words William Wiles
British motorway service areas operate in a curious blindspot. For decades they have been a byword for poor service and anomie. They have been the butt of jokes long enough to become a cliche, to pass out the far end of active bad feeling into a limbo of national forgetting. The idea of compiling a thorough study of such places and their history seems like an inherently absurd and worthless act born of Pooterish monomania. And the resulting book must, surely, be of inconceivable dullness. But, as with many things in this British blindspot, the reverse is true. David Lawrence's book Food on the Move is a real treat. Motorway service stations are fascinating, and part of that fascination is how they ended up being the focus of such abject disregard. The history of these apparently historyless places turns out to be a journey through the British psyche and into an astonishingly varied and bold architectural culture.
The motorway service station might have been doomed from the start. It is, after all, a combination of two things the British have rarely had much luck at: infrastructural planning and cuisine. But its failure to earn a place in national affections was not inevitable. Service areas do, after all, provide vital services, giving motorists a place to rest, eat, refuel and go to the loo without having to leave the motorway and clog up local roads. And they appeared in a landscape that already had a lively tradition of roadside catering. Lawrence opens his story with an account of this lost, pre-motorway world of "roadhouses", milk bars, stucco modernist cafes and American-style diners, all of which catered to the motoring public of the 1930s. The Second World War gave the state experience of mass catering – in the shape of the "British Restaurants" intended to give a rationed public a solid meal each day – and a sense of the necessity of central planning, ready for the planning and development of the motorways in the 1950s and 1960s. Alongside the domestic tradition, motorways were already decades old in the USA, Italy and Germany, and in all those countries service areas had been successfully prototyped. America's tollways had comfortable and even stylish service plazas; the autostrade in Italy were equipped with startlingly modern rest stops built as bridges across the road and serving local cuisine.
Sadly, the dish the British civil service specialises in is unappetising fudge. The motorway planners decided to ignore the foreign precedents and focused on minimising costs and risks. Private operators were brought in but shackled by high rents demanded by the ministry. Nevertheless, as Lawrence finds out, there was a lot of enthusiastic architectural innovation. At Charnock Richard on the M6, Charles Forte – the missing link in British fast food between milk bars and McDonald's – built an Italian-style futurist glass bridge over the motorway containing a high-class grill restaurant where diners could watch the traffic passing underneath, a kind of automotive dinner-theatre. The Trowell Mecca Village on the M1 (the name alone is found poetry), operated by the Mecca bingo-hall group, was decorated in an Olde England theme straight from Las Vegas. For its "Taverna" at Washington Birtle on the A1, Esso experimented with airport-style free circulation and became popular with adulterous couples.
This moment of excitement about the possibilities of the service area was all too brief. Often placed by guesswork, many service areas were overwhelmed by customers just years after their opening, and in the later 1960s and 1970s developed their reputation for queues, scruffiness and poor service. Sad to say, people didn't want futurist spectacle while they rested – they just wanted a quick bite, efficiently served in unchallenging surroundings. Corporate mass catering is more experienced today, but far less willing to break the mould.
Lawrence's history of the service area would be interesting enough on its own, but there's a good deal more here. There are contributions from Alain de Botton, Iain Sinclair and other writers. There's also an intriguing "phenomenological" chapter, a meditation on the service area written with the artist Richard Wentworth while actually in a service area. Consistently illuminating and readable, the overall effect of Food on the Move is stumbling across a superb and unheralded documentary on BBC4. Commissioning editors, take note.
Food on the Move: The Extraordinary World of the Motorway Service Area by David Lawrence, Between Books, £19.95.
top picture credit David Lawrence