Motorway Service Stations: Who, Exactly, Are They Servicing?

These "airports of the road" are variously home to KFC, WH Smith, Thorntons, Fone Bitz, Waitrose, McDonald's, Armani (maybe) and on and on and on. Why? Who needs all of this on a car journey? Where is it going to end?

They used to be somewhere to change the oil, have a quick wee and perhaps stock up on a bent sandwich.

If you were in the mood, you could grab a gift for someone you didn't care for (Jim Reeves boxed-set, anyone?), you could waste a pound on a fruit machine, and if hunger had rendered you so weak you could no longer think properly, you could pick up a tray (strength permitting) and ask a lady who had never seen sunlight to prise a two-day-old lump of cod off a stainless steel hotplate.

Then you gunned the Rover in the direction of the slip road and rejoined the M6.

A recent survey has revealed that we Brits are "falling out of love with" motorway service stations, and that a third of us actively avoid them altogether.

I'm more amazed that anyone still uses these roadside horrors at all. Extensive research (Wikipedia) reveals that the first British service station was opened at Watford Gap in 1959, and when it did, people quickly got a handle on exactly where they stood. This wasn't a place to linger - it was somewhere you stopped only when every other choice had been exhausted. If the car was on fire or if you'd gone more than 24 hours straight without liquid, then yes, you could reasonably be expected to 'pull in'. But you mentally allowed yourself no more than five minutes' stopping time. Dads everywhere knew that the longer they stayed, the closer they got to bankruptcy - and that's why you couldn't go more than a mile on a motorway in the 1970s without seeing a cheery family piddling roadside, half-buried in gorse bushes. More enterprising fathers would even knock up some sort of contraption for the purposes of doing it in the car.

Notoriously expensive since day one, service stations have steadily become an ever-bigger drain on the motorist's wallet. This isn't some political rant about the price of fuel: I'm talking about the appearance of upmarket coffee shops. Of Marks and Spencer. Of signs advertising which High Street chain will be trying to fleece you of your hard-earned money 24, 56 and then 88 miles down the road.

Back when service stations were grotty, smelled strange, and were staffed by people who probably couldn't afford their own vehicles and had to live on site like oil rig workers (I'm guessing), there was no reason, ever, to cross that foreboding-looking bridge to see what was on the other side. Today, though - why not? Let's all traipse across! There might be somewhere to pick up Stallone's new blu-ray over there.

You can pass hours at a service station. They are but a whisker from becoming destinations in their own right, (oh God), and some of them even have hotels. So far, there's no Mandarin Oriental at Norton Canes, but it could only be a matter of time.

These "airports of the road" are variously home to KFC, WH Smith, Thorntons, Fone Bitz, Waitrose, McDonald's, Armani (maybe) and on and on and on. Why? Who needs all of this on a car journey? Where is it going to end?

My prediction is that the next Westfield Shopping Centre will not be built on prime retail space at the edge of Liverpool or Leeds, but off a slip road on the M11. There'll be 10-pin bowling, a Heston Blumenthal cookery school, five cinemas and parking for 100,000 cars.

It will be a triumph of consumerism over common sense, and in a nod towards tradition they'll still place a bank of winking fruit machines near the exit door in case you fancy a cheeky spin on the way out. There will be a Ripley's Believe It Or Not museum housing an actual-size replica of the original Watford Gap services, and you'll quickly forget why you were even on the motorway in the first place.

Leaving £500 poorer but with an armful of branded carrier bags, you'll step into your car, cross the new eight-lane road bridge to the other side and rejoin the motorway - now facing the direction you originally came from.

Knackered, you can't really be bothered with a visit now. Sorry nan - maybe next time. At least we managed to pick you up a nice Jim Reeves boxed-set for next Christmas.


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