Motorway Services Online

History of Strensham services

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The original building, in the 1970s.
The original building, in the 1970s.

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Strensham is one of the oldest services in the country: its position was being planned long before Watford Gap had actually opened. That may well be why the original Strensham services showed amateur errors throughout by the Ministry of Transport.

Tendering

The small services upon opening.

The contract for Strensham was speculative as the first services had not been open long enough to discover their flaws. Kenning Motor Group used London-based architects T P Bennett & Sons to produce a successful bid similar in style and finance to what Blue Boar had used at Watford Gap.

Blue Boar did in fact bid for Strensham themselves, but the strain of running Watford Gap had caused them to restrict their design and financial offer.

Like Blue Boar, Kenning were from a motoring background so they leased their catering to Northern Caterers Ltd. Their design consisted of a small café on each side of a covered footbridge, close to the motorway, with a larger restaurant on the northbound side. They then applied pleasant landscaping to the design, and mirrored it in a number of applications across the country, such as at Keele.

The two restaurants were simply furnished, the main one being advertised as open the very precise hours of 09:15-20:55. It had blue plastic seats, a carpet and curtains. The café had a tiled floor with red and blue tables and high-backed settees. Kenning used the name Signpost Coffee House & Grill.

The location of the services was deliberately chosen so it could cater for the M50, which had plans for its own service area dropped.

Early Failings

Upon opening it was criticised for being "driven by economy" and for spending all its money on the bridge. The buildings appeared "poor" and did not tie together. One inspector notes the café was usually empty but about to be extended - it may have had a very variable flow.

A more frank 1975 review described the layout of the services as "disastrous", with "low quality" buildings, a confusing car park and a footpath which sent pedestrians through the forecourt. It urged the services to be redesigned from scratch, which did eventually happen.

The tiny footprint allocated to the services and small buildings sat within them meant that as customer expectations kept changing, the services struggled to do anything about it. By the 1980s, a second storey had been added to the amenity buildings, but they were still too cramped.

In 1991 the services were thought to be one of the worst in Britain with staff morale at an all-time low. Coincidentally, this was the year things changed.

Changes

By the 1980s the amenity buildings had grown considerably, but were still constrained.

The 1990s was a period of change for Strensham from the worn out place it was into something more manageable. Kenning Motor Group left the industry and a management buyout saw Take a Break take over in 1994. Family-run Take a Break had a favourable reputation, but were taken over by Roadchef in 1998.

Take a Break's staff wore yellow-and-red uniforms.

Northbound Relocation

In 1991, the M5 past Strensham was widened and J8 was improved, bringing it even closer to the services. This work was used as a chance to close Strensham northbound and build a new site a mile further north. Strensham southbound was kept and tied into the new roundabout.

The old northbound services became a works depot, and an auxiliary lane was built, making Strensham the country's only service area with its own lane.

Southbound Reconstruction

The new collection of southbound brands.

In 1999, the southbound amenity building had a small set of steps covered by a glass roof, with three new retail units (an old game arcade) on the right in a foyer. Through the doors into the main building, there were toilets on the immediate left and larger, older shop was then in the right-back corner, with amusement arcades straight ahead. Turning left at down the steps was the servery, with the kitchen on the left and seating all around it.

In 2002 Roadchef bulldozed this building and replaced it with a new, airy, glass, cuboid building, a common design from them at the time. The new building was in the site of the old car park and vice-versa.

The original plan for the new southbound services included a mini-roundabout at the entrance to the car park, but this was changed as it would involve traffic coming up the sliproad to give way to people leaving the car park, potentially causing queues back on to the motorway. Instead in 2015 the layout was changed to have two lanes enter the car park and run parallel, a very unusual setup.

In 2005 there were plans to build a motel at the northern edge of the southbound services, but this was rejected, partially because the services were already struggling to keep up with demand. Instead, the area was used as an overflow car park, trying to squeeze as much capacity out of what's available as possible.

The acquisition was a wise one, as it went on to become Roadchef's busiest and most profitable site. In 2010, a traffic count revealed the southbound services were significantly busier than the northbound ones, attracting approximately 3% more traffic. This probably followed the 2008 refurbishment, which cost £1.6million.

Recent Rearrangements

Owing to its high trade, Strensham has been a popular site for Roadchef to experiment with new layouts.

In 2008, a £1.6million investment in the southbound services saw McDonald's, WHSmith, locally-based Soho Coffee Co and Hot Food Co trialled here, the first two of which were rolled out nationwide.

In 2016, the trial brand arrangement was moved around for the first time. Hot Food Company became a large Fresh Food Café.

On the northbound side, an extension allowed for a trial of Spar. It also held on to a Pizza Hut Express long after the others had been removed from the motorway network, lasting until 2014.

Popular Culture

The services in the floods

During the floods of July 2007 the M5 here was completely unusable, and just about every building in the services was used as a depot for stranded motorists. The manager at the time, Quintin Speers, was hailed a hero for working almost non-stop over several days to make sure that people stuck both in the water and the resulting queues were well-informed and safe.

The services were the subject of a fly-on-the-wall documentary called 'Motorway Madness', which aired in October 2010 on Five.

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