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History of Toddington services

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Toddington southbound amenity building.jpg
The original two-storey building, next to the car park.

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Toddington was identified as a potential site for a service area in 1958. It was decided it was needed in 1961, and then opened in 1964, eventually becoming an extremely busy service area and the head office for the UK's biggest service area operator.

Original Purpose

Full details: The Original Five

Toddington was one of the original five services to be identified, but the services to the south, Redbourn, were more popular. In the event, Toddington was put on a reserve list and Redbourn became mired by objections.

While it was waiting to be used, the motorway opened with the site of Toddington just being a gate leading to a field. There was talk about it being turned into a police post, and a maintenance compound was added.

As part of the motorway construction, a rushed footbridge was built at Toddington with no idea how it would be incorporated into the final plan.

Activation

The next services north, Newport Pagnell, was at full capacity almost from the start. With a better idea of how busy services would be, it became clear the 15 acre site identified for Toddington was only half the size required (to compare, the quieter Farthing Corner services had just closed and was 21 acres in size to allow for landscaping). Redbourn couldn't be used so a new site at Pepperstock was found, but with objections from Bedfordshire County Council, a decision was made to choose the site which could be built most quickly, and "regretfully" the Ministry accepted that would be Toddington - but they noted another new service area would be needed too, which eventually came in the form of Scratchwood.

Alternative sites were identified at Coles Farm (unable to be used because of public right of way issues), Stockwood Park (too close to Toddington), The Aubrey's (would have been very expensive as the rear access would have needed to bridges over a railway line) and Breakspears (a private motel development had already been rejected there).

There was an awkwardness about the size of the services. The Compulsory Purchase Order used to purchase the land said it would be used for a motorway service area, not mentioning the maintenance compound and police post. The fear was that if they purchased any more land, this anomaly would be spotted and the Ministry would be criticised for its behaviour.

Tendering

The existence of the maintenance compound made road layouts complicated.

Firms were invited to bid to run the services as they stood, with a footbridge and maintenance compound in the middle of it. It was acknowledged Toddington would be a busy service area, used mainly by HGV drivers who weren't well catered for at Newport Pagnell. It needed to cater for 75 cars, 50 lorries and 5 coaches. The brief suggested most facilities should be on the southbound side, to oppose Newport Pagnell.

A register of interested firms was invited to submit bids which were analysed based on their rent offer, fuel offer, catering offer, traffic flow, landscaping and company stability. Some of the names on the register who declined the invitation were Kenwell Motor Services, who wanted a more northern site, International Caters Ltd who did not want a motorway site, and quite aptly, a firm called Busy Bee Cafe said they wouldn't bid because they were too busy.

Mecca Leisure

What's interesting about the bids for Toddington is how many familiar names it attracted - Mecca Leisure went on to build a very creative site at Trowell. Toddington was less successful: they proposed demolishing the existing footbridge and building a bridge-restaurant, which they claimed they could do without any lane closures. Their building was described as "unimaginative and uninteresting", and they hadn't taken account of the countryside.

Most of the advisers felt it could be made acceptable with a lot of work. Their catering proposal was vague and described as "not assuring". The Landscape Architect ranked them last, although their financial offer was poor. Their transport cafés were too far from the lorry park.

Mecca didn't get the contract because putting their plan into place would take a considerable amount of time, and the additional capacity was required urgently.

Their forecourt would have been managed by Lex Garages.

R. H. Banks Esq

R. H. Banks proposed an extremely poor rent offer.

The position of the buildings was praised, but their design was "undistinguished", space hadn't been efficiently used, and a lot of space had been wasted.

The building on northbound side would have had a newspaper shop and a confectionery/tobacco shop and toilets on the ground floor, and staff accommodation and bridge access on the first floor, alongside a café with views over the motorway. The bridge would have been covered. A café with views of the motorway by various staff facilities. The slip roads would have gone around this building, with one drawing suggested the building would have bridged one of the access road.

On the southbound side, the first floor would have had the bridge and staff accommodation. The ground floor would have been the same as the northbound side but with a transport café built in.

The Ministry later revealed they had some reservations about the integrity of both Mr Banks and the business's finances.

Top Rank

Top Rank were another who were already winning bids. Here they proposed a restaurant on the northbound side some distance from the southbound car park; a walk which took in the petrol station on its meander towards the footbridge. A transport café and shop would have been on both sides of the road.

A café on each side of the road would not offer full meals. Their plan offered 920 seats, compared with 456 parking spaces. This was considered to be an over-provision, with more services still planned south of here.

Their design-work was particularly poor; it was just an old drawing which had been recycled. A lot of earthworks would have been required: it's not clear but they may have tried to copy their successful tender at Farthing Corner. The buildings were described as "insignificant", they were set too far back, meaning visitors would be greeted by "dreary car parks". It also offered poor views.

Kenning Motor Group

With Strensham about to open, Kennings wanted another service area. The landscape architect was impressed by Kennings' planting and landscaping, but nobody else was. Their financial offer was particularly poor, ruling them out.

Kennings were the only firm to make an effort to fit their plan around the site, although this did create a very restricted plan. They would have put a roof on the footbridge. Their traffic flow was "unworkable", and the 325-seat restaurant was too small.

Their plan consisted of three separate buildings: two on the southbound side, and one on northbound, which would require additional building work. Space would be left for an additional northbound building if required. They would invest £275,000 in their plans.

Their buildings would have used light and dark brickwork, low-pitched roofs. Their restaurant would have had large areas of glass on its roof and frontage, with a paved and walled terrace overlooking the motorway and offering views to the northbound. Two counters in restaurant would have charged different prices, separated by folding partitions. Next to this was a foyer with access to toilets, offices and a Travellers Shop.

Motorway Services Ltd

The Fortes/Blue Star combination should not have been allowed to bid for the services, as they already owned the adjacent Newport Pagnell. However, an exception was made to the new rule because Newport Pagnell was so overloaded.

They made two bids for Toddington each with the lorry parks closer to the buildings than the car parks. In the toilets would have been shower-baths. Their plans did not include a café - breaking the entry rules - but with a restaurant on the southbound side it was clear they were treating it as an extension to Newport Pagnell.

The second version of the building was the same as the first but with a winged-roof bridge making for "an ugly bridge" and creating "jumbled" roof lines. It had a circular transport café forming the end piece of the bridge. The restaurant had a hyperbolic parabola roof. It also swapped northbound pumps and car parks to create an even longer walk to the restaurant.

Their bid was let down by a poor financial offer, offering a fixed annual rent of £41,000. Here, they were accused of being extremely clever: at Newport Pagnell, Fortes had agreed to pay a high tax on profits. By encouraging people to visit a new, larger site with a fixed rent, they could reduce their contribution to the Ministry considerably. They were investing £300,000 in both their plans.

Motorway Services Ltd were accused of recycling old designs with no regard for the specifics of the site, not even its gradients. They had placed a workshop across the access road. The firm did at least have a good reputation for its catering, and they didn't disappoint, with their experience showing in the catering arrangement.

Granada

With hindsight we knew Granada would go on to become a giant in the industry, but their first bid was a poor attempt to expand their hospitality business. Only the catering adviser was impressed; their financial offer was extremely poor. As a result, they were ruled out.

Their plan involved extending the footbridge which had already been built. It had cramped buildings and a lot of wasted space, but inside it "was very efficient" and according to some "could work".

Seating was offered for 540 customers on each side. They would have had transport cafés on both sides, a restaurant on southbound side, and a café on the northbound side. The self-service café would have had underfloor heating, terrazzo flooring, aiming to appear bright and warm. The transport café would have had tiled floor. In the restaurant would have been a carpet and woodblock floor, and timber panelled walls.

Conclusion

"We loathe to recommend any of these."
Landscape Committee, 1962

There was a dilemma. In the Ministry's own words, the options they had were "basically unsound", and "none of them are moderately good". They fell far below the standards set at other planned services; established bidders had become complacent and others had underestimated the site.

However, the whole reason for opening Toddington to tenders was that it was the only site that could provide the necessary relief to Newport Pagnell urgently. Telling the bidders to go back to the drawing board would cause considerable delay and negative press. The Ministry felt they had no other option but to tolerate this, and reject all the plans.

The problems the applicants had designing around the footbridge and maintenance compound caused both to be dropped from new proposed services.

J Lyons & Co had been expected to bid but chose not to, perhaps after their disappointing performance in the Farthing Corner bid.

Second Attempt

Disappointed by the turn of events, the Ministry met with all of the unsuccessful applicants and explained to them where they had gone wrong. In their meeting with R. H. Banks, they subtlety hinted that the firm shouldn't waste its money on another bid.

Before opening the second round of tenders, the Ministry were able to acquire a small additional plot of land on each side of the services, which created an odd-shaped site but offered a little more flexibility. They wanted interested firms they did not feel a bridge-restaurant proposal would work here, and would reject any such design.

Top Rank, Kenning Motor Group and Mecca Leisure all returned their offers, but full details aren't available. Motorway Services Ltd had a building design which would allow a second storey to be added to it. It was refused because the car parks were too small.

Granada 2

Granada's revised financial proposal offered seating for 1000 people, with space to extend it to 1400. They had water towers at each end which had a viewing point and staircase - the Royal Fine Art Commission suggested only one would be required. Granada would have stuck their logo on each tower.

"It will be the biggest ever motorway service area."
The Daily Herald, 1963.

The entrance foyer would have been surfaced with concrete paving slabs, with glazed tile walls and acoustic ceiling. The café and first floor had linoleum tiles with plastered walls. The restaurant had a carpet and plywood panels.

Originally, they proposed pedestrian subways to provide access to the bridge, and a roof across the footbridge. Their plans considered of two two-storey buildings, each with a waitress-service restaurant upstairs, and a supplementary shop outside. It was a big plan, bigger than the Ministry were expecting.

This proved to be an unwelcome trait of Granada, but at Toddington the Ministry allowed it as Newport Pagnell would be difficult to expand and services to the south would be difficult to plan. Secretly, Granada were hoping to open a chain of larger-than-permitted services which would offer them a monopoly.

Their financial offer was only the second-best, but Granada scored highly on all other factors, so it was decided to introduce the new name to the motorway.

Granada won the contract, but on condition they got the work started as soon as possible.

Construction

A postcard showing the facilities available upon opening.

Working under the brief of getting Toddington open as quickly as possible, Granada's chairman kept intervening with changes to the final design. This caused the project to become extremely delayed, and open much later than expected.

Amongst the changes made, they added a coach house café to both sides of the road and fitted air conditioning. The wide balcony was replaced with a small balcony, joined by sightseeing platforms. The northbound building was extended and toilets were moved to the ground floor. The view form the restaurant had been reduced, but there was now a better view from the terrace and courtyard.

They considered building a lengthy ramp to allow deliveries to be made to the top floor, but decided against it. They had a lengthy discussion with the Ministry about an area marked for landscaping, which they now wanted to be staff parking.

Granada said they were waiting for the large retaining wall on the southbound side to be built. It was originally going to be surfaced with brick, but this was changed. They didn't take up opportunities to develop other parts of the services or use the time to complete the paperwork, which the Ministry believes was an attempt to avoid paying rent.

As a result of these issues, Granada were four weeks from having their contract forfeited. Even so, the long construction time at Toddington hampered Granada's efforts to bid for more services, halting their planned expansion and monopoly.

Partial facilities eventually opened on 20 May 1964, about two years later than expected. Firstly only the transport cafés were opened, which caused confusion. When it was fully open, it was very busy.

Operation

Unlike the other operators who at the time focused on impressing the higher-class customers, Granada wanted to achieve its task with as much simplicity as possible. They wanted everyone to be interested in its facilities, meaning some found it tacky and distasteful. They wanted to sell souvenirs and leather goods, and considered adding a car wash.

This was Granada's first experience as a motorway operator and the Ministry noted them for "frequent breaches of contract".

Initial Disappointment

In 1968, disappointing traffic levels caused the services to make a loss and meant Granada wanted to sell the services. The much larger southbound side was carrying less trade, and running a loss, which Granada attributed to its large size and problems with coach passengers. The Ministry pointed out that Newport Pagnell was still overcrowded and blamed Granada's management. The grill in particular was quiet yet known for its very slow service.

"It's appalling... a tarmac wasteland."
Bartlett School of Architecture, 1967

The two-storey design proved to be a nuisance, by hiding ancillary facilities in a second storey they were under-used, so the restaurant was eventually moved downstairs while the upstairs relegated to office-space. The large building design did not impress: government inspectors soon described it as "brash" and "garish", while international architects settled for "appalling" and "a tarmac wasteland".

Things began to improve and refurbishment in 1974 made Toddington the first service station with a "free-flow snack supermarket layout", which was described by a design journal as an "interesting initiative" that promises "promises a much improved service to the public". This was the first project which aimed to reduce the amount of time each customer spent actually inside the amenity building, which, 30 years later, became the basis of most service station planning.

The new Granada Chef waitress restaurant had brown, orange and red décor, and tables laid with paper place mats.

Growth and Stagnation

Some of the low-level extensions to the services.

By 1985, the services claimed to be the largest of their kind in Europe. In 1987 a motel opened which was branded Travelodge.

Other facilities offered included a Burger Express, and something called a 'picnic building'.

Development slowed down in the 1990s, and Granada acknowledged the services were run-down, but claimed they didn't want to develop them as they didn't know what affect the widening of the M1 would have on the services.

Eventually the services were safeguarded, and Granada went on to fight competition from Redbourn by proposing that a second storey be added to their car park, and that gaps left by past expansions of the amenity building be filled to provided a larger Burger King, and a new Little Chef.

Retail Expansion

As Granada's focus moved from rest and relaxation to retail, further ground-level extensions were made. Proposals included Granada 2Go and a Burger King drive thru, but what they got was shops including Scoop, Halfords, T2 and Birthdays.

Under Moto, M&S Simply Food and WHSmith stores were both trialled here, as was the idea of using the Travelodge to offer 'power naps'.


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