Events – November 2015

Every month we will try and curate a list of events around Bristol (and perhaps, occasionally further afield) that we feel are related to the course, reflect the interests of the students on it, and/or pertain to emerging conversations in human geography.

The Rooms Festival on Silver Street.  5th-7th November.

theroomsA self-declared playground for new ideas, the Rooms festival invites us though its doors and into a series of fantastical, creative, and technological interactions. Reimagine our digital futures and experience the potential of technology to transform how we exist in the world.

Find out more here.


Festival of the Future City. 16th-20th November.

Aimed at inspiring big thinkifuturecityng and debate on the future of our cities – what does the ideal city look like? How does it provide social mobility, prosperity for its inhabitants and opportunities for enjoyable and playful encounters? There will be wide-range of speakers on topics varying from sustainability, resilience, walking in the city, utopian cities, and much more.

Find out more here.


UWE/Art in the City talks: Assemble: The Handmade and the Improvised. Arnolfini. November 18th 6pm-7.30pm

assembleFind out more about Turner prize nominees Assemble, their democratically run architecture, art and design practice, and the potentialities of small-scale interventions for affecting the social and political life of the city.

Find out more here.


Landscaping Change ll: Water. Arnolfini. November 19th 6.45pm – 9.30pm. Featuring Jethro Brice, Owain Jones & Marianna Dudley

12079057_882195198532541_6457898108875242739_nConnecting artists, writers, humanities scholars, and the community the Landscaping Change series explores the meaning of place, especially when the places we know change. This event focuses particularly on watery landscapes.

Find out more here.

Mundane Places: Motorway Service Stations

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.

motorway 3The 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’).

motorway 2There 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.

Further Reading/Listening/Watching

‘Motorway Services Info’, for all your service station needs and reviews:

Roy Harper’s ‘Watford Gap’ song from 1977:

A film focused on the monotonous beauty of endlessly driving around the M25: London Orbital (2002)

‘Theorising Society and Space’: What is Critical Theory?

By Ciara Merrick


Continental philosophy of social science encompasses a rich canon of thinkers, in turn reflecting the longer histories of European thought,  from Ancient Greece and Rome, to early Christendom and today. However, the dominance of Anglo-American philosophy within much of the contemporary social sciences has served to marginalise the continental tradition, either through outright omission or reductive inclusion. The Society and Space MSc, through the compulsory module ‘Researching Society and Space’, seeks to push back against this dominance. In the course, Dr Yvonne Sherratt guides students along the continental tradition, developing a historical understanding from which the distinctly humanist character of the continental philosophy of social science can be understood and engaged with.

Below is an excerpt from a paper I wrote as part of a summative assessment for the Researching Society and Space module. The module navigates across the traditions of hermeneutics, genealogy and critical theory, whilst exploring the practical application of these ‘methods’ to the study of society and space. This excerpt explores Critical Theory, a movement that originated from Max Horkheimer and the Early Frankfurt School.

Continue reading “‘Theorising Society and Space’: What is Critical Theory?”