The owners of Britain’s best motorway service station, Tebay in Cumbria, have waited four decades to open a second one, on the M5 in Gloucestershire. With a grass roof and excellent cakes, it’s a place that Bilbo Baggins might appreciate.
First published on Beacon.
Thousands of years ago, a potent Druid took his first sip of a new, refreshing hot infusion of herbs from the distant east. He proclaimed that it was so powerful and invigorating, that it must be worshipped. To that end, it would always be served in vessels designed to spill a small amount of the precious beverage before consumption, as a libation to the gods.
And that is why tea-pots in British motorway services always leak when pouring. They even do this at the newly-opened Gloucester Services on the M5 motorway, which apart from this is almost completely unlike most British motorway services. For those readers who have never experienced Britain’s contribution to road trip culture, this is a very good thing indeed.
Motorway services are peculiar to Britain, a mixture of government paternalism and local private-sector monopolies. Motorways are high-speed limited-access roads (the usual speed limit is 70mph, although the police and speed cameras only issue fines for speeds above 79mph), the equivalent of a US freeway. The government grants concessions to companies to operate ‘services’ – service stations – on the condition that they provide free short-term parking, free toilets, hand-washing and baby-changing facilities as well as fuel – and they have to be open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
In return, the operators get a captive audience. In general, they try to cover the cost of never closing and free toilets by charging lots for mediocre catering. Almost all of them are run by three companies, Moto, Welcome Break and RoadChef – as detailed by this list on Wikipedia, linking to the Wikipedia pages that exist for almost every one. It doesn’t even mention Gloucester Services, which opened on 7 May. But it does list Tebay, which has hitherto been the best service station in Britain (not that this has been a huge challenge).
Tebay was opened in 1972, at the same time as the M6 motorway in Cumbria, by local farming couple John and Barbara Dunning, initially as a small café. They have been developing it ever since as an independent business – the company is now run by Sarah Dunning, their daughter, after a few years working in the City of London. Tebay has added a hotel and an arts cinema that relays live opera, ballet and theatre, but its focus has always been on good local food, available to eat and for sale in a farm shop.
It helps that Tebay’s location – the Lune Gorge, a pass used previously by Roman road builders and Victorian railway engineers to connect England and Scotland – is spectacular, and that the buildings are built of handsome, dark grey local stone. But it’s the food that makes it work. If you are ever driving to Scotland via the west coast, stop for lunch at Tebay.
But Tebay is on one of the quieter stretches of Britain’s motorway network. The Dunnings’ new station, Gloucester, is on the M5, which runs from Birmingham to Bristol then Exeter in Devon. Rather than simply copying Tebay, they have tried to apply the same concept, creating a place that reflects its specific area. Motorway services are classic liminal locations – they are places of transit like airports and big hotels, that deliberately lack local flavour to make them accessible to all. So this is quite a radical idea.
It is also a very good one, because Gloucester Services has turned out to be a giant Cotswold farm shop and tea room. To nit-pick, the M5 runs along the base of the Cotswold escarpment, not on it, so it’s a few miles out. But then again, a Cotswold tea room means cake. In the case of Gloucester services, that includes really good chocolate and almond cake. (This is what investigative journalism is all about.)
The building’s exterior is faced with yellow Cotswold stone, as is the petrol station; the only other place in the world I have seen such adherence to local building style is Santa Fe in New Mexico, where even gas stations share the adobe design. It has a grass roof – well, it will have when the grass grows. It is landscaped so that you can’t see the motorway from the front of the services – instead, you see a verdant hillside, the Cotswold escarpment.
If Middle Earth had motorways, this is where hobbits would take a break. JRR Tolkien, an Oxford academic, was probably thinking of Oxfordshire as The Shire and the Lonely Mountain sounds like it could be in Wales, what with all the dragons. Gloucester Services on the way. These are Bilbo Baggins’ kind of services.
The inside only strengthens the sense of hobbit; it looks a lot like a giant barn, with wooden beams and a big skylight in the middle of the ceiling. The style, shabby chic with artfully unmatched chairs, is a common one in the Cotswolds. It is similar to another Gloucestershire farm shop called Daylesford, which has a café as well as selling goods to take away (and is in fact one of the most upmarket farm shops you are ever likely to come across.)
As with the catering, most motorway service shops are about convenience rather than class. Gloucester Services again does it differently; it is dominated by food and drink, welcoming customers with displays of bread, asparagus and strawberries, and a big range of cheeses at the back. It boasts that more than 130 of its suppliers are within 30 miles of the services, with 70 more in the south-west of England. It sells organic eggs from Arlingham, 10 miles to the east, and Bensons’ Chilly Billy ice-lollies, made 20 miles to the west. For pork pies, it stretches as far as Bromyard in Herefordshire, right on the edge of its 30-mile zone of terroir. However, I can confirm that the pie concerned tasted none the worse for its ‘long’ journey. Even the magazine rack has a rural tang, with Horse and Hound, Shooting Times and The Field (about hunting), Country Life, Cotswold Life and Farmers Weekly. If fracking ever gets going in Gloucestershire, presumably the fuel station will go local too.
Gloucester Services is a class act all round. The toilets look like those of an upmarket hotel or restaurant, with fashionable trough sinks. There are no gambling or gaming machines. The cash machine – which many motorway service stations use as another way of raising money, by charging for withdrawals – is free to use and run by the ethical, if currently troubled, Co-operative Bank.
As you drive back on to the M5, you see a special version of Gloucester Services’ logo, a pig. In this case, the pig is launching itself into the air, with the aid of newly-acquired wings. One day, all motorway services in Britain will be like this one… and pigs might fly.
Update, September 2016: Gloucester Services has been added to the new edition of the Good Food Guide.