IAlways A Welcome: Great Transport Service Stations of the 60s & 70s

INew | About | History | Criteria | Reviews | FAQ | Tour | Acclaim | Music | Links | Contact | Book

Farthing Motorway Services

A special Classic Cafes Introduction to the Motorway Service Cafe
by David Lawrence

In this dense little country, escaping anywhere in a car seems an impossibility, but back in the early 1960s, there was a new kind of venue in which space for escape was a primary aim: the motorway service area.

As soon as the Ministry of Transport got started with motorways, it made plans for a network of fueling and catering stops to soothe the motorist.

Accident prevention being the main official motive, civil servants did not want car users to pull up just anywhere or spoil the smooth flow of traffic; neither was the countryside to be given up for random development.

The Ministry believed the blue-collar public was not ready for top-gear eateries, but the franchiser-developers pressed on with their developments to push up profits.

They wanted service areas to be exciting destinations where food could be eaten 24 hours a day in places that were the epitome of mass-modern cool.

The distinctive architecture and decor of the service areas was also a product of the operators' backgrounds in television, bingo, dancehalls, milk bars and Miss World: a kind of Dallas meets Disney meets Star Trek fantasy dropped down in middle England.

Some of the first UK installations imitated US and Italian designs. Terence Verity designed two bridge service areas west and north of Manchester on M6, and one outside Leicester on M1 was developed by Howard Lobb, better known for his horse racing architecture.

Less elegant than their European or new world counterparts, the bridges nevertheless featured sumptuous surroundings.

Design guru Terence Conran styled the fish restaurant at Leicester Forest East, with waitresses in sailor suits and classy wood furniture. Fresh food was brought in daily, and motorists could spend a few hours over a meal complete with low alcohol wine.

Down south on M2, France-bound travellers at Farthing Corner could enjoy Whitstable oysters or Surf n' Turf in a leather and chrome-encrusted grillroom.

Sydney Clough put Farthing Corner together in a style best described as sub-Festival of Britain, and it has been regularly restyled and modified every few years, so that most of the original design is now lost.

Stealing cues from the emerging airline industry, T.P. Bennett and Partners created at Forton (M6) an elevated restaurant with views across the hills and out to Blackpool.

Above the diners, a sundeck gave respite to the weary traveller. In its early days, this tower was host to the Beatles grabbing a quick cappuccino after gigging at the Cavern club.

Further south, Hilton Park had a restaurant overhanging the roadway and employed the latest German technology in banks of vending machines marketed as Britain's first robot kitchen.

For Trowell (M1), Mecca Leisure imported another form of Americana, in the shape of a fake-historical tableau based on Robin Hood and his merry men. The dining spaces were gaudily colourful, embellished with fibreglass trees, jousting knights and an old oak banqueting hall.

Early visitors were reportedly fascinated by the foot-operated washroom taps. Kett and Neve, the architects, drew all their ideas from travel brochures and local history booklets: a kind of armchair Grand Tour.

One service area was used as the setting for part of the classic 1960s film 'Charlie Bubbles', in which Albert Finney and Liza Minelli visit Newport Pagnell (M1) - the ideal no-place for a rainy night rendezvous.

Every new facility was different, so by the late 1960s the styling had shifted from ëfifties futurist to Scandinavian expressionist: Membury (M4) had a sweeping corrugated steel roof and wall-to-wall glazing below a cavernous dining gallery.

Patrick Gwynne, designer of many breathtaking private houses and the now-demolished Serpentine Restaurant in Londonís Hyde Park, conceived of Burtonwood (M62) as two copper spires that had seemingly touched down on the bleak moorlands east of Liverpool.

Gwynne would arrive during construction works in a convertible Jaguar roadster, and the design studio he built in his own house was an all-leather dream.

Crafted by Challen Floyd Slaski Todd, who had cut their teeth on filling station design in the 1950s, the strangely symmetrical Birch service area (also M62) fused ski-chalet drama with Howard Johnson aesthetics.

Perhaps the most wonderful confection of the period was Washington-Birtley (A1M), where motorists were invited to 'step into another world' and enjoy the fully automated microwave kitchen service, collecting small change and travelling tips from a team of sparky mini-skirted hostesses straight out of Space 1999. Bright colours and psychedelic carpets served to dazzle visitors.

Where are these service stations now? On the motorways the excitement of the 1960s hit the stops around 1970 as a recession and growing environmental lobby took hold.

The result of all the central planning was a strange architectural half-world where motorists were trapped at huge complexes, jammed between the road and the rural scene, but occupying neither.

Corporate progress is relentless, even in the seemingly moribund environment of the service area. Operators found that their captive audience need not be entertained, and indeed did not want to hang around for longer than absolutely necessary.

Those travellers that did make their presence felt at the services were frequently coach loads of football fans, intent on trashing somewhere at which they were unlikely to be challenged or caught.

Government lost interest in providing facilities for motorists, and left the operators to go it alone.

Anonymous building companies were brought in as the cheapest way to reconstruction. The groovy interiors, and potential for escapist rest facilities were swept away, to be replaced by wipe-clean, boot-proof surfaces based on budget caf and hotel design and nostalgia for Victorian pubs, instead of a yearning for the future.

So in just ten years, Britain had speeded through a new kind of car architecture which explored ultra-contemporary concepts of what it mean to be modern and mobile in the mid-twentieth century.

"Always a Welcome"(David Lawrence, Between Books, ISBN 0 9536980 0 9, 2003)
Lawrence travelled 8000 miles around the motorways of Britain in 1999 and even lived at one service station for a week! The result: the finest 'glove compartment history of the motorway service area' ever. From garden sheds selling sandwiches at Watford Gap in 1959 to the latest retail developments, the book takes readers into the very heart of these strange, unloved places. With a foreword by Jonathan Glancey, this design, architecture and cultural history is illustrated in full colour, using technicolour postcards from the 1960s, through the brown and orange 1970s and cool beige 1980s to the present. A triumph...

Keele Motorway Services

New | About | History | Criteria | Reviews | FAQ | Tour | Acclaim | Music | Links | Contact | Book