60s Motorway service stations
Gourmet food, cutting edge architecture - welcome to the glamorous world of the motorway service station in the sixties
Travel back in time to the sixties and the motorway was a new and exciting way to travel. The first service station, Watford Gap, sold sandwiches out of hastily erected sheds from the day the M1 opened on 2 November 1959. However, service stations that followed sought to fully exploit the excitement of travel at 100mph and turned the humble service station into a fine dining experience, with restaurants fashioned in the latest modern style. At some service stations, smart ladies in air hostess style uniforms greeted motorists.
Forton Services on the M6 near Lancaster opened in 1965. It was operated by Top Rank Motor Inns, part of the giant media and entertainment combine, J Arthur Rank. It was Top Rank's second 'Motor Port' as they called them. The centre piece of Forton was a hexagonal tower, which resembled an aircraft control tower. The Tower Restaurant, which it housed, was the most upmarket dining experience offered at Forton. Diners had views over Morecambe Bay and to the Lakeland fells beyond. In spite of the ambitions of Top Rank when Motoring Which? visited Forton for a survey of motorway service areas, they found the quality of the food 'only fair'.
Forton had a covered footbridge connecting both sides of the carriage way. More common though was to make the bridge the restaurant. It was an idea copied from the US. Diners would then be able to watch the traffic below. This may not seem very exciting to today's eyes, but the motorway was novel experience in the 60s and in the first half of the decade there were no speed limits on motorways.
The restaurants were aimed at businessmen dining out on expenses. The ultimate hope from the owners of the service station was to attract diners from the surrounding area to visit the service station for the dining experience.
Food at the M6's Charnock Richard's up market restaurant cost from 5s to 14s
6d for a main course (£3 to £9 in today's money, so quite good value) in 1968.
Motoring Which? rated Fortes food as 'average'.
Fine dining and Conran furniture
The ultimate dining experience was at Leicester Forest East on the M1. Leicester Forest East was operated by Ross Frozen Foods. The main attraction was a bridge restaurant furnished by Terence Conran, 'The Captain's Table'. Waiters and waitresses in nautical costume served the finest available fish from Ross's fleet. In fine weather people were prepared to sit on the balcony and watch the traffic.
Motoring Which? found the service superb at the Captain's Table and the food quality good. Leicester Forest East was the only motorway service station with food up to the Good Food Guide standards, at least in 1968.
Fantasy at Trowell
Mecca, who already owned ballrooms and restaurants, opened their first and only service station at Trowell on the M1 in Nottinghamshire, in 1967. They preferred to call it a 'Village'. Mecca combined modern architecture with a fantasy Robin Hood theme. The visitor was greeted by two jousting knights in the foyer. Once inside the 'Village' he or she could dine at the 'Sheriff's Restaurant' or 'Marian's Pantry'.
Themed interiors were getting popular in pubs in the late sixties. Butlin's chose a Hawaiian theme for their 'Beachcomber' bars. [See Watney's pubs and Seasidehistory - holiday camps for more details.]
I remember visiting this service station with my parents in the seventies. My father was distinctly unimpressed with the fantasy decor.
The original idea of fine dining at the motorway services did not continue much past the sixties. The glamour associated with the motorway disappeared quickly in a world of speed limits, road works and traffic jams. Today's operators prefer to provide fast food.
Your comments on motorway service stations
"i remember travelling down to south devon with my parents in the 60s-we always stopped at the 'mecca on m1' i miss the mecca and the 60s very much-today has nothing on what it was in the 60s-i miss the good old days now there gone :(,mark.." mark taylor
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