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History of Lancaster (Forton) services

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Forton drawing 1964.jpg
A dramatic drawing from a publicity leaflet.

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Opened by Top Rank 1965
Tower closes due to low use 1989
Sold to Pavilion 1995
Sold to Granada 2001
Granted listed status 2012

When Lancaster services was first commissioned, under its local name of Forton, there was no clue that its design was going to go on to become so iconic. In fact, the Ministry weren't actually that keen on it.


The documents were sent out in 1962 and described it as a 17.7 acre site, requiring at least a £250,000 investment, including an eastern corner reserved for a picnic area, and an emphasis that the views to the west must be considered in the design, and facilities must be provided on both sides. Five replies were received, and they were analysed by their rent offer, fuel offer, catering offer, traffic flow, landscaping and company stability.

Telefusion Ltd

Telefusion were made up of 20 companies who all rented out televisions. They proposed building one restaurant an one café on a bridge, plus a transport café each side. Seating would have been provided for 750 people. The design included a footbridge over the southbound access road to reach the picnic area.

The café and restaurant overlooked the motorway. The rent offered in return was low, the building layout was poor and the catering plans were too vague to be used.

J Lyons

The established catering firm who had been encouraged to try for a service area proposed one grill-restaurant and two snack bars on the bridge, with a transport café at each end of the building. Below the restaurants were two walkways (one for staff and one for the public), with shops. Outside the entrance to the restaurant (in the middle of the bridge) was a rounded foyer, while the snack bars were at the top of each flight of stairs. The building was described as "heavy and ugly", with "bad shapes" and it didn't account for any of the views offered.

Their rent proposal was great in the short term, the catering was good, but the car parks were too small and needed a significant redesign.

Lyons would have used the name Normand Ltd, with catering provided by The Robley Group of Liverpool.

Banquets Catering Ltd

Banquets were planning one top-floor restaurant, one ground-floor café and a transport café on each side, seating 740 in total. The rent offered was low, the layout was poor and the catering proposal exposed a lack of knowledge. The car park had been screened by walls of local stone.


Granada services.
Granada had to wait until 1995 before they got their logo here.

Granada would eventually come to own the services as their monopoly of the region grew. They clearly wanted a head-start with this.

Granada wanted a restaurant and café on the northbound side, with a takeaway hut on the southbound side, as well as a transport café on both. Overall it would have seated 950 people, mostly on the northbound side where they felt most of the trade would be. Next to those restaurants was a grass area, reserved for a future expansion. The large buildings took on a rotunda shape, with concrete on the upper sections and glass on the lower sections, all elevated above the surroundings, with toilets and a shop on the ground floor. The covered footbridge met the building at mezzanine level.

The café would have been further divided into sections offering full meals and refreshments, and the restaurant would have had a private dining room.

The rent they were offering in return was excellent. This, coupled with the vast and unnecessary plan, means it likely would have ran at a loss. Granada were repeating a trick they had tried at Leicester Forest East, where they hoped they would own a site so large no other sites would be needed. Once again, it didn't work. In addition to being caught out, had it been built as per their plan the sewage system would have needed an extensive and expensive upgrade.

During their investigations, Granada enquired as to whether they could tunnel under the road. They were told they could - but that it wasn't clear why they would want to!


If you thought Granada had been trying to circumvent the rules, Fortes had tried something even cleverer.

Motorway Services Ltd, the company part-owned by Fortes who had built most of the country's motorway services so far, were told regulations preventing a monopoly meant they could not bid for this site. So Fortes decided they would put their name on the bid, and point out it was the first bid they had submitted!

The plan had a restaurant and café on the bridge, with an exposed terrace at each side, above a transport café and entrance hall, all together offering seating for 600 people. Predictably, the catering was great. The landscaping received a mixed reaction, while it is the only proposal ever to be additionally submitted to the county's engineers, who confirmed the bridge-restaurant almost certainly would not stand as they had drawn it. There would have been a mobile catering unit in the picnic area.

Fortes didn't win the contract because of the engineering concerns, because their existing services weren't operating perfectly, but mostly because they had tried to take advantage of the Ministry overlooking how specific they needed to be in their regulation.


The Pennine Tower.
The services shortly after opening.

Full details: The Pennine Tower

Top Rank's plan came "consistently highly" rated by all the experts it was passed between. It showed a restaurant and a self-service café on the west side, the restaurant being at the top of a 96ft (29m) tower. At the top of the tower was a sun terrace ("a roof with glass walls"), which they had described but hadn't included any suggestions for how it could be used, adding that maybe it could form an observation platform, serve teas, or be reserved for an additional storey to the restaurant.

Including a transport café on each site, seating was provided for 700 people, with 101 toilets and 403 parking spaces. A kiosk and toilets were provided in the picnic area.

"The winning design looks first class. Congratulations."
Granada's team to the Ministry, 1963.

Architects T P Bennett & Sons had been commissioned to design the services, along with the similar Hilton Park. The agreed initial rent was the highest of any 1960s service station. However, it was the only service area to use a constant revenue curve (where the rent did not increase as custom did), meaning in the long-term it could have become one of the cheapest to run. At £885,000, it was the most expensive service station Rank built, and was considerably more than what had been asked of them.

The county surveyor and chairman of the county highways said it was by the far the best option put forward. However, it didn't offer anything for southbound traffic. It was therefore summarised as "not ideal but imaginative". On this weak recommendation, they won the contract, but on a condition imposed by the Landscape Advisory Committee that the height of the tower was reduced to something less striking.


Automated catering.
The southbound catering trial.

Lancaster was opened in 1965 by Rank under the name 'Forton'. The petrol station opened early in January, with some additional southbound facilities opening that Spring. The motorway had been opened ahead of schedule, and Rank had paid a significant sum to accelerate the speed of construction of the services to be ready for the motorway, despite being under no obligation to.

In November the northbound amenities opened. As with all their services, Rank issued celebratory promotional leaflets to go with it.

The southbound amenity building had a lowered section with a Quick Snacks machine and the toilets. Above it was the transport café which had only an Autosnacks machine, where staff loaded hot meals into the back and customers paid to release them. These were the motorway network's first catering vending machines, and the Ministry of Transport were won round by the idea, but Rank weren't - they removed them due to low demand.

Shortly after opening, the services struggled to recruit staff. Inspectors were also slightly disappointed by the lack of attention to detail, concluding that the architects, who had also worked on Strensham, needed to work under more supervision.

In 1977, Egon Ronay rated the services as "appalling". The steak and kidney pie was "an insult to one's taste buds" while the apple pie was "an absolute disgrace". He said everywhere needed maintenance and a coat of paint, the toilets were smelly and dirty, and the food on display was most unattractive. The tower-restaurant's tables were neatly laid, even if the food it sold was "an insult to the public".

A 1978 government review described the services as "a soulless fairground".


When Granada eventually grasped hold of the services, they renamed it to 'Lancaster'. Unusually, Granada later changed this to 'Lancaster (Forton)' - it's not clear whether dropping the name Forton resulted in a drop of trade or just upset a few of the services's fans.

This name stuck around for about a decade, but Moto are now slowly dropping the 'Forton' part leaving just 'Lancaster'. Highways England still refer to it as 'Lancaster (Forton)' when there is an incident at the services.

Retail Extensions

Lancaster services Burger King.
One of the original southbound entry steps. A second set opposite is now inside a unit.

Extensions to the lower area of the northbound building added a shop and early fast food unit, later becoming La Brioche Doree. In 2000 an additional retail extension created space for retail stores, one of the first shopping centres they built. From 2007 this consisted of WHSmith, M&S Simply Food and Costa, with additional space created by the toilets moving upstairs. Burger King is now the main upstairs offer.

On the southbound side, the original building can be clearly made out, but a large extension sits in front of it and encompasses one of the two staircases.

Within this, there was a shop on either side and, in front of them, a Pavilion Snack Café and a takeaway unit. Under Granada, The Snack Café became a Little Chef with flimsy partitions separating it from the corridor, and the retail unit behind it became a Ladbrokes. On the left was the Granada Shop, Gscape and a tourist information centre. Within the Ladbrokes was a flight of stairs which appears to lead up to the top floor, where the multi-faith room now is. This appears to be an original entrance, providing easy access to the bridge.

The Little Chef became Caffe Ritazza and then Costa while the tourist information became Greggs, and the shop is now Little Chef. Upstairs, the main facility continues to be Burger King in a hexagon unit - this was once an experimental, automated snack bar. The southbound toilets continue to be at basement level. However, as the majority of the southbound building is a ground-level extension, the basement now only occupies a tiny portion of the building.

During early 2017, the northbound side underwent a minor refurbishment and on 7 March an Arlo's outlet opened replacing the former EDC outlet. The Costa unit was also refurbished and reopened during this time. A Greggs outlet opened in the forecourt on 30 March.

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