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Tag: Motorway services

Fine Dining Over the Fast Lane

Mark Simpson on the lost glamour of Leicester Forest East services

Leicester Forest East, situated – or rather, squeezed – between J21 and J21a on the M1, contains a slightly interesting paradox to those sufficiently undulled by the boredom of motorway driving and an entire family pack of Haribos to notice it.

Not its appearance, which now looks like a very average 1960s motorway services that has seen better days, but because it is in actual geographical fact west of Leicester and there is no Leicester Forest. On investigation however, it turns out not to be a Harry Potter-esque Platform 9 ¾ situation. The name is down to the slightly disappointing discovery that the services are located east of somewhere called Leicester Forest West.

And that, you might think, is all there is Leicester Forest East. Along with the usual bland modern quick fix carbs/fats/caffeine outlets, including a Burger King, KFC, Baskin Robbins, Dunkin’ Donuts, Krispy Kreme, Harry Ramsden and a Starbucks.

But you’d be wrong. Very wrong. LFE has a past. And what a past! When it opened fifty years ago on February 15, 1966, LFE was the most glamorous place to eat on the motorway – and very possibly the whole of Leicestershire.

The kitchen at LFE

“Shall I point at something else now? Or do you have enough pointing shots?”

It boasted a 692 seat Terence Conran-designed silver-service restaurant occupying the bridge above the carriageway, called ‘The Captain’s Table’, fitted out with luxury carpets, ocean liner décor and a deck-like balcony. There were even waiters in sailor suits and a pianist on a baby Grand. And no, I’m not making this up.

Today, motorway gourmands stopping here have to make do with a pricey panini from Waitrose.

Although it now looks like a fairly non-descript unloved 1960s giant concrete bus-stop, LFE was an architectural novelty in the UK when it was built. Based on an Italian design used on the Autostrade, and placing terraces at each end of the two-storey bridge-come-amenity building, it was rather ‘Mod’.

Frozen food retailer Ross had won the Ministry of Transport tender with their audacious design and a promise to bring fine dining to M1 motorists. They had decided that motorway services represented an exciting new business opportunity as well as a good way to publicise themselves – hence the fishy-themed restaurant, and their efforts to make the food as good as possible. By all accounts, they succeeded.

In a nice touch, the first private motorist customer, Andrew Thorp of Church Road, Leicester, and the first lorry driver, Derek Lashbrook, of Greenwich, London received a voucher entitling them to a free meal there every 15 Feb until 1991.

But the worth of those vouchers expired much quicker than anyone anticipated – the golden days and the good intentions didn’t last very long. With more and more motorway services opening in the late 60s, the ‘glamour’ and novelty of eating on the motorway rapidly declined into a chore – while competition rapidly increased. And the competition was on price, not quality. Inevitably, the Captain’s Table hit the iceberg of economic realities and began to go under. It soon found itself sharing the commanding bridge at LFE with other service amenities, while the distinctive terrace was closed for ‘health and safety’ reasons.

In the 1970s, Ross reluctantly gave up on glamour altogether and introduced a betting shop, ice cream stall and a separate Happy Eater restaurant. Eventually Ross threw in the motorway services towel and sold LFE to the current operator, Welcome Break in 1985 – who are of course a byword for culinary delight….

While it’s almost certainly a more convenient and much quicker pit-stop with more choice in its modern ‘food court’ than back in 1966, it’s apparent that the glamour of LFE – rated 3/5 burgers by this motorway services review site – has long since fled. As it has of course from all other motorway services.

But sometimes it is still occasionally glimpsed, usually in the newsagents, buying crisps and a fizzy drink. In a recent BBC report on LFE’s 50th birthday, Suzanne Chapman, who works in the newsagents, recalled the celebrities she’s served: ‘Terry Waite, Steve Davies, they’ve all been through’. Some were shyer than others: ‘David Frost came, but he didn’t come to the till, he sent his driver and stood in the background.’

Perhaps Frost, who of course became a celebrity in the same decade as Leicester Forest East, was busy reminiscing about the Captain’s Table and the waiters in sailor’s outfits.

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