By Catherine Midwood
This piece takes a look at the cultural history of motorway service stations in Britain. My background is in cultural studies – I studied International Media and Communications at the University of Nottingham. I gained an interest in geography by reading about everyday life and mundane places. My undergraduate dissertation was focused on motorway service stations and this is based on some of the background research I did for that project in my final year. The MSc has taught me many new concepts and ways of researching mundane places, allowing me to focus on this particular research interest for my Masters dissertation on supermarkets. (I still really like service stations).
Motorway service stations may not seem like the most interesting places. Generally, visiting them involves rushing in and out as quickly as possible to grab a coffee or go to the loo. Because they don’t tend to be places where you want to linger and pay attention to the architectural details, or even the name of the place, they can often be difficult to tell apart from one another. In addition to this, Tim Edensor points out that in academia it is popular to consider motorway driving and visits to service stations as signifying ‘contemporary alienation’ (2003: 151). The image often found in representations of motorway driving is of a monotonous and lonely task; even the service stations now seem to lack any differentiation or require human interaction.
But this overlooks the multi-layered history of these spaces. David Lawrence argues that there is much more than ‘the apparent banality’ of the service station, and one way to demonstrate this is to look back at their role decades ago (2004: 222). Examining the history of motorway service stations reveals that they’re much more interesting than most of us might think. They played a hugely important role not only in the development of high-speed motorways in post-war Britain but also in the imagination that this development inspired.
The motorways were fast and full of promise. The original service stations of the post-war period were built to capitalize on the imagination that high speed travel inspired in the public; the excitement of being able to travel wherever you wanted. Now, the car park at Leicester Forest East seems perilously close to the vehicles rushing by. The noise is intrusive and bothersome, offering no real relief from driving. The bridges that often link the ‘twin’ style service stations now serve as walkways between but used to house restaurants with the built in entertainment of watching the high speed traffic. There were a la carte menus and servers dressed in uniforms which echoed airline staff (Lawrence, 2010). Furthermore, towers were built during this era as part of the structures to reiterate links to airlines, ‘making positive associations with the most exclusive form of mass transport’ (Lawrence, 2004: 224). The service stations were glamorous and held a glimmer of an affluence and freedom for Britain in the future.
The existence of postcards depicting motorways and their new service stations from the 1960s demonstrates how they symbolised the exciting promise of the future. Some of these were featured in the work of Martin Parr who collected historical postcards focused on things conventionally considered boring such as shopping centres, power stations, and motorways (2004). Nowadays the thought of sending somebody a postcard from a service station seems slightly absurd. But these historical artefacts are interesting because they show the glimmering post-war optimism that existed when service stations were built. Motorways and service stations were seen as fundamental elements to a modern society and were symbols of progress and post-war economic expansion.
Nowadays it can be argued that our service stations symbolise disillusion. By the end of the 1960s, ‘the intensity and speed of modernisation faltered’ and these buildings had to adapt to changing tastes in consumers (Lawrence, 2010: 95). The prestige of buildings, the a la carte menus, and the other extravagances offered by service stations were no longer relevant to the needs of motorists (2010). People wanted to dash in and out rather than linger at a restaurant watching traffic. The expensive upkeep of service stations also proved a problem: expensive cutlery was stolen at an alarming rate (Moran, 2005). These factors resulted in a policy of least commitment and a structural overhaul. The homogeneity of the service station may be comforting for us now, knowing we can rely on a Costa coffee or a Marks & Spencer sandwich in a few miles without having to worry about the quality of the food. But with this standardization, some cultural icons have been lost. The Blue Boar café at Watford Gap was frequented by musicians on tour, including the Beatles, Pink Floyd, and the Rolling Stones to become ‘embedded in British popular music and travelling folklore’ (Lawrence, 2010: 44). There is even an anecdote that Jimi Hendrix asked about it, assuming it was a glamorous nightclub because he heard so many musicians discussing it (Moran, 2010: 128). It also became famous in the 1970s for the atrocious quality of its food (see Roy Harper’s song Watford Gap for the lyrics: ‘a plate of grease and a load of crap’).
There is an extensive and complex history to motorway service stations, but this should not be taken to mean that their individuality and interest has been lost to the past. They no longer possess ‘the lustre of the new’ as they had in their early life, but they still remain fascinating sites worthy of geographical and sociological research (Moran, 2010: 127). Edensor points out that motorway journeys, and the service stations as part of that, are always linked to ‘other places, previous experiences, socialities, sensualities, and stories’ (2003: 154). Consider the yearly ritual visits to Donington Park services for those going to Donington festival, or the development of newer service stations which feature farm shops and links to local businesses, or the strange appearance of ‘on-the-go’ versions of many products or services that are only really found in the service stations. It is also important to remember that there are people who work at these places every single day: there is an unseen network of friends, enemies, romances, etc. that remain unseen to the majority of people just stopping momentarily. Seemingly mundane places should not be discredited as simply ‘dull’ or ‘boring’, and recalling their history is one way to remind ourselves that mundane places matter.
Images taken from Martin Parr’s Boring Postcards.
Edensor, T. (2003) ‘Defamiliarizing the Mundane Roadscape’ in Space and Culture 6 (2).
Lawrence, D. (2004) ‘The Motorway Service Station’ in Holder, J. (ed) The Architecture of British Transport in the Twentieth Century. Connecticut: Yale University Press.
Lawrence, D. (2010) Food on the Move: the Extraordinary World of the Motorway Service Area. Delaware: Between Books.
Moran, J. (2005) Reading the Everyday. London: Routledge.
Moran, J. (2010) On Roads: A Hidden History. London: Profile Books.
Parr, M. (2004) Boring Postcards. London: Phaidon Press.
‘Motorway Services Info’, for all your service station needs and reviews: http://www.motorwayservices.info/
Roy Harper’s ‘Watford Gap’ song from 1977: https://youtu.be/UnGPE_BBr9A
A film focused on the monotonous beauty of endlessly driving around the M25: London Orbital (2002)