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History of Medway (Farthing Corner) services

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Medway 1963.jpg
Medway shortly after it opened.

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The services were opened as Farthing Corner, named after the nearby village. The change to Medway wasn't just for commercial reasons: the M2 was often referred to as the Medway Motorway, so the services were referred to colloquially as the 'Medway Motorway Services' since it opened.

There was a lot of discussion about whether the M2, effectively a short bypass, was going to need its own service area. However, the M2 did need its own maintenance compound, and the plan was to leave this as an infill site to be turned into a service area later. It was eventually decided to develop it into a full service area to prevent vehicles from taking the old road in search of facilities, although there were concerns this would put facilities on the A2 out of business.

Identified Site

The likely place for the services was close to Mount Lane in Hartlip, chosen because it was at the midpoint of the motorway, with two suitable half-sites opposite each other in a rural area with local access available. Consideration was given to developing only one side of the motorway, complaining that there had been a "go-slow" on new ideas.

Sites near Bregar by the A249 were analysed, but it was decided they would never receive permission to build there. Building at M2 J4 was also looked at, but there were concerns this would overload the junction.

The Local Planning Authority objected to this because it would have ruined the views. Attention then turned to the current site at Farthing Corner, which was flat and would all fit within one field. Farthing Corner also attracted objections, with claims that the services wouldn't be needed.

Tenders

The agreed site was 21 acres in size, of which only 12 were for developing: the rest would form picnic areas and embankments. There would be 48 toilets, two cafés and a restaurant. Tenders were then analysed based on their rent offer, fuel offer, catering offer, traffic flow, landscaping and company stability.

Kenning Motor Group

The firm responsible for Strensham made a bid for Medway. Their financial offer was poor.

Their restaurant would have sat 470, and deliberately avoided quick-service catering which they didn't feel would be suitable here.

Airborne Catering Ltd

Motorway services drawing.
Un-captioned drawing of one of the planned services - assumed to be Airborne's.

Airborne, the company who provided catering at Gatwick, made an excellent financial offer. They planned a restaurant with 540 seats and proposed a layout with good traffic flow.

However, their proposed amenity building was "too geometrical and without interest".

Normand Ltd

Normand were a subsidiary of J Lyons & Co, who also owned Lyons Cakes. They had been encouraged to enter the industry, but their bid was described as "deplorable" and "inadequately presented".

Normand were told "significant changes" would be required if they were to build their services. Coach and lorry planning was far from the building. They planned a small restaurant on the bridge, seating 220, which was called "interesting" and went on to become a standard design.

Their plan had a transport café divided on each side of the waitress restaurant on the bridge.

Motorway Services Ltd

The Fortes/Blue Star partnership planned another large service area, with seating for 714. The restaurant would have been on the westbound side, a two-storey building with a café on the ground floor and a Grill & Griddle restaurant on the first floor, offering views over the valley. The eastbound side would be a single-storey building designed not to interrupt the view. The restaurant floor would have been tiled.

On the north side would be a promenade with a wide, paved terrace running around the perimeter.

They were thrown out because their plan offered a poor profit.

Rank

Motorway services model.
A model of Top Rank's plan.

Top Rank were new to the industry and made an excellent financial bid. They were attracted to the site as they felt the forthcoming Channel Tunnel would increase the traffic levels, and they planned a restaurant with 468 seats and children's play area.

Their design was described as "imaginative" and their layout had good flow. They were working in partnership with a garage business, PDS of Worcester.

They had used the same architect as Airborne. Their design, which turned the bridge into a terrace, is described below.

Rank won the contract.

East Kent Road Car Co. Objection

Just as the winning design was about to be announced, a curveball was delivered from an unexpected source: a coach company called the East Kent Road Car Co.

They claimed that they would be using the services a lot, parking up to 40 coaches at a time. The facilities about to provided would be completely inadequate. After some debate the Ministry decided to take their claim as an exaggeration, and to stick with their plans.

Opening

"It all seemed rather scruffy, like an amateurishly-run transport café."
Egon Ronay, 1977

It was officially opened on 29 May 1963. Upon opening, Rank described it as "gay and colourful", and intended the blue and yellow colours to offer a warm welcome to visitors to England. In reality it became known for being particularly dirty, and described by inspectors as "sleazy".

To showcase the best of rural England, the westbound (Londonbound) restaurant was built with large windows, offering a wide view to the south. It cost Rank £350,000 to build the services, almost four times as much as the government suggested they spend.

A restaurant at each end offered multi-lingual menus, and staff wore old English-style hunting outfits. They were mustard and teak in colour. One restaurant, open 07:00 to 19:30, had green, plastic settees and stools, with square counters in the middle. A choice of à la carte or a set meal was offered. The second was a busier, long, more utilitarian room with orange and green plastic benches.

The eastbound services had a large picnic area, which was only opened three times a year.

The front of both buildings had a large terrace area, with an umbrella-style building at the front selling ice cream and postcards. On each carriageway, customers boarding the terrace had a choice of entering the toilets or restaurant.

Between the two buildings a wide bridge was initially provided between the two sides. This doubled up as a sun terrace, with seats and large windows. This and the terrace offered a prime view of the new motorway. A diagonal pathway with awning over the top ran across the two sides. Plans to advertise Rank from these services were refused. This bridge was later covered to become a core part of the services, and now forms the majority of the public area, serving as the restaurant.

With the floorspace gained by putting a roof over the terrace, the rest of the amenity building has hardly expanded at all. The dining area later became Burger King and a Little Chef was added in 1996 and removed in 2008. A Bureau de Change has been removed from the services too.

The M20 Effect

"In the future Farthing Corner is likely to become a loss-maker with negligible growth potential."
Rank, 1973

In 1973, Rank weren't pleased with the news that the completion of the M20 was going to see some of their trade diverted away. They were denied compensation because their contract never claimed they would be catering for Dover traffic, even though Rank had factored it in their design.

The effect of the opening of the M20 is clear. It's not so much that trade dropped, but that it didn't rise quickly like it had done at so many other services. By the 1990s this had turned it into a bid of a pleasant, forgotten backwater, but like many other services recent refurbishments have aimed to attract customers from the local area, which has had some success.


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