History of South Mimms services
A sketch of the 1987 services.
There have been two main amenity buildings at South Mimms - but there was also a much older complex which pre-dates the motorway network. This is the history of the services.
Bignell's Corner is the name given to the area immediately surrounding South Mimms services, although some road signs suggest that the entire M25/A1 junction takes this name, rather than the better known 'South Mimms Interchange'.
The name (and the services) date back to the pre-motorway era, where the A1 and A6 met at a busy crossroads, thought to be where the [St Albans Road roundabout] is now. Scattered around the junction were two pubs, a garage, a garden centre named Bignell's (hence the junction's name) and a large truckstop known as the Beacon Café, which was popular with lorry drivers heading in and out of London and also infamous for its use by prostitutes. By the 1960s these had all closed, except for the truckstop [view a map from the time]
In the early 1970s the modern interchange was built, but it was originally the junction of the realigned A1 and A6/A1178, plus two local roads, one of which looped past the truckstop and on to the village of South Mimms. It was around now that the Beacon Café was taken over by BP and given the unofficial title of 'Beacon Services', presumably because they knew what was happening next.
By early '80s part of the A1 had been upgraded to motorway and the A6 and A1178 had been upgraded to M25.
Meanwhile, a study into services on the M25 was underway. This started at Sevenoaks and worked its way clockwise, suggesting services at Leatherhead and Colnbrook. These were engulfed by planning difficulties, and with the rest of the planning depending on knowing where those services would be, it was decided to leave the rest of the road for now.
Aware that this strategy could backfire, the Department of Environment did at least note that there were already services at Bignell's Corner. At the time, all motorway services were owned by the DOE, but this unusual "privately owned" collection of facilities was first formally acknowledged as a potential part of the M25 in 1975.
BP's enthusiasm for building a service area here made it the first in the country to be classed as a "private initiative", where the private sector did most of the legwork. The Department of Transport then acquired the site, and leased it back to BP on a 125 year agreement - the longest in the UK.
Opening and Branding
The Guardian, 1989
South Mimms became the first services on the M25, with new facilities opening on 6 June 1987 at 1pm, with Margaret Thatcher (who had cut the ribbon for the M25) attending a ceremony. A 26-pump filling station had been open for seven months beforehand.
BP chose to lease out the main facilities to Trusthouse Forte, opting just to run the petrol station and truckstop. Trusthouse Forte chose to brand the services as Welcome Break, a chain they had just acquired.
When it opened it had a 426-seater The Granary restaurant decorated with fake palm trees, Julie's Pantry, a take-away restaurant (later Caffe Primo) and two meeting rooms which boasted photocopying machines, fax machines and a mobile telephone. It had 700 car parking spaces, and cost £7,000,000 to build. 250 jobs were initially created.
The building was compared to a supermarket from the outside, and an airport lounge from the inside. A Little Chef was added, as well as a drugstore and a bureau de change.
The truckstop, which was reopened a few months later, has since become further integrated into the Welcome Break service area (Trusthouse Forte are no longer involved, and it's not clear whether BP are either), becoming the main lorry parking area on the site, but still boasting features such as secured fencing which other motorway lorry parks don't have.
Trusthouse Forte, 1986
The services had to be rebuilt following a large fire on 13 August 1998 caused by an unattended frying pan in Julie's Pantry. The temporary building which was used whilst the services were being re-built was then sold in an online auction.
The motel was built in 1990. Government policy ought not to have allowed it to be built because the land was prioritised to expand the services, but as there was no nearby suitable place for a motel, it was decided to allow it.
The replacement (1998) service area building originally housed a mixture of free-flow sit-down catering and coffee shop/fast food space. In 2014 that was overhauled to become entirely fast food based, and extensions have allowed a trial Ed's Easy Diner and Pret a Manager.