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History of Hilton Park services

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HP spiral staircase.jpg
Interesting architecture from Rank's exciting era can be found around the services.

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Hilton Park services was built and ready to open in 1967, but as the motorway south of here wasn't ready for another three years, the services were closed and barriered off until 1970 - much to the frustration of cash-strapped owners Top Rank.

The Ministry of Transport had suggested just the petrol stations be opened, but this idea was declined by the operator.

The name Hilton Park derives from the name of the stately home which the services are built on, which itself is named after the nearby village of Hilton.

Location

Hilton Park has a lot to answer for. Its location is the main reason why J10a only faces south, and it has also meant that a whole new dual carriageway has had to be proposed to link the M54 to the M6 Toll. For a while it was to be closed so that junction improvements could take place either side, in a similar fashion to Leicester Forest East.

This isn't going to help southbound traffic, where the next services are 30 miles away for traffic for the south-east and 50 miles for traffic for the south central. Considering this and just how busy this bit of the M6 is (it's the second busiest single stretch of motorway in the UK), it's no surprise that in 1998 Hilton Park was noted for being the busiest service station in the UK. However, since then the M6 Toll has taken a small amount of that traffic away so it's not known where it still lays claim to this title.

Its location has also meant that the M54 needed its own service station - Telford.

Site Selection

The original identified site for the services was at Essington, with two half-sites not perfectly opposite. The site was described as "an unattractive area" and it was too small, but there were no alternatives. It would have required local roads to be diverted. However, the Staffordshire County Planning Committee and Local Planning Authority both objected to the services, and the National Coal Board were proposing to commence opencast operations here. Sir Owen Williams then identified Hilton Park, and presented it as the only other suitable option.

A large area was zoned for Hilton Park, allowing for a thick wall of trees to screen the services.

Original Ideas

A month after Trowell, the contract for Hilton Park was opened to tender. The close contracts proved to be a mistake as it meant rejected entrants couldn't be given feedback to improve. Forte, Blue Star and Granada were forbidden from entering as they owned the neighbouring services. Instead, the following bids were received:

Regent Oil

The problem with Regent's design was that it could have been placed anywhere. Even then, the Ministry, and the local planning departments they had to succumb to, preferred layouts which were sympathetic to the local environment and made the most of the landscape.

They proposed a very tight profit margin.

Blue Boar

Blue Boar, who already owned Watford Gap, had a financial proposal which was very poor, and its design work was very vague. This is all we know about it.

Property Investments Consolidation

This clunky title was the name of a group who owned West End restaurants in partnership with Golden Egg. They proposed building a café and restaurant on a bridge above the motorway. It would have been a very small restaurant and the car parks would have been underground.

The Ministry didn't want a bridge-restaurant at this site as the two sides were geographically very different, and they couldn't see symmetrical service area here. Bridge-facilities were falling out of favour anyway due to the glare they can cause. This, coupled with largely monochrome buildings and a poor financial offer saw it thrown out quickly.

Mecca Leisure

Of the proposals offered so far, Mecca's was the first to be taken seriously, with some decent design work and finances. Their only failing was that their restaurant had seven times as many restaurant seats as it had car parking spaces.

A month before Hilton Park, Mecca Leisure had won the contract for Trowell, which they went on to make their own with, using entirely local branding and themes. The Ministry had learned from past experience where operators had struggled to build two services at the same time, and considering Mecca's inexperience, they did not want them to bite off more than they could chew.

Top Rank

An artist's impression of the final design, the winner by default

Known for their elaborate architecture, Rank didn't disappoint. Concerned that their covered footbridge would feel like a tunnel, Rank had the unique idea of putting a tea bar in the middle of it. The Ministry found the idea ridiculous: difficult to walk past, distracting to drive under and not of interest to anybody. Rank then asked if they could build a bridge which was wider at the centre than at the ends, and were again told to stick to serious proposals. They considered turning the bridge windows into motorway viewing platforms.

The tower was even more controversial. It wasn't tall enough to see over the trees which masked the good view to the west, but it was so tall it could be seen from afar to the east where there wasn't a view particularly worth talking about. They had to significantly reduce the height of it to get it approved. Indeed the whole building was described as "unnecessarily high". The original proposal included tiered seating in the tower-restaurant to offer everyone the optimum view - but not a view of anything in particular.

To add insult to injury, the petrol filling stations were placed before the car parks. Although that's a trivial design issue, it flew in the face of the last five years of service station feedback.

The north restaurant had 380 seats, south had 120. There were 370 parking spaces. It was designed by London-based architects T P Bennett & Sons, who designed Forton.

Conclusion

Only Mecca and Rank's proposals were taken seriously. Although Top Rank's was seen as being very flexible, the offer was marginally poorer than Mecca's.

Unbelievably, it was the fact that Mecca were already building a service station which caused them not to get the contract, despite Rank already owning two of the four existing services on the M6 and despite Rank's inferior offer.

The Restaurant

Hilton Park building.
The northbound tower.

Full details: Architecturally Interesting Services

Each side of Hilton Park has a distinctive tower-shape. At first both towers held a restaurant with a panoramic view enhanced by the tiered design of the system, but these have since been closed due to falling patronage and rising maintenance costs, mainly attributed to fire regulations. It now houses offices. If this story sounds familiar, it's because Rank did it again on a much larger scale at Forton. The staircase for the northbound tower is still used to access the bridge, but you cannot reach the top. On the southbound side the toilets are on the second level beneath the tower, with a second staircase being used.

In the main restaurant, a small buffet table was by the window alongside a sweet trolley. Paintings by a local artist were hung up and available for purchase.

The restaurant moved down from the tower to a former patio area in 1971, citing low trade.

More Recent History

Hilton Park services.
A choice of facilities on the southbound side.

Pavilion introduced a Burger King to the northbound services.

Around the time it became the busiest, Hilton Park was extended to become the first "mini-shopping centre". The extension made it the first site to gain a Cyber Café and the last to get a Trucker's Lounge. Neither of these facilities are still available, instead they are partitioned off and used as office space.

At this point, shops in the southbound services included Superdrug and Thorntons (nearest the door), The Sock Shop, Tandy Express and Clinton's. There were plans for a second storey to be added to the car park, creating a second storey entrance too.

For a while Hilton Park was known as Birmingham North before changing back.

For a few years from 2000 the bridge between the two sides was closed. A court appearance later confirmed several companies had been fined for asbestos discovered in the bridge while it was being refurbished.

It is still a mystery as to why Hilton Park services has been so successful, when Frankley down the road has shrank. The wide variety of takeaway outlets seems to have something to do with it.

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