Motorway service stations are toilets.
And I don’t just mean the reputation they have for being dirty and unappealing places to linger, let alone eat. I mean literally. A recent survey of 2000 motorists found that 65% only stop at service stations to use the toilet facilities.
It wasn’t always that way. When the first UK service station opened in 1959 at Watford Gap on the M1 people would actually make special trips just to visit them. Service stations were space-age places to view the future whizzing past while enjoying a sophisticated prawn cocktail. For bored kids they were concrete Tracy Islands. But by the 1970s the British had fallen out of love with motorway service stations, their high prices, poor food and command economy aesthetics. Since then the call of nature has been the principle, often only lure.
At Wetherby services, opened in 2008, situated on junction 46 of the A1M and lying on the boundary between West and North Yorkshire, they have incorporated this toilet fact into the fabric of the building. A cheery if overly suggestive yellowbrick road takes you past all the different outlets hawking their wares before you finally arrive, bladder bursting, at the ‘facilities’ – almost right at the end of the long building (the Eat, Drink cafeteria is the only outlet beyond the conveniences).
For the sake of hygiene and efficiency, the toilets dispense with doors – instead they have just a zig-zag open entrance. In architectural fact, Wetherby services is a toilet with shops. Outside the loo entrance are the inevitable kiddie magnets, machines full of stuffed toys waiting to be clawed – which one might be forgiven for thinking represents the attitude of motorway services towards their customers.
Today the toilets at Wetherby on a Sunday afternoon in March are very busy but appear to be coping with the endless ‘stream’ of people arriving constantly to relieve themselves of matter consumed many, possibly hundreds of miles away. They also look fairly clean – Moto, who operate this and 57 other motorway service stations across the UK, have won the prestigious ‘Loo of the Year’ award several times. Not something to be sniffed at when you consider service station toilets by law have to be kept open 24 hours a day every single day of the year.
To be fair, Wetherby services is trying very hard to be different. Wetherby services employed the latest ‘green technologies’ in its construction, making it the UK’s first carbon neutral service station. Another fun fact: the roof of the filling station is the largest single-span filling station roof in Europe. Unlike many of the older motorway services it has a light and airy design: a large seating/eating area is spread in front of sloping floor-to ceiling windows along one (south facing) side overlooking the car park. More airport departure lounge than motorway services, you can use the free Wi-Fi to Tweet a picture of your ‘succulent double chicken breast served with a sauce of your choice’ (£6.99)
Outlets available here for the motorist’s delectation include M&S Simply Food, Costa Coffee, WH Smiths, Burger King, Upper Crust, and Eat, Drink, Moto’s self-branded restaurant – and not one but two one-armed bandit arcades (with no one in them today).
M&S Simply Food and Costa are – aside from the toilets – the centrepiece of Wetherby services. The first thing you see when you walk in, they represent the quiet revolution in the motorway services experience that has been going on since M&S first opened a Simply Food outlet at Toddington Southbound a decade ago. There are now 36 M&S Simply Food outlets on the UK motorway network forever banishing the curse of curled sarnies.
At Wetherby, once you’ve unfilled your bladder, you can get your spicy chicken and sweet red pepper wood-fired M&S pizza (£5.25) for when you finally get home and put your feet up, and then pop over to Costa and grab a mozzarella tomato and basil sourdough Panini (£4.79) and a Cappuccino Medio (£3.35) for now – and fill your bladder again.
The Costa outlet at Wetherby dominates the space and is constructed like a chapel of caffeine – fenced off with decorative wrought iron, a two-tone tiled floor and inspirational skylights. How appropriate: caffeine and urine are the twin pillars of the modern, metropolitanised service area. There are now a whopping 53 Costas in motorway services in the UK. The UK’s new-found chain caffeine addiction is a habit that motorway services are happy to exploit.
As conclusive proof of the metropolitanisation of motorway services, lah-dee-dah Waitrose are hard on M&S’s quality heels with 22 outlets on the UK motorway network and another three opening this month alone. Even Bolton Services West, the dismal M61 disaster area immortalised by Peter Kay as manageress ‘Pearl Harbour’, and once held up as the epitome of how low motorway services had sunk, has had a multi-million pound makeover and been renamed ‘Rivington’. Fancy.
No Waitrose yet, but they do have a Starbucks, landscaped grounds offering ‘relaxing outdoor dining’ and, most impressively of all, according to one vox popper, ‘toilets like a hotel’s’
Motorway service stations are still toilets. But they’re dead classy ones now.
Mark Simpson is a cultural commentator and author who lives in the North East, just off the A1 (very close to a Halfords)