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History of Severn View (Aust) services

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Aust sketch.jpg
An early drawing of the services.

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Originally Severn View was known as Aust services, this place used to be massive: a 1978 government report suggested it was the largest restaurant in the country, and its large banks offered the chance to picnic by the side of the River Severn.

Things have changed so much, this is probably now the best place for a keen-eyed enthusiast: it is so quiet it has been left out of many refurbishments leaving references to previous owners everywhere if you know what you're looking for. The full story is told here.

Tendering

Model of motorway services.
A model of the services site.

These were the first services that were built as a single site on a junction. This was a layout which could only be used in exceptional circumstances, and it was needed here so as to get the benefits of the view without compromising the engineering of the motorway too much. Consequently, the original building was much further from the junction than at other similar designs. The site itself was 20 acres in size.

In 1963 operators were invited to bid to design a service area here, but all four replies (from Fortes, Top Rank, Regent Oil and Property Investments Consolidation) were deemed to be unsatisfactory. The Ministry of Transport believed this was because the initial predicted traffic levels here were lower than at other services, and also the contract included a requirement to operate a breakdown recovery service over the Severn Bridge. Despite the low traffic levels, the services needed large facilities to account for a large spike in traffic during the holiday period.

In 1964 the bids were opened again, this time allowing a two-phase financial proposal. Smerhursts were expected to bid but pulled out, citing concerns they had with the location. These were analysed as follows:

Regent Oil

Regent Oil claimed the only thing they had got wrong in their original proposal was the turning circles for lorries in the parking area. They had been advised differently, with the only compliment being it was their best effort so far. Consequently, both submissions had a poor car park layout, an "unacceptable" layout and poor landscaping. The catering building, designed like a hexagon, had concrete parapets cantilevered out at angles. It wasn't well sited and didn't offer much of a view over the river; indeed the submission showed no attention to detail.

While their financial proposals were poor, the catering arrangements looked OK. It had a waitress service café and a grill room in total seating 644 people. The customer accommodation was in a v-shape. Buildings would be finished with natural stone and timber. The ground-level entrance hall had a shop, vending machines, cloakroom, toilets, with the café and grill leading away from this.

Fortes

Fortes' layout was described as "unacceptable", as was their landscaping proposals, but as usual their catering arrangements were good. Their restaurant overlooked the estuary while the café overlooked the coach park. An open-air terrace was included. In total it would seat 400 people. It wasn't good enough to take forward.

Fortes described themselves as "apprehensive" about Aust - the one they really wanted was Heston, but they were worried they might win both.

Highway Restaurant Ltd

"While the tender includes a main catering building of exceptionally ingenious design, the layout suffers from serious defects."
MSA Board, 1964.

The Blue Star company's popular design had a semi-circle window with tiered seating, giving an excellent view over the river. Inside was a restaurant and snack bar. The layout, landscaping and catering were all summarised as "excellent". Their proposal was let down only by its tight car park layout, which required significant redesign work to rectify. The lack of a drop-off point was considered to be a negative in this busy location. The financial offer was weak too.

The building was designed by Terence Verity and would seat 908 people. In the picnic area, they had shops and toilets.

Top Rank

"It will be better than anything your experts have ever seen."
Rank Organisation, 1964.

Although Top Rank's bid was the strongest of the original few, keen to avoid congestion on the sliproads, they engineered an overpass within the car park, which would have pushed costs up significantly. The Ministry were also expecting designs to include a large bay window to take advantage of the views to the west. Rank were therefore asked to rethink their standard window design. The third flaw in the original plan was that Rank had taken the responsibility to keep the bridge moving to their heart, and had offered to fit the entire bridge with CCTV. They were told this was unnecessary for a system which was only expected to be needed twice a week.

This time they were once again all that was left. The Landscape Advisory Committee said their design was the best, the catering was rated "good" and their financial proposals came out top. The restaurant sat 350, the café 450, the transport café 110, the coffee bar 100, 140 toilets would be provided and 509 parking spaces. In the picnic area would be vending machines. The shop would sell daily newspapers, periodicals, paper-backed books, cigarettes, tobacco, confectionery, strictly limited toilet requisites and stationery.

As with all their services, the building was a large box-shape which was noticeable as you approached it on the motorway. The design, which was sensitive to local environmental concerns, makes the building look like it only has one storey whereas in reality it had three.

Aust services view.
The original building and its view.

The design of the amenity building is perhaps best summed up by the architects themselves:

On entering the building, a short flight of stairs rises to the public room level, to a generous foyer off which open directly the lavatories, two restaurants, a coffee and snack bar, a small shop and a mothers room. The GPO machines and Public Telephones are situated at the lower level of the main foyer. The coffee and snack bar serve breakfast, sandwiches, light refreshments. Male and female lavatories are provided and mothers room in addition.

The staff room, kitchens, stores, offices and the service area Manager's flat all occupy a lower ground floor level with lift service to a servery between the two restaurants.

The two restaurants have large windows facing west and south with extensive views of the bridge. Both have external terraces, the terrace leading to the cafeteria is directly accessible from the picnic area. The whole public room level is provided with a plenum system of ventilation and heating.

The standard of finishes throughout the public room is high, with double glazing, panelling and carpet in the main restaurant.

There was also a lengthy shelter leading to the entrance, allowing passengers to be dropped off close to the door. Externally, the long sliproad was designed to look like a private driveway, with the bridge as a backdrop.

Rank won the contract.

Reception

Aust Rank restaurant.
Inside the main restaurant, shortly after opening.

In reality, the lower level facilities were almost always closed, with customers directed to the more expensive restaurant upstairs. This created a depressing welcome. Most didn't bother climbing the lengthy staircase, and with an escalator apparently too expensive, Rank trialled a series of vans to deliver ice creams from the fields. A subway to the lower level was almost always unused, and posters for Rank theatres inside were frequently vandalised. This subway was later incorporated into the main building.

Among those who did use it, the large upper-level restaurant was popular, with many parties booking tables in advance. Theft of ashtrays was high and stopped only when Rank started to brand them.

The main facilities were named Grand Prix Grill, Severn Buffet and Coffee Shop (long before coffee shops became commonplace). Later on, the front of the ground-level of the services had an ice cream parlour and a shop branded LA Leathers. Under Pavilion, they turned it into a restaurant and game arcade.

Such a design, with a large foyer and grand building, quickly fell out of fashion as being too difficult to maintain during quieter periods, and unnecessarily expensive to run. As with most services, this particularly became an issue as customer interest in dining dropped dramatically, creating a spiral of cuts to quality and drops in custom.

The motorway network's first cash dispenser was introduced here in 1986.

In 1989, the restaurant had a bright green, brown and mustard restaurant, with lots of potted plants, but the most noticeable feature was the noise of the conveyor belt. New owners Pavilion tried to shake off some of this reputation with its new name, 'Severn View services'.

Closure and Change of Building

"Those of you who have grown used to resting, relaxing and refuelling at Severn View, do not worry, [the road number] is the only change you'll notice."
Granada publicity leaflet, 1996

With the Second Severn Bridge due to open in 1996 and bypass Severn View, Granada anticipated an entry and built new services at Magor.

When Granada took over Pavilion in 1995, this gave them four services in a row. A condition of the takeover was that Severn View would need to be sold if the new Severn Bridge, which would take traffic away from the services, didn't open immediately. It did open, and having just sold their Magor, Granada decided to compete with it by issuing leaflets telling motorists Severn View is the "same services, different road".

This didn't attract much custom, but Granada decided to work with what they had. They repeatedly applied for permission to move or redevelop parts of the services, which included plans to replace the building with housing, storage facilities, car dealers and a motorway maintenance compound.

In around 1999 they moved the main services to an extended Trucker's Café and then set about selling the surplus building, eventually convincing the Highways Agency that it wasn't necessary. The car park was then moved to the former parking area, HGVs moved to a former parking area and the overflow car park closed. The old building probably never had most of its Pavilion branding removed.

In 2000 there were plans to double the size of the tiny new building, leaving space for larger facilities, but this was never needed.

The old services building today.

Although Severn View no longer offers a view of the Severn, it is connected to a series of footpaths and the National Cycle Network. These paths pass through Brightside's property and run along the estuary, over the toll booths and along the bridge.

Old Building

In 2000 Motion Media bought the former services and car park for £1.25m. They then sold it to the Brightside Group. Both the car park and the building (now painted in a green not too dissimilar to what Pavilion would have used) are very similar to how they'd have been in the days of Aust.

When it was closed, the ground floor of the old services had a small entrance and lobby, leading to a foyer. On the left was a gaming arcade and on the right was a Burger King (with its own exit). Further ahead, there was a shop on the left, and toilets on the right. At the back were steps, and behind them the rest of the floor was used by staff. Unfortunately, the rest of the building was quickly stripped out and used by offices.


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