History of Thurrock services
Suggested in the 1970s, designed in the 1980s, built in the 1990s: Thurrock manages to capture a little bit of all three in its location, architecture and design. Whether those are good or bad features, we'll let you decide.
Choice Of Site
Today's M25 is the combination of two planned motorways. As a very brief summary, the southern and western sections were meant to be M25, and the northern and eastern sections were meant to be the completely independent M16.
Studies into the M16 tentatively suggested Hill Hall services, and something near or on the M20. Meanwhile, in 1977 a study from Essex county engineers suggested a service area at Mar Dyke (J30, about a mile north of here). It would have been in the north-west corner of the roundabout. The A12 junction (Brook Street) was also considered.
The Department for Transport strongly opposed these suggestions as their own plans made for better spacing. However, what they didn't know is that the winning option had already been found.
Previously, in 1976 Granada contacted the Department for Transport to ask for some advice. An enterprising landowner had contacted them and offered the sale of his land, in the north-east corner of what was going to become M25 J31. Their concern was that nobody outside the Department appeared to understand which motorways had been cancelled, and they wanted assurances they were actually getting a good deal. This is what became today's Thurrock services.
It's also not clear whether it was Granada or the landowner who made the first move, or exactly what Granada were intending to build here. Under the regulations in place at the time, only the Department for Transport could build new services. It's possible Granada were only going to build a hotel.
Approval and Concerns
What happened next is difficult to follow. In 1986, the Department for Transport said that they had requested bids to operate Thurrock services, in exactly the location suggested by Granada but on a larger 40 acre site, and were now reviewing the replies. It seems the Department felt Granada wanted them to do too much work on their terms, so the Department told Granada to follow the usual process.
With hindsight, many aspects of the M25 were built rushed and on too tight a budget. It's perhaps not a surprise that the Department for Transport reluctantly agreed to endorse the location which looked like it would be popular on paper, even if it wasn't really suitable.
In the same year, Granada and Mobil both said publicly that they had investigated Thurrock and decided it would not be safe to build a service area there, implying the work involved to make it safe would be too expensive.
After this announcement, the press uncovered a report dated 1984 (between Granada going quiet and the contract being opened to bids) describing the site as containing extremely dangerous levels of methane.
The invitation to bid ended with no offers being made, but the Department stuck with it, reduced the parking requirements and opened a new tender process.
In 1987, Granada announced they would be building the services. It looks like it was Esso who won the contract, and they then formed an agreement with Granada. Despite this, the services didn't open for a further five years, in June 1992.
The Independent, 1995
As time has gone on, it has been suggested motorway service area design became less adventurous or unique. Thurrock bucked that trend. It aimed to take the industrial and urban nature of both its surroundings and the M25, and offer visitors a break in suburbia. When it opened it claimed to be "the world's most advanced" service station.
This was partly achieved with a lake at the back. The entry road is also long and curvy, like a driveway from the chaos of the motorway to the relaxed services. Principles like this were later used by Granada in the acclaimed Stafford (North) and the original Cherwell Valley. Here the look was set back by all the pylons and gasometers, so Thurrock tried to stand out architecturally too.
Taking advantage of the site having a downwards slope towards the lake (a filled-in gravel pit), the tall and airy building had its entrance on the first floor. This is reached from two raised walkways running from the parking areas to the door. Inside, the walkway continued with a short length of balcony. Downstairs was the original restaurant and toilets, and at the back is a terrace. Large windows stopped the downstairs being too dark and created an exciting welcome.
The restaurant was described by visitors as "like an Italian-style garden", with plastic partitions moulded to look like topiary and a wooden pergola hung with artificial flowers.
Perhaps a better description of the architecture would be "bold". Its appearance has not stood the test of time like the services it inspired, to the point where it's hard to understand what the fuss was about. It certainly shares that era's obsession with making everything white.
Amongst other new ideas, the newly-opened services held 'clinics' with Granada customers to find out more about what they wanted.
On 26 March 1991, BBC Essex broadcast a feature on motorway services from the construction site at Thurrock. It's not clear whether the portakabins referred to in the programme were for the public or workers.
As the demand for a restaurant at all services fell, Thurrock's didn't deserve a full ground floor as few were making the trip downstairs to it. It was instead sealed off and is used to store waste. Not the view from the first floor balcony the architects were expecting. Outside, the white cladding which was popular in the 1990s has now gone grey, and the grand walkway looks like any ageing bridge on the motorway network.
Now just the toilets are provided downstairs in their own dark basement, while everything else is crowded on the mezzanine. The obscure hotel entrance half way down the stairs was blocked off and a doorway added to the walkway outside. It was the first service area to be allowed accommodation from opening, hence the decision to build it into lowest floor of the amenity building, which made planning easier.
A large tourist information office selling tickets for London attractions, hotel rooms, ferry tickets and travel insurance has since closed.
A 1994 assessment of the services found the turn-in rate to be just 3% (compared to an average of 12%), and this was put down to the long detour from the M25. As the junction has got busier, this continues to be an issue, especially when travelling north.
The long detour is made more contentious as there is competition from the nearby Lakeside Retail Park, which may be favoured by those willing to head out of their way.
Refurbishment in November 2006 saw Thurrock gain a WHSmith store as well as a M&S Simply Food outlet. The Regus Express workpod here was installed in December 2014 - the first Moto site to get a workpod rather than a meeting room.