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History of Washington services

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Washington cafe opening.jpg
The restaurant area in the 1970s.

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Washington attempted to be something special: it was Taverna's first site and they were keen to be revolutionary, with their love for walkways and automation, but it had a steady decline into becoming very indistinct.

Site and Operator

Motorway skywalk.
The exciting 'skywalk' between the two sides.

Esso already owned a petrol station here, known as Port (as in Portobello), which they had already drawn up plans to extend with a restaurant and hotel.

When the A1 was upgraded to motorway, Esso asked if they could save the Ministry of Transport their £200,000 compensation in return for permission to build a motorway service area here.

This was agreed, as interest from operators in services was beginning to wane. Another possible site at Pea Flatts was considered, which would have been an infill site, but Washington was better as there was a theory that services near the ends of motorways attract more customers.

Owing to the unusual agreement, the services were told they wouldn't need to be open 24 hours, and it would be built by the motorway contractor to allow a phased construction. It was the first site to be allowed to sell only brand of fuel, which naturally was Esso.

The petrol station closed on 1 June 1968.

Naming Contention

Much of the time planning the services was spent naming it. Esso asked if the original name could be changed because at the time motorway services held a much higher profile than ordinary petrol stations, and they felt the phrase "Esso's Port Services" could be confused with other projects they were working on.

When designing the motorway, the Ministry used a temporary name of Vigo, but then confirmed the services would be called Washington. Chester-le-Street rural District council objected to this, and wanted it to be called Birtley. After much debate, the Ministry reluctantly agreed to settle the matter by officially renaming it Washington-Birtley. When Esso found out they were not impressed, as they felt the new name was cumbersome and difficult to market, and they felt one of the names would be dropped naturally anyway.

The services did open as Washington-Birtley, but with much marketing material referring to them as just Washington, and after some time Granada shortened the name.

Highway authorities still refer to the site by its full name.

Meanwhile, Esso decided to operate the services under the brand name 'Taverna'.

Design

Taverna walkway.
The once-exciting walkway, now rather bleak.

The new building occupied a 12 acre site.

Esso initially wanted the amenity building to be on the west side. The County Surveyor wanted the services to have a subway.

Amongst other considered options, Esso looked at having the second storey of the southbound building hang over the access road. The Ministry also looked at tying the northbound services into the junction south of here, to try to overcome the difficulty of how to efficiently lay out the parking areas in such a tight space.

Opening

The design of the building was inspired by the idea of air travel; it marketed itself at modern, pan-European travellers. As part of its desire to be futuristic, the food it offered was part cooked, then put into a vending machine, where customers could buy it and take it to a microwave along with cooking instructions. This was quite novel at the time, and there were severe concerns motorists would not take well to the automated catering.

The futuristic catering was really about getting motorists in and out the building as quickly as possible, as the car park was only small. There were 420 seats in the main restaurant and 285 car parking spaces.

Adverts were issued with the slogan "step into another world" and "a perfect end to an evening out".

When it opened, the footbridge, which spans three sliproads, was the longest in the UK. The northbound side had an escalator taking people up into the "futuristic and robotic" southbound services. That western end of the footbridge still survives today, albeit with a smaller amenity building tacked onto the end of it.

In the main amenity building, visitors from the northbound side arrived on a raised walkway, offering a view over the serving area. This walkway still survives, but the excitement hasn't survived. The land sloped towards the south allowed for a below-ground floor overlooking the HGV parking, this was used as a transport café. This was also useful for hiding a deliveries bay, and ensured the amenity building wasn't too intrusive in this suburban environment.

The southbound amenity building had an entrance at either end, the HGV entrance involving a winding, concrete pedestrian walkway.

Failure

"It is a wretched state."
MSA Board, 1968.

The failure of the automated catering trial at Washington was very-much the cause of the failure of Taverna. This led to Washington being described as "grossly underused" and "a very poor service". Effectively, it tried to solider on with a mishmash of half-automated half-waitress service catering.

When Taverna were looking for a buyer in 1973, eventual owners Granada would have done anything to avoid getting Washington as part the deal, but eventually agreed to have it thrown in as Taverna were desperate to get rid of it.

A 1977 assessment of service areas concluded Washington was one of the quietest, because it is "simply in the wrong place", being too close to Newcastle.

After Taverna

Washington services.
The newer northbound amenity building (right) and old bridge access (left).

Under Granada, the services operated a low-cost model, to try to make the most out of the trade available. A new northbound amenity building was built at the foot of the stairs up to the bridge, replacing the escalator, providing shops, snacks and toilets to people who may not have wanted to cross the bridge.

The truckers café was closed in the late 1990s, and the free-flow restaurant was reduced to offering a Burger King and Costa only in the late 2000s.

Bizarrely, of all their services, Granada wanted to trial running their own tourist information centre here, in Tyne and Wear.

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