On a drizzly day, Britain isn’t wanting – or tasting – its finest. I’m at Watford Hole providers on the M1, the nation’s first service station on the nation’s first motorway, each 60 this 12 months (though the restaurant opened in 1960). “If you wish to see Britain, go to Watford Hole,” David Lawrence had advised me. “If you wish to style Britain, go to Watford Hole.” I wish to do each of these issues.
Lawrence is an affiliate professor at Kingston College whose PhD was Motorway Service Areas, Their Historical past and Tradition. He has written two books about them as nicely. I believe you would safely describe him as Mr Service Station. “Dr Service Station,” he corrects me, earlier than I head to Watford Hole.
Right this moment, Watford Hole providers is operated by the Roadchef group. The constructing – designed by the Odeon cinemas architect Harry Weedon – appears drained, with tufts of insulation sprouting from the roof on the again. Inside, water drips on to the ground; an worker mops up, then deploys a “Warning: moist ground” signal. A person with a beard and a Maccy D’s meal sits down there anyway. “A little bit of rain by no means damage anybody,” he says, cheerfully.
A giant a part of Britain is right here – not simply automotive house owners stopping to refuel, however all of the folks working. The selection of meals is: McDonald’s; the Contemporary Meals Cafe, the place there are extra burgers, fish and chips or curry; or Chozen Noodle. There’s additionally a Costa and a WH Smith. I select Chozen as a result of I’ve by no means had one earlier than. “Does teriyaki stand for horrible, hahaha?” asks a businessman in entrance of me, who’s on his approach to the NEC in Birmingham. I go for the purple Thai greens with rice – £eight with prawn crackers and a ginger beer. Not horrible, however gloopy, unsurprising, uninteresting … OK, fairly horrible.
Watford Hole is important for a number of causes. It’s the place the place, historically, south-east England ends and the Midlands and the north start (or vice versa, in fact, relying on whether or not you might be northbound or southbound); it’s a hole between two hills the place the street was squeezed in subsequent to the canal and the railway. It additionally marks a second between two eras, with the service station being a milestone in Harold Wilson’s imaginative and prescient of a journey to modernity (in addition to a then-new 24-hour expertise for the individuals who stopped there).
Initially run by an organization referred to as Blue Boar, it was a spot for drivers to cease for the human requirements: tea and a pee. And for his or her vehicles – extra liable to breakdown than immediately’s – to have a relaxation, too. It was a spot for nocturnal motorcyclists to hurry to as quick as their machines would carry them on three lanes freed from visitors. It was a stopover for bands on the street – the Beatles, the Stones, Pink Floyd, Dusty Springfield, the Eagles. And it was a spot for a grilled meal. “Grilled ham and different grilled meats, greens, pretty simple desserts, puddings and custards, fruit flans, ice-cream … that form of factor,” says Lawrence.
It wasn’t the cross-section of British society it’s immediately; extra a spot for the upwardly cell. “It could have been enterprise travellers eating on expense accounts,” says Lawrence. “Some households would have stopped – middle-class or upper-working-class households who both had vehicles by means of their jobs or had been capable of buy one.”
However Watford Hole was by no means glamorous. Newport Pagnell, which opened quickly after, 23 miles to the south (it was truly the primary to open to all visitors; Watford Hole was initially only for vehicles), was posher. It was run by the Italian Forte catering dynasty, who realised {that a} little bit of glamour was important to charming the diner, and would go on to run good resorts all over the world.

A postcard that includes Newport Pagnell, from the 1960s. {Photograph}: Motorway Companies On-line
Newport Pagnell, designed by Owen Williams, had a pedestrian bridge throughout the street that was primarily based on a Chicago mannequin. “There was this unbelievable modernity simply within the buildings, and that started to offer an uplift to the eating expertise,” says Lawrence. “Forte launched cooks to arrange contemporary meals, which might be cooked in entrance of the diners whereas they had been sitting on stools at an extended bar. Shortly, the motorway expertise shifts away from the Blue Boar cafeteria concept to a way more sensory expertise.”
This shift upwards reached its peak 30-odd miles north of Watford Hole, at Leicester Forest East, which opened with the second part of the M1 in 1966. It was one other bridge providers, run by the Ross Group in Grimsby with a contemporary supply of fish day-after-day. And the restaurant, designed by Terence Conran, was on the bridge, with waitresses in airline-style uniforms. Think about it – sitting in modernist Conranian splendour with E-Kind Jaguars roaring beneath, whereas girls dressed as cabin crew served you cod in parsley sauce.
I’m starting to know why my very own early long-car-journey meals reminiscences don’t contain motorway service stations in any respect, however sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs, unwrapped from tinfoil on a windy grass financial institution.
Right this moment you possibly can nonetheless eat fish above the motorway at Leicester Forest East, however it comes – with chips – from Harry Ramsden’s. The meals court docket area is shared with different franchises. Leicester Forest East and Newport Pagnell are operated by Welcome Break – a lot the identical as Roadchef, besides Burger King replaces McDonald’s, there’s Chopstix Noodle Bar as a substitute of Chozen, Starbucks as a substitute of Costa. Totally different names; the identical expertise. No 60s-style desk service: you queue as much as order or accomplish that from a really of-this-time machine. Then you definately sit down and look – not out on to a courageous new street – however down into your telephone, scrolling with one hand whereas shovelling quick meals with the opposite.
At Newport Pagnell, the bridge throughout the street now appears extra like a dare than modernity. The home windows have been lined so as to solely see out in a few locations; the entire thing appears to be held collectively by gaffer tape and shakes when lorries go beneath. Within the automotive park, by the bins, I meet a household having a picnic. Pleasant sufficient – too pleasant, maybe, as a result of they’re a household of rats. You’re welcome.
How did it get to this? From the growth occasions to rats? Dr Service Station speeds by means of half a century of motorwayside consuming. The romance went shortly and reputations declined for a number of causes: the federal government launched guidelines and laws, service stations grew to become acquainted and prosaic, and roads bought busier. “There was a type of good storm in declining service and more and more crowded amenities, which simply meant that they ceased to be nice locations to go.”

Unhealthy outdated days … Newport Pagnell within the 1970s. {Photograph}: Nationwide Archives/Courtesy of Motorway Companies On-line
By the 70s, service stations had been typically powerful locations of soccer hooliganism and vandalism, relatively than epicurean delight. It was fried meals, English breakfasts and some “drained English traditional meals, resembling pork and greens, lamb and greens, simple puddings, ice-cream, jellies, noticed dick … that type of factor”. Anybody wish to cease for a noticed dick and a punch-up?
Within the 80s, service stations tried to repeat acquainted shops on the town – McDonald’s, for instance – however with restricted success. It was solely within the 90s that the actual franchises arrived. “And relatively than being what is actually a motorway model of a family-run cafe, albeit on an enormous scale, service areas grow to be just about a field of manufacturers that we recognise from the excessive road,” says Lawrence.
For those who keep in mind encountering Little Chef at motorway service areas, you’re not mistaken. A direct translation of a US idea (additionally referred to as Little Chef), the plump little white cuisinier on a purple background had been serving up family-friendly gammon steaks and pancakes on A-roads earlier than the motorways began. However then when the Forte Group introduced Little Chef, and Granada (now Moto) subsequently acquired Forte, he started showing at their motorway providers, too, fortunately carrying his plate aloft, between the eras of excessive road copies (Little Chef was just about Wimpy with further exterior noise and carbon monoxide) and brands-in-a-box.
Which is the place we nonetheless are immediately – sheds housing collections of indicators you affiliate with a specific type of meals and a specific type of service. That’s what I’m discovering on the M1 immediately, with a little bit of historical past, structure and vermin thrown in.
However I need one thing to eat that’s not precisely the identical as all over the place else beside the motorway – perhaps even good. And it’s not a hopeless quest. First, we have to flip again once more, to the late 60s and the development of the M6. It lower by means of the farm of John and Barbara Dunning close to the village of Tebay in Cumbria. Diversifying from hill farming, the newly married Dunnings gained the bid to run the providers there, and in 1972 opened a small cafe serving regionally sourced meals.
And, though it has grown a bit, that’s just about the way it nonetheless is: family-run, no franchises or quick meals, a kitchen serving selfmade dishes made regionally utilizing native elements. Plus a farm store, a butcher, a way of place and a view of the fells. It wins awards, tops polls and comes heartily really useful by Lawrence.
The difficulty is, Tebay is 176 miles north of Leicester. That’s a good distance for me to go for a meal. It’s OK, although: a mere 82 miles away, on the M5, is Gloucester providers, opened in 2014 by the identical household, alongside the identical traces. Plus, it operates in partnership with Gloucestershire Gateway Belief, marrying enterprise with charity, serving to the local people, offering revenue and jobs, social regeneration. Oh, and Sarah Dunning, who has taken over operating the enterprise from her mother and father, can be there, down from Cumbria.
The meals is great: sausage, egg, haggis, bubble and squeak, mushroom, all regionally sourced, moral, and match for Guardian readers and writers. It units me again £7. I eat by the massive window, looking at a pond, with wagtails – each pied and yellow – wagging their tails on the Cotswolds escarpment past.

Gloucester providers … the long run? {Photograph}: Percy Dean
From the surface, Gloucester Companies, designed by Glenn Howells, appears like an enormous Teletubby home constructed right into a hill and mixing into the panorama. Inside, it’s Grand Designs – a dramatic area, however calm. No music (aside from native brass bands and choirs infrequently) and lots of wooden. “I suppose it’s a bit extra ski chalet than motorway service space,” says Dunning.
Ski chalet? It’s a service station for posh folks, isn’t it? “Service stations are massive infrastructure tasks – they value some huge cash to construct,” says Dunning. “To make them viable, it’s a must to make them related to all people. We will’t be, and we wouldn’t wish to be, a protect for the elite. We wish to serve Mr and Mrs Nice Britain.”
She reveals me spherical. No children within the picket play space on a term-time Thursday, however Mr and Mrs Nice Britain are in, having a meal or espresso, or buying within the farm store. There’s a variety of breads, contemporary from two native bakeries. All in all, they use 130 native producers, making, amongst many different issues, natural yoghurt, macaroons, cider and sausage rolls. There’s a cheese counter, a butcher (T-bone steaks really useful) and a fishmonger with deliveries from Paignton and Newlyn. Decide up some octopus on the service station on the best way residence, will you, pricey.
Significantly, there’s octopus. And with it maybe the return of glamour; a 21st-century glamour. As soon as, it was contemporary fish from Grimsby served on a bridge by girls wearing cabin crew uniforms. Right this moment, it’s octopus from Newlyn served by a middle-aged man referred to as Matthew carrying a fishmonger’s apron in Teletubbyland. I’ll take that.