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History of Newport Pagnell services

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Newport Pagnell opening colour photo.jpg
The services in 1960.

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Newport Pagnell is the oldest motorway service area in the country - although it doesn't like to admit it. This page explains how it was built.

Decision

Full details: The Original Five

After the Ministry asked potential operators which of the five potential M1 services would be best, it was decided they would be at Redbourn and Watford Gap. This left a large gap between facilities, so it was decided to build a forecourt at Newport Pagnell.

In a last-minute twist, residents objected to the Redbourn plan, so with little time left it was decided to build a full service area at Newport Pagnell instead.

As another late change, it was decided to put a maintenance compound in the services, reducing the already small plot allocated to it.

Tendering

64 interested firms were sent details of the planned srvices, and six responses were received. The tenders needed to show two transport cafés, one restaurant, a filling station and a repairs bay. They were examined by the motorway's engineers, alongside experts in finance and catering. The minimum spend allowed on the services was £50,000.

Messrs Wildman & Partners

This design came from a catering firm who had no garage experience and little financial backing. It was at least a good building design, with considerable detail, and a good layout. It showed a two-storey restaurant with space for expansion.

Their investment was good but not good enough, their rent offer was good but only if you assumed sales would be low.

Banquets of Oxford Ltd

The traffic flow in this plan was described as "torturous", with petrol by the entrance. Sir Owen Williams criticsed it as for not leaving space for expansion, calling it "inflexible".

Airborne Catering (Southend-on-Sea Ltd)

Airborne submitted a good design, but the firm couldn't demonstrate much experience. Their building designs scored well even if they were a bit small, and their traffic layout was poor.

John Jordan

This design was clearly more interested in the petrol station, with all traffic directed through it. It had a restaurant at bridge-level (not making clear whether it would be on the bridge or just next to it). Their design work was good.

British Electric Traction Investments Ltd

BET's rent offer was particularly poor. Their design was clever because it was mostly car parking, which the Ministry would be paying for.

They proposed small buildings with a transport café separated within the main café. Their specification was not particularly detailed.

Motorway Services Ltd

The Fortes design as-built.

Motorway Services Ltd were a union between Fortes and Blue Star which arose during the early consultation phase, with both firms keen to promote their own names. Their rent offer was average, with the new company clearly being short of funds.

The design was clearly aiming to impress wealthy motorists. They had ignored the requirement to have two transport cafés and instead proposed two cafés to seat 200 each - the same thing but with a more classy name, as it was actually barely a snack bar. The main restaurant was expensive and American-styled, serving food at counters and tables.

They were proposing to spend £250,000 on the project.

The boarding design scored well, even if the toilets were hard to find. On the footbridge, Fortes proposed a roof and picnic tables so motorists could enjoy the exciting view.

Construction

With little time left before the motorway opened, the Ministry asked Blue Star to get an emergency petrol station ready as soon as possible. They managed to get something described as "reasonably attractive" open on 2 November 1959 with a recovery truck, a small filling station and a temporary toilet block.

Once that was open, attention turned to the permanent buildings. With staff working overtime Fortes were ready to get the amenity building open by April 1960, but the Ministry wouldn't have been ready with the car parks in time.

The services were larger than the Ministry had budgeted £300,000 for.

Opening

A postcard promoting the motorway and the services.

On 15 August 1960 the northbound café opened. With the footbridge not ready, southbound traffic was allowed to use the rear access and Little Linford Lane to access the new restaurant. The northbound Grill & Griddle restaurant opened on 17 August 1960, and the southbound services and footbridge opened later in September.

200 staff were employed to work at the services. Fortes were under strict instructions to make the building dull and to separate it from the main carriageway with a lot of trees. When the Government came to make their final inspection, they found that both rules had been broken and the site was seen as a "possible distraction" to drivers. Despite this, the services opened as normal and like most services, have since attracted brighter colours and advertising.

The footbridge between the two sides was included to allow full facilities to be maintained at all times, but it is a largely glass structure to provide a good view to visiting motorists. The government agreed to fund a bridge on condition it was at right angles to the road. Tables and chairs were initially provided on the bridge, to allow customers to admire the speeding traffic. Until the 1961 licensing laws were introduced, alcohol was served with food. The operator argued their fine-dining would never be successful if alcohol couldn't be served.

Operation

"Stop with confidence. Sensibly devised dishes which you can eat at the counters in full armchair comfort served as if you sat at a traditional restaurant table."
Egon Ronay, 1961

The services were almost immediately seen as being too small. Even today, they are crammed into the local area, however the northbound site has sprawled into the field next to it. The same isn't true for the southbound services and they have a huge shortage of space. Recent development means that the northbound site won't be able to expand any further either. Toddington was proposed almost immediately, and treated like an extension of Newport Pagnell, although Fortes did not win the contract.

In the 1960s, Fortes wanted to build a lorry park near Milton Keynes. This and the services would have then been able to promote and relieve each other, and the lorry park would have had the additional benefit of being outside the government's tight regulations.

When the services opened they formed the headquarters of certain segments of the Forte business, and today Welcome Break's head office is only a few miles away in the nearby village.

Early Changes

The crowded southbound services.

Due to a lack of space and changes in demand, the services quickly moved away from fine dining. The café was a large, carpeted room with fixed wooden seating by formica-topped tables, overlooking the motorway. There was an Italian-tiled area by the servers and slot machines lined the narrow entrance. The restaurant has moved through phases of favourable and unfavourable reviews; Egon Ronay was initially impressed.

In the toilets was an attendant, free towels and electric hand drier (all novelties at the time). The parking was criticised for being "messy".

The housing estate right next to the southbound services was built in 1962. At the time very few houses were so close to motorways. Initially the houses sold well, but the residents quickly moved out and few wanted to replace them. Strangely, Blue Boar wanted to build their own houses at Watford Gap.

30 Years

In September 1990 Fortes invited Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to an event celebrating 30 years of motorway services. The Ministry of Transport warned Fortes about such an event, claiming it was a breach of their contract. Cecil Parkinson MP instead attended a much-scaled down event, although traffic congestion made him run late and a speech about the future of the motorway network was ironically cancelled. A time capsule was buried in the northbound services.

Hotel

Newport Pagnell had one of the last remaining Welcome Lodges, becoming Days Inn in April 2009. In 2004 there were plans for the motel to be rebuilt in a new location in the south-west corner but this didn't happen, so the motel has retained its 1950s American-inspired design. Had it moved the old land would have been sold for housing.

Although the motel is immediately adjacent to the services, it's technically not part of it, and for this reason it is allowed to sell alcohol whereas at most other services it is strictly illegal. In June 2016, the hotel was re-branded again and reopened as a Ramada hotel.

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