be difficult to find another operator to pick up from here. Instead, Granada were given six weeks to make some progress, which they did.

Opening

Granada had offered to open the transport cafés first, but withdrew this after difficulties at Toddington.

The petrol stations opened on 21 February 1967, westbound building on 21 November 1967 and eastbound building on 3 January 1968. It was opened by the then Miss England, in a stunt designed to advertise the services' proximity to London and to Heathrow.

The large grill restaurant, which was imported from Frankley, soon closed due to low demand from commuters, a struggle which Granada was having at the time. A large coffee shop instead opened here in 1977, and a self-service shop was built here too. The restaurant was a large L-shaped room, part of which was curtained off for lorry drivers. It was brightly decorated with red and white tiling.

Shortly after opening the eastbound services were described by architects as "disastrous, cramped and desolate". The larger westbound services fared better, only being called "harsh". The lack of footbridge proved to be an issue, as the M4 was regularly being closed for maintenance of the Chiswick Flyover making one side completely redundant. Due to disappointing trade, by 1968 there was talk about Heston being turned into a park and ride facility.

Attendants were required to help run the car park as it was so tight.

Granada's errors at Heston caused their directors to lose the contract for Scratchwood.

Changes

The newer design for the westbound services.

On 28 May 1981 the westbound services were destroyed in a fire and had to be rebuilt. The replacement building uses a corridor with an atrium roof and facilities branching off it, instead of the long-room design used on the eastbound side.

Today, the rest area is beyond the Rear Access and is therefore supposedly out-of-bounds, but plenty of industrial units are advertised down there.

Gates are provided at the start and end of the lengthy sliproads. These appear to be an early motorway feature which has never been removed.

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