How motorway service station restaurants were once the height of excitement

Medieval banquets, Whitstable oysters and Jimi Hendrix. 

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Anyone hitting the roads this bank holiday weekend may find some bitter amusement in contemplating, from the comfort of yet another jam, the excitement surrounding the opening of Britain’s first motorway in 1959 – so strong was the lure of speeding traffic that one public information film from the period shows thrill seekers picnicking on the hard shoulder.

These auto tourists didn’t have much choice: the only thing open for business that first day were two filling stations and a few temporary loos – garden sheds selling sandwiches followed within weeks. When the services at Newport Pagnell were finally ready ten months later, such a crowd gathered outside clamouring for a taste of this brave new world that they were forced to open two hours early. The Times reported high customer satisfaction with the smart design and modish menu of hamburgers and hot dogs at the café, while the critic Egon Ronay advised his readers they could “stop with confidence” at the fancier Grill and Griddle for luxuries such as prawn cocktail and steak, served “in full armchair comfort”.

For a time, each new service station seemed determined to outdo the last. Trowell in Nottinghamshire boasted a gaudy, Robin Hood-themed “World-Famous Sheriff’s Restaurant” decked out as a medieval banqueting hall, the only remnant of which is said to be a mural of Robin and Maid Marian on the way to what is now the prayer room. Leicester Forest East, operated by Ross foods, whose Terence Conran-designed “Captain’s Table” was supplied by their own fishing fleet, employed sailor-suited staff, while waiters clad in hunting garb served smoked salmon and Whitstable oysters on Medway’s open terrace with fine views across the M2.

Others looked more boldly to the future: Washington Birtley claimed to be Britain’s first “robot transport café”, with vending machines full of duckling à l’orange and coq au vin for customers to microwave: a new technology fraught with danger in the form of exploding eggs and projectile peas. Across the Pennines, a commemorative postcard of Charnock Richard shows a barman dancing attendance on a glamorous female diner; one might imagine mixing her a Martini if alcohol wasn’t strictly prohibited at service stations, much to the dismay of operators. The Forte group developed Wunderbar, a dealcoholised German wine described by Hugh Johnson as “mediocre, thirst-quenching and quite pleasant”.

This novel environment, with its late hours and Soho coffee culture, quickly attracted that new phenomenon, the teenager and, to their delight, touring bands: Jimi Hendrix is said to have assumed the “Blue Boar” he’d heard so much about was a nightclub, not a rest stop in Northamptonshire, while the “very unruly” Beatles annoyed staff at Newport Pagnell by throwing bread rolls at manager Brian Epstein.

I’ve heard family tales of Christmas dinners at the services, parents dressing up for a “destination night out” and a sixth birthday party at Keele in about 1968. Even the late, if not entirely lamented Little Chef and Happy Eater chains, with their table service and china plates (and oh! the playgrounds) feel fancy in these days of fried chicken on trays, and sandwiches at the wheel. A damning 1978 government report  blamed “illusions of grandeur” for the sector’s poor profitability. It seems most operators have learned their lesson only too well.

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Will Labour split?