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History of Keele services

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Keele postcard 1.jpg
The services shortly after opening.

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Opened by Motorway Services Ltd (Fortes) 1963
Re-branded Trusthouse Forte 1970
Re-branded Motor Chef 1974
Re-branded Welcome Break 1988

One of the country's oldest services, Keele led an experiment with a bold new design. Its full history is included below.

Being close to Keele University, the Rear Access here has reportedly been one of the most abused. In 1977, Keele was the first service area to try to stop this with an expensive rising bollard set up, but it didn't work.


Keele was the first of the three to have its contract opened to tenders. Before opening, the Minister had discovered a liking for bridge-restaurants and wanted to encourage them.

The minimum investment allowed in the plans was £75,000. 62 companies were invited to tender and four replies were received. They were then analysed by their rent offer, fuel offer, catering offer, traffic flow, landscaping and company stability.

Potteries Motor Traction Co. Ltd

This local firm were a subsidiary of BET Investments, who had bid for Newport Pagnell.

Their design was discounted because of its poor financial offer, but their catering proposal was very good. However, their plans showed inexperience, and the kitchen set up was poor.

Airborne Catering Ltd

The Gatwick caterers who never managed to assure the Ministry of their competence struck again. This design had a footbridge with two buildings set far back from the motorway.

Their catering plans did not stand up to scrutiny, being described as "unsuitable", despite the company's experience. Their traffic flow was described as "practically unworkable", and their building design was "entirely negative and uninteresting" as well as "difficult to operate".

Airborne also explained they would be choosing a brand name to operate under if they won the contract.

Kenning Motor Group

The operators of Strensham made a bid for Keele. Their design was discounted because of its poor financial offer.

Motorway Services Ltd

"It's bold and imaginative, in keeping with the motorway."
Ministry of Transport MSA Board, 1960

The Fortes/Blue Star combination had applied for every service area to tender so far, and this time they made two applications: one with a bridge and one without.

Their first design had two single-storey buildings at either end of a bridge-restaurant, with a £250,000 investment. This was described as "a tasteful design" and was "met with enthusiasm". The Ministry felt this would be a good place to experiment, as the previous services on the M1 had been criticised for being unimaginative. There were some doubts about possible legal issues with the bridge, and it may have to be removed from the plan. The Ministry later agreed to pay £9,360 for the deck of the bridge, with them leasing out the structure.

The bridge-restaurant originally had tables set in small booths with sections of glass in between. It was distinguished by water towers at each end of the bridge, a design later used again at Charnock Richard.

Their second option had two two-storey catering buildings with a restaurant at either end of a footbridge, which was a cheaper option to construct. Fortes sold it as "an improved Newport Pagnell". Both designs were let down by a poor car park layout.

Motorway Services Ltd's first bid won the contract.

Construction and Opening

Keele O2 proposal.
A rejected plan to use Keele as a giant advertising hoarding - although its time in orange can be seen around the edge of this mock-up.

Having won the contract by impressing the Ministry with their ideas, Fortes quickly found themselves in hot water for the poor detail in their design work. Fortes missed out on several subsequent service station contracts over the next five years as a result.

A delay in construction meant the Staffordshire section of the M6 (including the services) was ready to open before the Cheshire section. This would have seen the motorway come to an end at the boundary, just north of the services. Fortes agreed to opening the services even though they would only be accessed via J15, and served only as a local attraction.

When it opened, a sign on the door boasted the following facilities: Grill & Griddle Restaurant, Snack Bar, Toilets, Postal Service.

In its time, Keele has been painted bare brown, grey, Welcome Break blue, KFC red, Coffee Primo orange, white, Welcome Break black, and no doubt many other colours.

Changes and Operation

Keele services shops.
Today this is the middle of the services. But with toilets on the left (now moved), stairs to the restaurant on the right, and a snack bar ahead, this was once all the ground floor offered.

A few years after opening, Fortes moved the transport café to the bridge and the old transport café became a weekend overflow café.

In 1964, it was described as being "in the red". The main café turned out to be the most popular facility, especially with northbound traffic.

In 1977, Egon Ronay rated the services as "appalling", commenting on the deserted restaurants by saying the public had "wisely fixed their own boycott". As well as complaining about the frozen food and the "lackadaisical and ignorant" staff, he complained about its "very dated style and approach", the noisy pin ball machines, and the "sleazy" café whose whole atmosphere "is really only conducive to indigestion".

On 27 August 1987 there was a fire in the northbound upstairs kitchen. The upper deck of the building was severely damaged, and debris fell from the building onto the motorway, causing the road to be closed for several days. This is one of the reasons why today the Highways Agency are reluctant to allow bridges at motorway services. In 2003 there was another fire in the car park which again damaged part of the northbound carriageway.

The original design saw three entrances to the services, a snack bar built against the motorway, and the toilets right at the back (where they stayed until the 2000s). A shop was built next to the entrance, and became part of the main building when a lobby was added in the 1990s. Expansions by Welcome Break have added further shops to the ground floor level, taking away much of the shrubbery.

The motorway network's first KFC was added to the southbound dining area in the 1990s. In 1997 this became The Granary, and KFC moved to the bridge.

Brand Changes

Burger King Keele services.
Burger King replaces the old bridge-restaurant.

In 2011, a significant change to the northbound side saw the toilets moved from the back wall to a new position in the old transport café, alongside a Subway (previously Eat In). The snack bar had become a Little Chef, then Red Hen, then Coffee Primo and is now, after being closed for a period, a Starbucks.

In addition to Welcome Break's usual 'The Shop', in the 1990s the northbound side had a shop called 21st Street Audio and Visual.

Burger King and KFC continue to occupy either side of the bridge. The southbound side has held the same layout for some time, with restaurants and toilets on the ground floor and an escalator up to an extension on the bridge.

Unfulfilled Plans

In the early 1990s, the northbound side of Keele looked likely to be demolished to make way for the widened M6. Welcome Break had a plan to build a new, larger northbound services slightly to the east, but feared the new Stafford services would take its custom. Instead, they worked on a large extension to the services, including adding the northbound Game Zone.

Keele has no motel but Welcome Lodges were planned in 1997 and 2005, by expanding the site of services and replacing the workshop area. An earlier plan by Fortes was rejected after legal difficulties, and the news they didn't own the land they wanted to use.

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