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Watford Gap services

Watford Gap
Facilities | Rating | ReviewsWatford Gap
Road:M1 between J16 and J17

Address:Watford Gap Motorway Services Area
Telephone number:01327 879001
Signposted from the road?As McDonald's/Costa
(most facilities 1960)
Previous operators:Blue Boar
Grid reference:SP599680
Services type:Two sites located between junctions, connected by a pedestrian footbridge.
Visit Watford Gap/Roadchef's official website

One of those services which everyone talks about but you never use, these days Watford Gap hardly stands out from the crowd and offers the usual affair flanked by a lot of concrete.


Catering: Chozen Noodle, Costa, Fresh Food Café, McDonald's, Costa Express, Krispy Kreme
northbound only: Carvery Express, Pizza Rossa
southbound only: Lavazza coffee
Shops: Fone Bitz, WHSmith
northbound only: Cotton Traders, Leaf Gifts
Main Amenities: Ecotricity Electric Vehicle Charging Point, Game On, Jackpot £500, Showers
southbound only: Regus Express
Motel: Days Innbook Forecourt: BP, BP Connect, Wild Bean Café, AdBlue Containers

Parking Prices

First two hours free for all vehicles, after which cars must pay £20 and HGVs, caravans and coaches £23, or £25 to include a £10 food voucher.

Prices are paid using PayByPhone - more details or in the shop or restaurant. The location code is 5252 (northbound) and 5253 (southbound).

The fees are strictly enforced by CP Plus.

Trivia and History

The original services building

The traditional 'gateway to the north', Watford Gap is Britain's oldest and quite possibly most notorious service area. It is named after a topographical feature, a low lying area of land between hills near the village of Watford in Northamptonshire. This "gap" has been very handy for transport of all kinds with a Roman road, a modern motorway, a canal and a railway all running parallel within a quarter of a mile of each other nearby. The name means the location is often mixed up with the much larger town of Watford, which is about an hour and 60 miles further down the M1. Like most services, the question staff are asked most is "where are we?", but that's usually followed by "is that near London?".

Watford (the small one) has a long-running transport history. It sits off Watling Street, the Roman Road which is today part of the A5 and formed an important pre-motorway route between London and Birmingham. It is also near the Grand Union Canal (again, London to Birmingham), the West Coast Main Line (surprise, surprise, London to Birmingham) and most recently Britain's first motorway, the M1, which originally ran from London to Birmingham and passes through the village. When you consider all this, it would only make sense to make this the home of our first service station.

The services seem to sit on an invisible line across the country which divides the north from the south. Southerners claim that there is no culture or sophistication north of Watford Gap, and northerners claim that the line forms the boundary of humour, humility and humanity. People will also refer to things as being "the best ____ this side of Watford Gap", however this is often shortened to just Watford, not at all helped by the signs on the M1 which read 'Watford & The North', potentially implying that Watford is the last place in the south. These expressions are generally unheard of anywhere beyond Surrey, Derby and The West Midlands.

Watford Gap was where Roadchef tried WHSmith. It was a success and has since been rolled out at all their services. In 2010, the northbound services gained a Hot Food Co. restaurant. In 2012, this was changed to RoadChef's trial restaurant Fresh Food Café.

A Carvery Express outlet opened here on the northbound side in September 2015, a first for a Roadchef service area.


Blue Boar were the original operator, largely because the construction of the M1 was falling behind schedule, and the Ministry of Transport decided to cut a few corners by handing the operation of the service area, which they weren't expecting many people to use, to a local business who would be affected by the opening of the M1. Blue Boar continued to run the services and built three others, until 1999 where they were bought by Roadchef.

The services sit against the mainline and they opened on the same day as the motorway, 2nd November 1959. It is built on a disused farm, and when it was due to open the buildings weren't ready so food was sold from temporary old sheds. Even before it was finished, the government acknowledged that the restaurant was too small and it was soon extended. The actual finished services weren't ready until the 12 September 1960, making it younger than Newport Pagnell. The footbridge was built at the same time.

When the services opened they became a prominent landmark for drivers and their fine-dining eating experiences meant that they were very popular. Until the 1961 licensing laws were introduced, alcohol was served with food. It was such a novelty that it reached its maximum capacity on its first day. The original plan was that Watford Gap would become a lorries-only service station and the second one, Newport Pagnell down the road, would be for cars. However, at the time Blue Boar didn't want to build another service area and they didn't want to send half their traffic to someone else, so the plans never went ahead.

Roy Harper once released a song titled Watford Gap with the chorus "Watford Gap, Watford Gap, a plate of grease and a load of crap" - the full lyrics can be found on Guga Lyrics. It was on his album 'Bullinamingvase', but was dropped after Blue Boar allegedly threatened to sue. Some sources claim the song was dropped as a member of his EMI board also worked for the services. Either way, a full version of the song is very hard to get hold of.

A 1971 independent report was equally unimpressed, describing the design of Watford Gap as "poor" and "lacking any quality". However despite its reputation, by the end of the 1970s Watford Gap was one of the least complained about services, and their staff were noted for their good service - despite it also being (in 1977) the busiest service area in the country.

50th Anniversary Celebrations

The services on its 50th birthday

More information: 50 Years of Motorway Services

On the 2nd November 2009 Watford Gap (Britain's first motorway service area) - and the M1 (the first long-distance motorway) turned 50 years old, and a whole host of names including former members of staff were invited to help celebrate the occasion.

On the 28th January 2009 Roadchef paid £1000 at an auction for a book with autographs of various celebrities who visited the services in the '60s and '70s. They were collected by an ex-Blue Boar employee and scans from this were displayed at the services.

On the 16th and 17th October the BBC filmed various scenes all over the services which were used to create 'Watford Gap: The Musical', a nine-minute musical about "the one-stop round the clock roadside pioneer". It was written by Benjamin Till who, amongst other things, had previously written 'A1: The Road Musical'. The musical can be seen online and was premièred at 7pm at the northbound Costa Coffee to an invited audience. It was also aired at this time on BBC Radio Northampton, who hosted their drivetime show live at the services in anticipation of the musical, talking to various visitors during the show.

The services were decorated with balloons and a red carpet, and a fingerpost sign was added to the car park directing people to "the north" and "the south". The transport minister Chris Mole officially re-opened the services by unveiling an plaque within the services.

As a throwback to the early days, the RestBite restaurant was selling cups of tea to all visitors for 6p, however people soon discovered that free refreshments were being provided too!

The event was reported on 'BBC Breakfast', 'BBC News at Six', 'Look East', 'Inside Out' and many local BBC Radio Stations. The whole thing was done whilst keeping the services fully operational, so many ordinary customers were surprised to pull in and be guided to a parking space by marshals and meeting a foyer full of people in suits.

On this day a petition was created to have 'Watford Gap' added to the Oxford English Dictionary for its relevance to the north-south divide.

Survey Results

Use with care. Outdated surveys have been included for interest only.

In May 2012, Visit England rated the northbound services as 3 stars, southbound as 2 stars.

In August 2011, Visit England rated the services as 3 stars.

In 2006, Holiday Which? rated the services at 3/5.

In 1977 Egon Ronay rated the services as poor. He said it was clean and appreciated the hanging baskets, but described some of the food as "nasty".


Northampton (10 miles)Services on the M1 Leicester Forest East (24 miles)
Corley (M6, 23 miles)
Northampton (10 miles)Roadchef services Tibshelf (67 miles)
Norton Canes (M6 Toll, 54 miles)

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