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Ideas Above Their Service Station

Motorway service stations are toilets.

And I don’t just mean the reputation they have for being dirty and unappealing places to linger, let alone eat. I mean literally. A recent survey of 2000 motorists found that 65% only stop at service stations to use the toilet facilities.

It wasn’t always that way. When the first UK service station opened in 1959 at Watford Gap on the M1 people would actually make special trips just to visit them. Service stations were space-age places to view the future whizzing past while enjoying a sophisticated prawn cocktail. For bored kids they were concrete Tracy Islands.

tracey island

But by the 1970s the British had fallen out of love with motorway service stations, their high prices, poor food and command economy aesthetics. Since then the call of nature has been the principle, often only lure.

At Wetherby services, opened in 2008, situated on junction 46 of the A1M and lying on the boundary between West and North Yorkshire, they have incorporated this toilet fact into the fabric of the building. A cheery if overly suggestive yellowbrick road takes you past all the different outlets hawking their wares before you finally arrive, bladder bursting, at the ‘facilities’ – almost right at the end of the long building (the Eat & Drink cafeteria is the only outlet beyond the piss & shit).

eat drink

For the sake of hygiene and efficiency, the toilets dispense with doors – instead they have just a zig-zag open entrance. In architectural fact, Wetherby services is a toilet with shops. Outside the loo entrance are the inevitable kiddie magnets, machines full of stuffed toys waiting to be clawed – which one might be forgiven for thinking represents the attitude of motorway services towards their customers.

Today the toilets at Wetherby on a Sunday afternoon in March are very busy but appear to be coping with the endless ‘stream’ of people arriving constantly to relieve themselves of matter consumed many, possibly hundreds of miles away. They also look fairly clean – Moto, who operate this and 57 other motorway service stations across the UK, have won the prestigious ‘Loo of the Year’ award several times. Not something to be sniffed at when you consider service station toilets by law have to be kept open 24 hours a day every single day of the year.

petrol station wetherby

To be fair, Wetherby services is trying very hard to be different. Wetherby services employed the latest ‘green technologies’ in its construction, making it the UK’s first carbon neutral service station. Another fun fact: the roof of the filling station is the largest single-span filling station roof in Europe. Unlike many of the older motorway services it has a light and airy design: a large seating/eating area is spread in front of sloping floor-to ceiling windows along one (south facing) side overlooking the car park. More airport departure lounge than motorway services, you can use the free Wi-Fi to Tweet a picture of your ‘succulent double chicken breast served with a sauce of your choice’ (£6.99)

moto-services Wetherby

Outlets available here for the motorist’s delectation include M&S Simply Food, Costa Coffee, WH Smiths, Burger King, Upper Crust, and Eat & Drink, Moto’s self-branded restaurant – and not one but two one-armed bandit arcades (with no one in them today).

M&S Simply Food and Costa are – aside from the toilets – the centrepiece of Wetherby services. The first thing you see when you walk in, they represent the quiet revolution in the motorway services experience that has been going on since M&S first opened a Simply Food outlet at Toddington Southbound a decade ago. There are now 36 M&S Simply Food outlets on the UK motorway network forever banishing the curse of curled sarnies.

At Wetherby, once you’ve unfilled your bladder, you can get your spicy chicken and sweet red pepper wood-fired M&S pizza (£5.25) for when you finally get home and put your feet up, and then pop over to Costa and grab a mozzarella tomato and basil sourdough Panini (£4.79) and a Cappuccino Medio (£3.35) for now – and fill your bladder again.

The Costa outlet at Wetherby dominates the space and is constructed like a chapel of caffeine – fenced off with decorative wrought iron, a two-tone tiled floor and inspirational skylights. How appropriate: caffeine and urine are the twin pillars of the modern, metropolitanised service area. There are now a whopping 53 Costas in motorway services in the UK. The UK’s new-found chain caffeine addiction is a habit that motorway services are happy to exploit.

As conclusive proof of the metropolitanisation of motorway services, lah-dee-dah Waitrose are hard on M&S’s quality heels with 22 outlets on the UK motorway network and another three opening this month alone. Even Bolton Services West, the dismal M61 disaster area immortalised by Peter Kay as manageress ‘Pearl Harbour’, and once held up as the epitome of how low motorway services had sunk, has had a multi-million pound makeover and been renamed ‘Rivington’. Fancy.

No Waitrose yet, but they do have a Starbucks, landscaped grounds offering ‘relaxing outdoor dining’ and, most impressively of all, according to one vox popper, ‘toilets like a hotel’s!

Motorway service stations are still toilets. But they’re dead classy ones now.

This essay originally appeared on the LeasePlan blog

A1 Love – The Greatness of The Great North Road

Mark Simpson goes on a road trip connecting four countries: England, Scotland, the UK – & Yorkshire

What’s so ‘Great’ about ‘The Great North Road’? Better known in our more impatient era as the A1?

Well, if you’re unfortunate enough to find yourself in the south, it takes you to the north – or ‘The NORTH’ as the signage rightly has it. And unlike the more popular M1, it goes all the way NORTH – instead of petering out like a big Jessie near Leeds. And that’s the proper shining, horny helmeted, be-sporroned NORTH. Not the damp, camp north west of the M6.

For all its butchness, the A1 is also the most glamorous road in Britain, connecting the capitals of four countries – England, Scotland, the UK, and Yorkshire. The A1 is a metalled Union, starting in the English Baroque shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral, flowing up the eastern side of England, past the Romano-Viking-White Rose splendour of York, once England’s second city, spooling up and over the much-contested border fortress town of Berwick Upon Tweed, and finishing with a flourish in the Caledonian heart of Edinburgh with the grand panoramic, kilted sweep of Princes Street.

True, along the way, you also have to go through Holloway, under Hatfield and past Stevenage, but glamour always has a price. For size queens out there, the A1 is also the biggest. At 410 miles it’s the longest numbered road in the UK.

Above all, the A1, still mostly dual carriageway, is a road with a view – on the past and the present. Not a virtual ‘M’ road built and engineered to connect industrial centres as fast and as boringly as possible, the A1 is a road that takes time to tell you a story. (Thankfully, plans to downgrade the whole of the A1 to motorway were dropped in 1995).

OK, very often the view it offers is the back end of two lorries labouring up a hill, one overtaking the other at a speed differential of 0.5 MPH. Or during the summer months, those suburban juggernauts of despair – otherwise known as caravans. But nonetheless, and despite all the by-passes and ‘upgrades’ to stretches of it, detouring the A1 from the old ‘coaching’ Great North Road route of Dick Turpin yore, it’s a road that still allows you to see or at least glimpse England and Scotland, instead of hiding it behind cuttings and another Unwelcome Break.

A lush, lowland Eastern England of market towns and fertile arable farms, grain silos and Cathedrals, country houses and garrisons – and, just outside sleepy Grantham… a roadside sex shop. Try finding one of those on the M1. Near Doncaster you zoom around Ferrybridge power station’s colossal steaming cooling towers, looming like concrete castles with dragons lurking within – a legacy of the rich coal seams of Yorkshire that helped fire the Industrial Revolution.

Just before the York turn off you pass a mile west of Towton, site of the bloodiest battle on English soil, where in 1461 the Yorkists triumphed over the Lancastrians leaving 28,000 dead and dying in the snow.

If you look to the West before Scotch Corner, site of the Angle’s decisive defeat of the Goddodin in 600, you might on a clear day glimpse the preposterous beauty of the Yorkshire Dales. As you head up through the land of the Prince Bishops and past Durham, its Romanesque Cathedral and final resting place of the father of English history, the Venerable Bede, is sadly hidden from the current A1 route. But as a consolation prize you might be able to fleetingly scope Lumley Castle, once the residence of the Bishop of Durham and now a luxury hotel where travellers can break their journey in turreted style.

Onwards to Gateshead, where Antony Gormley’s famous Angel of the North, welcomes you, wings outstretched over the A1 like a Norse god, braced forever against the wind sluicing in off the North Sea without the benefit of even a Geordie t-shirt. ‘The Gateshead Flasher’ as locals dub him, is a steely sign commanding you to start paying serious attention, man, pet.

For after you skirt Newcastle’s Western suburbs and fly over the mighty Tyne – with or without fog on it – towards Morpeth, you enter the enchanted Middle Earth of Northumberland, where the A1 frequently narrows and slows to a single lane the better to allow you to enjoy the timeless, undulating landscape, and permit you perhaps to catch a glimpse of mighty Alnwick Castle, seat of the Duke of Northumberland and easily most photogenic star of the Harry Potter movies. A little further on, bold Bamburgh Castle, ancient seat of the Kings of Northumbria. And just beyond, holy, lonely Lindisfarne, where St Cuthbert, patron Saint of the North, got up to whatever it is saintly monks get up to.

Why ever did they film Lord of the Rings in plain and dull New Zealand?

Over the Tweed and just over the border you can enjoy Scotland’s own very abbreviated Amalfi Run as the A1 snakes you along the top of cliffs overlooking a shockingly blue North Sea, and on to the glittering Firth of Forth, with the brooding promise of the Highlands beyond – if it’s not raining horizontally again.

But keep your eyes peeled at all times for the anti-Sassenach speed cameras.

Just south of Dunbar the A1 takes you right through – and over the bones – of the bleak battlefield where in 1650 Cromwell routed the Scottish army loyal to Charles II, who had been proclaimed King of Scotland in defiance of the Commonwealth. Next year of course the Scottish vote on whether to divorce the English and end the 306 year-old Union. If it’s a ‘Byazz!!’, then the A1 will become a truly international road again. Possibly with border posts, passport checks and maybe even the occasional border skirmish and raid just like in the good old days.

Call it what you will, and ‘upgrade’ it as much as you like, The Great North Road is the axis by which Scots and English, invaders and defenders, Romans and Britons, Vikings and Saxons, rebels and loyalists, Catholics and Protestants, Rugby Leaguers and Rugby Unionists, have sought to impose their will and their map-reading on these British Isles.

This piece originally appeared at leaseplan.

Hot Hitchhiker

Mark Simpson picks up more than he bargained for

A couple of miles past Newark, bored and hot and top down, I zoom past a crop-haired sexy young lout in a T-shirt and jeans with his thumb out. I eye him in the rear-view mirror as he shrinks into the distance.

I don’t give lifts to hitchhikers. It’s asking for trouble.

OK, so I used to hitchhike everywhere myself years ago when I didn’t have the price of a bus ticket to my name. But now I have my own car, things have changed. I now realise the Daily Mail was right: hitchhikers are layabouts and bad news. Only loonies, drug addicts and convicts hitch-hike these days. Letting a complete stranger into your car and your nicely ordered life is a bad idea. It’s dangerous. It’s messy. It’s daft. Unless of course, they’re cute.

I brake. Hard.

In the rear-view mirror the lad sees me pull over but seems hesitant. I twist around and shout: “Well, c’mon then mate! Do you want a lift or not?” He finally runs up to the passenger-side window.

“Where are you headed?” I ask.

“London, mate,” he says.

I look him up and down. In his mid-twenties, he’s not bad looking, but he isn’t as cute as he was at 75mph. But then, who is? He could do with a bath. And he definitely looks like trouble.

“Get in,” I say, leaning across and opening the door. “I’m headed for Cambridge,” I lie. “I can take you another thirty miles.”

“Nice one!” he says with a wide grin, jumping in.

Rejoining the flow of cars headed south, we chat the casually polite chat of hitchhikers and drivers. I introduce myself; he introduces himself as “John, but me mates call me Jonno”. He tells me he was in Newark “visiting relatives” and now he’s on his way back home to Dover: “I’ll catch the train in London”.

He tells me about his wife and his three-year-old daughter in Dover: “I love that kid to bits – I live for her mate”. We pass a sign:

London: 60 miles

“I’m really glad you stopped mate,” he says for the third time.

“Yeah?” I say. “S’funny. You seemed a bit reluctant at first. Thought you were going to run away.”

Jonno looks a bit sheepish. “Well, thing is mate, to be totally honest wiv you, there are some people after me. I owe money to some geezers in Newark. I thought you might have been sent by them – not being funny, but you look a bit of a bruiser mate!”

“Don’t worry,” I reassure him. “It’s just for show. What do you owe them money for?’

“Oh. This and that.”

“Drugs?”

Jonno shifts in his seat and shakes his head. ‘No – no way mate!’

“Look, it doesn’t matter to me.”

Jonno looks down at his hands. “Well, to be totally honest wiv you mate, it was drugs. But only speed, and a bit of hash. Nothing hard. I’m trying to get off the shit, you know? I’m trying to get clean. I’ve gotta think of the kid, man. I can’t be fucked up around her, can I?”

“No, mate. Not a good idea.”

London: 30 miles

“Mark mate, haven’t we passed the sign for Cambridge?”

“Yeah. To be totally honest with you, I’m going to London, not Cambridge. I usually don’t tell hitchers how far I’m going in case we, er… don’t get on.”

“Oh, right mate. I understand.” Jonno grins at me. “So you’re going to London? Sorted!”

“So…” I probe, “what were you really doing in Newark?”

“You’re not stupid, are you? Well, to be totally honest wiv you I was on remand there for a week.”

“Really?” I say casually, trying not to look too interested.

“Yeah. Nothing serious though. Just non-payment of a fine, like. Never again. It was disgusting in there mate. Hottest week of the year in a shithole with no showers or change of clothes. I fucking stink mate.”

“Yeah, I noticed! So what was the fine you didn’t pay?”

“Well, to be totally honest wiv you mate, I was done for breach of the peace and criminal damage. I kicked my ex-wife’s door down because she wouldn’t let me see my kid. I was really drunk at the time, I didn’t know what I was doing.”

“So, you’re not with your wife any more?”

“No mate. We separated a couple of years back, and she lets me see my kid once a week. But she wouldn’t that night coz I was steaming. I ‘ate prison. I was sent to borstal when I was thirteen and had the shit kicked out of me. It was that bad I tried to top meself.” He holds out his hands, wrists uppermost, revealing a pair of ropy white scars across his dirty wrists.

Jonno continues: “I only ended up in borstal coz me stepdad used to knock me about. He used to kick the shit out of me mum and I tried to stop ‘im, and so he turned on me. The worst of it was, she was egging ‘im on! Didn’t spend much time at home after that. Fell in wiv a bad crowd.”

London: 20 miles

“I’ve got some mates who live in London,” Jonno announces, as the sun lowers itself into a red bath on the Western horizon. “They live in Soho. Is that anywhere near you?”

“No,” I say. ‘I live a very long way from Soho – as far as you can get without actually leaving London. Your friends must pay a lot of rent to live there.”

“Yeah, but they don’t care. They make a packet.” Pause. “To be totally honest wiv you, they’re on the game, if you know what I mean.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean.”

“They’re gay,’ he adds, driving the point home. He looks at me anxiously. “You don’t mind gay people do you?”

“No, I don’t mind gay people,” I lie. “Actually, some of my best friends are gay.”

“Really? Sorted. I was a bit worried there, coz some people really hate gays.”

“Terrible isn’t it?” I say.

London: 10 miles

“Are you sure you don’t mind gay people?”

“Sure.”

“OK. Well, to be totally honest wiv you, right, I swing both ways.” Jonno steals a sideways look at me.

“Yeah?” I say.

“Yeah. That’s not a problem is it?”

“Nah,” I say. “Not at all. Everyone’s thought about it, at least once, haven’t they?”

“I like women and that, but I also like, y’know a really good seeing to by someone who takes control. Well,” he laughs, “in the bedroom, not in real life like me mum does!”

Like your true destination, you don’t tell a hitch-hiker your real orientation until you’re certain you want to go all the way with him. But I can see that this lad has the measure of me and where this car journey is headed. It’s a balmy evening; it’s sort of spontaneous. He’s rough, he’s certainly ready.

But I’m not. And not just because he’s not washed for a week. I’ve heard much too much for it to be casual. We’ve come too far.

It’s dark when we arrive in London – without any unplanned stops at bushy lay-bys. I drop him off. He shakes my hand firmly looking me in the eye: “Cheers, Mark, thanks for the lift,” he says, a faint flicker of disappointment in his face. “It was good talking to you.”

And he’s gone.

I drive off. A minute later I suddenly feel I have to speak to him again. I turn the car around. Maybe to lend him some money – I’m sure he hasn’t got any for the train to Dover. Maybe to be ‘totally honest’ with him. Maybe to offer him a place to crash. Or have a bath.

But there’s no trace of Jonno. He’s dissolved into the warm, unfriendly London night.

Like I said, it’s a bad idea letting a complete stranger into your life.

 

Some details have been changed to protect the innocent.

(Originally appeared in Attitude, 2000. Collected in Sex Terror)