How are motorway services named?
Today, service stations are developed by the private sector who can use whatever name they like. Generally, developers like to use names that refer to well-known places.
There are two examples of services which were promoted under a brand name and then changed to a specific one: Gloucestershire Gateway became Gloucester in 2014, and Stop 24 became Folkestone in about 2010. This suggests that the vague "geographical" rule may have some weight.
The oddest service area name in the UK is Pont Abraham. It is named after a bridge that no longer exists, and that bridge was named only in Welsh.
Government documentation uses a number of fictional names to avoid inadvertently promoting a service area.
Each individual brand will want to refer to their branch by a name that is unique to their business. This means one particular service area may be promoted under several different names. In particular, petrol stations that have been there a long time may still use the name of a local landmark that is no longer relevant, while hotels will want to use the name of a major landmark.
Locals to the area may prefer to use a local nickname, and if you're looking through the history then there is another name to look out for: during development services are often known by the farm on which it is going to be built on.
Naming after a major city can cause complications when new services open. There are at least three services which want to be known as Doncaster, while Welcome Break's Peartree is closer to Oxford than their own Oxford. Signed service areas will try to make each name unique, while each individual operator will want to avoid any duplication within their own estate.
In 2012, the List Sign was changed to use service area names rather than operator names. This can cause confusion when names of far-away cities are used.
Until 1979, the government were responsible for planning all motorway services, and for putting the signs up. As a result they got to choose what each one was called, and they would always go for the name of the nearest village. There was no rule for how this was decided; it was whatever stuck.
Around the time that services started gaining hotels, they started worrying about their names, and pushing for more significant landmarks.
In the 1990s, developers started competing to have the most relaxing site. This showed in the names they chose: Cherwell Valley, Birchanger Green and Hopwood Park all had pleasant connotations. In the 2010s those cumbersome names started to be dropped, with Gretna Green and Donington Park losing their suffixes.
In March 2020, Leeds Skelton Lake became the only motorway service area to have two names in its official title. Skelton Lake is in Leeds.
The very first service area can also claim the very first fight over a name: Watford Gap could have been called Watford, Welton or Watford Village.
In 1970 Washington was one of the first services to be named after a large town, which ruffled the feathers of Chester-le-Street Rural District Council.
When a service station has two buildings on either side of the road, most staff know the buildings by where they are, not where the road goes. Thus Frankley northbound is known internally as "Frankley West" because it is to the west of the M5, even though the road is going north.
This becomes especially confusing when a road turns. Thanks to a bend in the M6, at Corley the building to the north of the road ("Corley North") serves the M6 southbound. Winchester is another example, where the western half ("Winchester West") serves the side of the M3 that will take you east. Keele is an even more pedantic example.
The following motorway service areas have had their official name changed over the years. We have included a couple of rumoured ones in there, and the two rest areas which were renamed and re-built. We have excluded names that were only used in planning, or only used locally.
There is some confusion about several Granada sites. In the 1990s, they would promote them under a famous name, even if that name wasn't used on the roads.
|Blackburn with Darwen||Blackburn Interchange, Blackburn|
|Chester||Hapsford rest area|
|Heart of Scotland (Harthill)||Harthill|
|Hilton Park||Birmingham North|
|Lancaster||Forton, Lancaster (Forton)|
|Rivington||Anderton, Rivington, Bolton West, (Chorley), Rivington North/South|
|Sedgemoor||Brent Knoll rest area|
As most A-road service areas aren't named on road signs, there is often no consensus on what they are called, making it difficult to trace any changes. There are some examples though, for example what Shell currently call Buckingham services was called 'Mount Pleasant' by Fina.
Official (online) services in Ireland are planned by the government, and use local names coupled with the motorway number.
Unofficial (offline) services are named by developers, and usually refer to larger settlements like Wicklow. The road signs never use these names, except on the M11 where a comparison with other services is required. In that case the signs refuse to use the Wicklow name, and call it Coyne's Cross instead.