/ Motoring

Can service stations be lovely again?

Motorway service station

I find myself making the oddest confessions here on Which? Convo. The news that JD Wetherspoon is planning to open a pub on the M40 inspired me to share something you may find shocking – I like service stations.

I have plenty of cherished childhood memories of piling off a coach with my friends on a school trip and invading a service station en masse.

I even have a favourite service station: Thurrock on the M25. I loved playing in the lush, green wilderness around the edge of the car park. The drive into the service station felt like the entrance to Jurassic Park (only with electricity pylons rising majestically from the trees instead of a T-Rex). South Mimms is a close second, with plenty of space to mess about before getting back on the coach.

Do service stations have a bad reputation?

Service stations seem to have a bad reputation these days, often accused of lacking character, only offering over-priced food and drink or generally being unpleasant places to spend time. That seems like a shame to me. When you’re on a long motorway drive, you should be able to look forward to a relaxing break before hitting the road again. It almost seems as if modern service stations add to the stress of a long drive, rather than letting us unwind.

When I was a child I didn’t mind that every service station seemed to have the same combination of shops and food outlets. I was there to run about and buy some sweets with my pocket money after being cooped up in a coach for a few hours. When I started driving myself I realised just how charm-free most services are.

The golden age of motorway service stations

It wasn’t always like this. There once was a golden age of motorway services, when people would plan their Sunday drive to include a leisurely stop at a scenic service area to enjoy a full meal before winding their way home in the afternoon. The building designs were glamorous, the landscaping was picturesque and the customer service was excellent. Or so nostalgia tells us.

Do you think that bringing pubs to motorway services will make them more pleasant to visit? What would your ideal service station be like?


Pubs selling beers and spirits, have no place in a motorway service station.

Decent food and non alcoholic drinks are welcome for the weary traveller, all served in comfortable surroundings. I like to stop for a coffee, a sandwich, some water and a newspaper or a book when I’m travelling a good distance. I sometimes just have a walk around in the fresh air to have a stretch and get some air. If I get really hungry, then I prefer to get off the motorway and find a cafe or restaurant to eat in.

I’m not sure I completely understand this!

“When you’re on a long motorway drive, you should be able to look forward to a relaxing break before hitting the road again.” doesn’t mean you have to use Motorway Service stations.

There are plenty of “local” amenities available close to most service stations that are much cheaper and more pleasant – all it needs is a little planning. For example, on the M4/M5, why stop at Gordano or Leigh Delamere for petrol when Cribbs Causeway (BS34 5DG) has cheaper petrol from Asda and Morrisons? And by cheaper I mean at least 10p per litre cheaper!

I understand that food prices are higher because of the increased cost of running a shop at a motorway service station, but that doesn’t mean I have to pay the prices if I can pack my own food for the journey or buy cheaper food elsewhere.

To the point, though – while Tim Martin’s representative can say “We believe the majority of people that use the pub to drink will be people that aren’t driving – coach parties or people travelling with others.” with a straight face, there is surely no doubt that this will encourage, passively or proactively, drink-driving and the well-known consequences. Driving on the motorways of Britain is getting more and more dangerous and this doesn’t encourage safer driving; quite the opposite…

More burden on police force in this economic condition.
don’t drink and drive is the motto of our police.
Now this new idea to open and enjoy pub drink and drive will make driving more dangerous.
Looks like that who cares about us ?
It needs proper consultation in public select committee in parliament.

In the USA, there are signs for fuel, food, coffee, accommodation and anything locally of interest as you approach junctions. After you have left the highway, there are then more signs giving you the distances.
I would love to see that here on our motorways and not have to pay the exhorbitant rates that the motorway services charge.

Funny thing is, when you are abroad, nearly everywhere you might stop for a break and a snack probably also sells alcohol!
Europe has some excellent alcohol-free beers.

In the golden age of motorway service stations, things were probably not that much better than today. Much depends on the company that has the site licence. In the early 70’s I recall Forton on the M6 in Lancashire was the best available and Barnsdale Bar on the A1 near Doncaster was so-so. Today, for open air stress-free relaxation I’d recommend Tebay and Killington Lake on the M6 in Cumbria – views and environment are superb. As for pubs in motorway service stations, drink and driving do not mix and are a retrograde step.

I never remember any service station with affection. They have always been over priced, with mediocre food and confused layouts: toilets a walk away and noisy slot machines stuffed into alcoves. Shops also sell at motorway prices and petrol is similarly hiked. However, a toilet stop and walk around is an advantage, since one doesn’t have to leave the motorway network to do this. (Snooze, loos and cruise.) Lunch is self provided or taken at a local supermarket. These days, journeys can be planned to include sight seeing, when time permits. Of course, coach parties are at the mercy of the driver. There is that sinking feeling when one is disgorged at a service station and left to wander aimlessly until pick up time arrives. Except for the cafe, there’s no where to sit. I agree that motorway pubs could encourage drink driving, since alcohol is there to tempt, Passengers might like to indulge, but, on balance, no alcohol is preferable.

I think this is just a publicity stunt for Wetherspoon, and it deserves to fail miserably. I would welcome them opening an establishment that did not sell alcohol. I would be happy eat there or have a coffee, whereas I have to be desperate to use typical motorway eateries and coffee shops. Wetherspoon manages to provide much better toilets than the average motorway service area, so they could set a good example. But no alcohol please.

Last year I remember sitting in the sunshine watching hundreds of bees buzzing around some flowers, eating sandwiches and drinking coffee made from a large flask of hot water that I take on my travels. It’s the only time I can remember having enjoyed a stop at a motorway service area.

I’m not a fan of motorway service stations although they hve their uses. It is useful to have a filling station and a place where you can attend to the car in safety [clean the screens and lights, inflate tyres, etc] and a place where you can have a comfort break. Most of our journeys are not long enough these days to need a stomach refill and we usually have some snacks and water with us in the car. the service stations seem to be primarily for coach parties to have an extended smoking and toilet break so a few fast food outlets and convenience stores are thrown in to entice those who have time on their hands and can’t resist a feeding opportunity or a souvenir shop. The combination low quality, high price and ghastly ambience make the use of these places unappealing to most people but a necessity for some. Personally I’m not overbothered by the presence of alcohol liquor but I can see the concern – it’s the “lead us not into temptation”argument. Those irresponsible drivers determined to imbibe liquor – or have a narcotic infusion – before or during their journey already have many ways of partaking so prohibition would unnecessarily constrain the enjoyment of passengers. No responsible driver would consume either for 24 hours before a journey, of course, but the statistics [and the roadsides] are littered with the evidence that many motorists are not responsible.

“No responsible driver would consume either for 24 hours before a journey, of course…” On what evidence do you base that assertion, which in any case implies that the vast majority of daily car users are irresponsible. You do have to keep one eye on reality!

If we accept that driving requires one hundred percent concentration, then any impairment of the faculties is best avoided. There are enough other distractions in our lives that perhaps we can’t control but which affect our alertness and reaction times so we probably owe it to others on the road to get into the driving seat with as clear a brain as we can manage. A self-righteous and unrealistic opinion I know, but little harm should come of it.

Just read something in The Oldie magazine saying that a new edition of “Near the Motorways: Affordable Alternatives to Service Stations” by Hugh Cantile has recently been published [RRP £14.95] – available from the usual merchants [but will they sell it in the service station branches?]

terence roberts says:
21 August 2013

Avoid Sedgemoor south services on M5 if possible.I called there a couple of weeks ago to find that the so called parking for caravans was a muddy,potholed piece of waste ground. We were in need of food so we went for the Special Breakfast,not very special though! In fact one of the breakfasts came with half a rasher of bacon! The advertised small coffee was not available.I was told with a shrug by the cashier that they had no small mugs and of course i was charged for large coffees,although when i complained to the manager i was given a refund for the coffee. Even by the standard of some of the other motorway services this one left a lot to be desired