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50 Years of Motorway Services

On 2nd November 2009, Watford Gap, widely credited with being Britain's first motorway service area, turned 50. Written at the time, this page aims to give a summary of how far things have come in that time, and the challenges which were encountered along the way. You may also like to see the Opening Timeline.

This feature was first created to celebrate 50 years of motorway services. A truncated version was published in the July 2010 issue of Truck & Driver Magazine.

1950s: "Guys, I've got an idea"[edit]

The plan for Watford Gap.

Full details: The Original Five

Seeing as plans for a motorway network in some shape or form had been put forward since the start of the 1900s, during the 1950s the subject of service stations came up. The idea wasn't a new one, coaching inns had set up along major routes for some 200 years, the idea being to help refresh drivers and their vehicles.

Using the model pictured to the right, the plans were introduced with the lines: "This is something entirely new in this country. You'll notice that there are two identical stations opposite each other on the motorway, which is here." They then continued to describe how "supposing you were a motorist, and you want petrol" you could take a certain route through the site. It may not have been particularly audacious, but it didn't need to be. Watford Gap was there as the cherry on the cake amidst all the excitement of the M1.

That's what you'd think if you believed the press releases from the day, anyway. The truth is there were two services, and they were both badly-planned and delayed. But we'll save that for another day, seeing as most people would have read about the services in the newspaper anyway.

1960s: Top Rank and top-ranked[edit]

Watford Gap had hit the spot. As well as being the only place to fully capture the excitement of this new motorway-thing, it had also become the only place where people from a whole range of cultures crossed paths, particularly with musicians meeting their fans. It's widely reported that from what Jimi Hendrix had heard he thought it was a London nightclub.

"This is a matter to which we are devoting a great deal of attention."
John Hay MP, 1961

With a whole load of new roads on the horizon, more services quickly cropped up. Some were designed with the road, others were set up by the operator on designated land. Each one wanted to be bigger and more exciting than its predecessor, with some boasting views of the motorway, the Severn Estuary and one offering customers stunning views of rural Lancashire.

The participants were cautious at first. Five operators, mostly hospitality and catering names, stepped in tentatively for a share of the excitement. They took it very seriously, and the excellent service reminiscent of a few Soho coffee bars and unique, glamorous designs meant that they quickly became popular attractions almost as good as the actual holiday customers were on their way to. The addition of a concierge stationed outside some services helped make the whole thing feel even more special.

Top Rank were particularly notable for their bold architecture, with many of their services sporting a large tower or two. To help celebrate Britain's new-found love for the service station, the five operators sold postcards showing off all of their services, along with more generic postcards showing parts of the M1, M6 and M62. A whole load of these can be seen on this site.

Towards the end of the decade, and to make sure services didn't take advantage of their captive market, a government advisor was set up with the task of visiting service stations and checking that everything was as it should be. He proudly proclaimed "We have had very little complaint about the way in which these service areas are being conducted". Oh, happy days.

1970s: Too much of a good thing?[edit]

Hensall motorway building agreement copied Abbey Barns.
Services were becoming so common and so similar, they were literally copying each others' paperwork.

Right from the start of the 1970s, the number of service stations increased rapidly, as did the number of motorways. The novelty quickly wore off, instead the buildings became much more generic. As traffic levels increased, the focus quickly moved from quality to quantity: waitress restaurants were replaced with self-service ones claiming to offer the public "a better service".

Four more operators came forward in this decade - RoadChef, Mobil, country bumpkins Westmorland and an exuberant Esso - but the latter soon pulled out and sold their business to an emerging Granada amid constricting government regulations. To sort out this problem, the Prior Report prompted the government to change the rent services pay from a proportion of their turnover to a 50-year lease.

This offered services a bit of security about how long they'll be there for, and it meant that, in theory, there was now an incentive for operators to expand their sites and provide a good service, as any extra money they made would stay with them. It also meant that there was now an incentive for operators to rip off their customers, but they wouldn't do that, would they?

As more research was done into road safety, the government decided to try a smaller, self-running "rest area" at Sedgemoor, but this was changed following problems with crime. They also announced that some roads should have services every 12 miles, and set about designating potential sites for operators to set up. However, only a few of these were ever fulfilled. It seems that the initial enthusiasm was already starting to wear thin.

1980s: A Tainted Love[edit]

For various reasons, mostly financial, the number of new motorways opening was dropping fast. So were the number of new service stations - after the government had pretty much given up on the 12-mile idea, it was soon apparent that the main motorways now had enough services to suit our needs as they were, and those that didn't were tangled up in long-running planning issues. Where new services had opened, they were often on much quieter routes and were pretty small and nondescript.

"Improvements do not come from inquiries and inspections."
Norman Fowler MP, 1981

As a result, nothing really happened here. Everything became a bit stale: quality quickly slid, prices were going up and names such as 'Rank' were now starting to conjure up images of fear rather than heaven. Egon Ronay's high-profile and relentless attack on Trusthouse Forte pretty much summed up the decade, as he constantly slammed the food being provided as "unspeakable rubbish". Forte were so upset by this that they made every effort to silence him and then move on.

The one sign of new, unique twist came with the founding of Welcome Break, who were quickly swallowed up by long-time players Trusthouse Forte. They soon became the largest service station operator and hospitality provider in the UK.

As different parts of the country became better connected, in the evenings motorway services became popular with ravers as a meeting place before heading to a barely-legal party. In an age before mobile phones, the more people that were in the same place, the faster the message about where to go next could be spread, and the more people there were, the merrier.

1990s: Change, We Need(ed)[edit]

The interior of Donington Park.

As a few more new services continued to trickle through and traffic levels continued to rise, in 1992 the government announced that they were going to deregulate motorway services. In short, this saw two major changes: firstly, services could now be 15 miles apart where there was a demonstrated need, creating more competition. Secondly, it was now up to the operator to find a suitable site to build a service station, meaning they had more say in where they were and how they were built.

Sure enough, this did lead to an increase in the number of services, but they all took the cheapest design possible and in doing so often created major traffic problems at the locations where they were built, which it was then up to the Highways Agency to sort out. Since 1992 a large proportion of motorway junctions have had plans, or at least proposals, for a service station next to them, most of which were rejected due to traffic concerns.

The new services were often much larger and more open, with airier buildings often consisting of a single eating area surrounded by the various facilities. Determined to shake-off their poor reputation, Granada, Welcome Break (now Forte in drag) and Pavilion (Top Rank in drag) all started introducing some of their partner's brands to their services, such as Burger King and Pizzaland. These may have not been the high-quality establishments found in the '60s, but they were enough to convince customers to buy something as they passed through.

"Naff has replaced grot."
The Independent, 1992

The introduction of brands was a huge success, particularly with Granada who proceeded to extend their services and invite every name under the sun to trade there, turning many of their services into mini-shopping centres. The service station visitor could now buy birthday cards, make-up, underwear, car accessories, sweets and sim cards, and if all of this was too much then they could always pull in for the night at one of the growing number of on-site motels, which were first operated by the service station and soon changed to be leased out to another chain.

Two of these names then got a little too big for their boots. New boys Pavilion, who were loving the deregulation, started planning new services left-right-and-centre, and soon ran into financial difficulties. Granada picked up on this and bought them, in turn making themselves the largest operator. To celebrate this, they decided there would be no shame in taking over their biggest competitor, Trusthouse Forte, so they did. They took all of it - not just the Welcome Break motorway services arm, but all the hotels and restaurants too, giving them a tremendous market share both on the road and around the country.

The Monopolies and Mergers Commission soon twigged and ordered Granada to sell Welcome Break, which they did. Welcome Break, who had been shaken but not hurt by the takeover, continued to run business as usual.

Meanwhile, the original operator, Blue Boar, were themselves running into trouble and sold their business to RoadChef.

2000s: Happy ever after?[edit]

New services were larger and airier.

By now it was generally assumed that the quality of services was at its all-time low, so the first thing to happen following the turn of the millennium was that Granada changed the name of their services to Moto, promising customers "a better, continental-feeling service". Granada then left Moto all together. This very much set the tone for the decade, with lots of name-changing and talk about how things are getting better but very little action.

Moto started pulling out all of their tired, 1990s brands and replacing them with the more popular and reputable WHSmith and M&S, often leaving many units empty in the process. This included leaving Little Chef, who had faced rises and falls similar to motorway services and were also at an all-time low. The other operators were also quick to make sure that their services offered the best line-up, particularly on the catering front.

Seeing as by now new motorways were most definitely rare, you'd have thought the number of services would have dropped too. But, whilst there were a few dips, new sites continued to emerge, taking advantage of the long-forgotten gaps in the existing coverage, rising traffic levels and the ever-increasing number of high-speed a-roads. Extra, who were completely new to the business, planned many services in this way, and soon made use of the many customer-inducing brands available too.

The new services usually featured modern, all-glass designs with large open areas. Coffee lounges were replacing trucker's cafés and water features became popular in an attempt to relax stressed drivers. The most important thing, however, was the small talk: sure enough all of the new and refurbished services liked to tell everyone how they were the best and were making things better for motorists. Rather than let him slate their services, Egon Ronay was recruited by Welcome Break to help improve and then promote their food. Image was everything.

"Our mission is to be the best motorway service operator and to overcome a poor reputation."
Welcome Break, 2005

But it was all in vain. The new designs were popular, yes, but most motorists still had no faith when stopping, with filth, rude staff and high prices still being common. Several surveys did nothing to reassure motorists either, with one repeatedly claiming that Britain has the worst services in Europe.

Things got worse for the operators, as the cost of all these changes was beginning to hit them hard. Throughout the decade, all three of the major operators ran into serious financial difficulties, and managed to pull out only through luck and a bit more self-praise.

There was more talk from the Highways Agency, who asked the public for their opinions on services, and using that they drew-up a new list of advice and regulations. Building new services at a junction was now to be strongly discouraged, as were extra bridges which they'd have to maintain, and they came up with several ideas to improve competition including an independent rating system (where did they get that idea from?), which as of yet still hasn't been brought up again at all. Another all-new (and not at all copied from the '70s) idea of theirs was the introduction of smaller, mid-way rest areas, and the first one opened in 2008 at Todhills on the newly-extended M6.

Where now?[edit]

Will the current choice of brands stick around?

This was written in 2009.

All this talking seems to have worked. Sure, many motorists still have a vendetta against service stations, and yes, everyone knows they're too expensive, but most people are willing to give them a try every once in a while. They may be much more of a necessity than a national treasure, but they do the job of serving the public in a 21st century way.

It does seem that we've reached a bit of dead-end, with few opportunities for new services and the operators all rolling out their own idea of a perfect brand line-up, which seems to get more alike each day. In previous years service stations have proven to be very high-maintenance for their operators, so only time will tell whether this is still going to be the case. As the older buildings get more and more inappropriate, it's not clear exactly what the future will hold for motorway services.

Feeling somewhat left out by all of this, and following 10 years of wrangling, Ireland have finally decided to start building service stations. Presumably, this means that all the highs and lows of the past 50 years are going to be found alongside motorways in Ireland, so if you fancy going back to the start where the plate is clean, that's the place to be. If you just want to celebrate these past events, which have had their own small role within English cultural history, then you should join us in a round of applause for Watford Gap and all its successors. Happy birthday Watford G, and it give our regards to the M1 too.

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