It seems extraordinary now, but when I was growing up in the early 1960s, it was considered an adventure to drive for a day out at a motorway service area.
At the newly opened Knutsford Gap, families could sit down to a plate of egg and chips at a fully-dressed table on the covered footbridge, as Ford Zephyrs and Hillman Imps whizzed past below us. There was waitress service, too. It like a branch of Bettys in the sky.
When the M1 was new, someone went so far as to publish postcards of Forte’s Restaurant at the Watford Gap. Wish You Were Here, read the caption, without a hint of irony.
All of this came to mind with the publication this week of the annual survey of service areas. Most, said the watchdog Transport Focus, performed well, with 90 per cent of visitors across the country “satisfied with their experience”.
Which country was this, I wonder. Certainly not this one, where sausage rolls come at filet mignon prices and the signs on the toilet doors are there only to help you distinguish them from the restaurants.
Britain’s second worst service area was named as Burtonwood, on the M62, not far from Knutsford. I was there not long ago, and it took only a few seconds to determine that it offered nowhere suitable to eat.
I hadn’t planned to, anyway – and by the looks of it, nor had anyone else. It was Sunday afternoon and they were doing a brisk trade in the loos, but nowhere else.
At the WH Smith, the staff outnumbered the customers. There was a “Starbucks on the Go”, from which people had alreay gone, and a KFC which appeared to be serving fast food exceedingly slowly
Transport Focus conceded that these were not isolated problems. “Grim”, “falling apart” and “dismal” were among the more complimentary reviews they quoted from various parts of the country. Only 59 per cent of visitors thought the food and drink was good value for money.
I’m surprised the figure was as high as that, because Burtonwood is not very much worse than the median average. Perhaps it’s down to our British reserve at making a fuss in public. The soup may be cold and the peas like rivets, but we’ll still say it was all lovely, thanks, when the waiter asks.
Only someone with no idea of what things are supposed to cost would take the inflated prices at these places at face value. Fortunately for the operators, there are plenty of such people around.
Nearly a third of children, we learned on Thursday, have never been to a “proper” shop – a traditional butcher, greengrocer or shoe repairer. Presumably, their parents don’t go either, or the kids would have been taken in tow.
A large number had not even been regularly to a supermarket, because their families shopped online.
With so little perspective, £4 for an egg and cress sandwich on the M1 might indeed seem reasonable – as the idea of eating egg and chips on a footbridge once did to me.
But the survey does raise the question of what purpose these facilities now serve. They were conceived in an era when 24-hour garages were unknown, and the only place to get a roadside meal was at a Little Chef, 50 miles away.
Today, there are retail parks at every other junction, and all of them offer better choice and value than the service areas – whose only essential service is to offer somewhere sit and rest for a few minutes. There appears to be little official oversight of them, though. I learned this 13 years ago when I was asked to negotiate the installation of TV sets at every one of them, showing how the traffic was moving.
“They’ll resist it,” someone at the Highways Agency warned me.
The agency was supposed to be in charge of the motorways, but the service areas, as commercial concerns, were off limits. Floor space was precious, and if they were going to be taken up with TVs, they would have to show adverts, not traffic cameras. I turned the job down.
Today these places are cathedrals to consumerism of the worst kind. An overpriced Ginster’s pasty, served cold in a glorified Portakabin, is a metaphor for modern Britain, and when in October we raise the flag of Brexit over the M1, I should not be surprised if that’s what is on it.