But while service stations have undoubtedly changed in recent years, their operators can't go too far in making them enticing without running up against Department of Transport rules. These ban any attraction that might make people regard them as destinations; only products or services people might need en route are allowed. So service stations can have betting shops but not cinemas, fruit machines but not a bowling alley. And should their restaurants become so inviting that they attracted folk from miles around, operators could find themselves in deep trouble.
To assess the standard of service offered, we visited two service stations each run by the two big players who dominate the market - Welcome Break, part of Forte PLC, and its arch rival, Granada. Between them, they own almost four out of five service stations. We also visited one place run by a smaller operator, RoadChef, and the original service station at Watford Gap, owned by a family firm.
We looked at the range of facilities provided, such as restaurants, shops and children's play areas, and whether they had fax machines or cashpoints. We checked out how clean and pleasant they were, both outside and in, and how friendly the staff were. Below, we tell you which are worth making a detour for (Department of Transport rules notwithstanding) and which to avoid. We also compared prices of food and drink, and of some typical items for a journey. We found, however, that they were pretty similar everywhere.
***GRANADA, DARTFORD CROSSING, ESSEX
M25, Junctions 30-31, single site with access from both north and southbound M25
This modern and bright service station is on the edge of one of the most unlovely spots in Britain, surrounded by pylons, gasometers and industrial sheds. Inside, the sole restaurant is decked out like an Italian-style garden, with plastic partitions moulded to look like topiary and a wooden pergola hung with artificial flowers.
Inside there is excellent signposting, so you can see at once where, for example, the fax and cashpoint facilities are. It has a tourist information centre where you can book theatres and hotels in central London, and tickets for cross-Channel ferries (though not the Tunnel); you can also buy travel insurance here. There's a shower, and an adventure play area for children that's a cut above the rest. The petrol was cheaper than in any other station (55.9p a litre). It gets a black mark, though, for having no paper in some of the cubicles in the ladies', including, I discovered too late, my own.
Clientele: business people, elderly couples, school parties.
Verdict: a pleasant place to make a stop, with very good facilities.
*WELCOME BREAK, CORLEY, WARWICKSHIRE
M6, Junctions 3-4, north and southbound sites
A grim relic of the days when watching motorway traffic was the last word in excitement. The motorway is almost inescapable here. The children's play area on the southbound site is right alongside the whizzing cars below - not unsafe, but not pleasant, either. Julie's Pantry, one of the restaurant "options", also looks out directly on to the motorway.
By crossing the road through a bleak enclosed over-pass, I reached the northbound site, which seemed more cheerful. Here is the main restaurant, the Granary, which, in addition to the standard fare of sandwiches, hot meals with chips and salads, serves Italian and Indian food. But the formica on the tables is chipped and the windows frame a view of cars whizzing past. The continental style cafe, set away from the motorway but within earshot of noisy slot machines, is also on the northbound side. There is one cashpoint (NatWest) but no fax.
Clientele: business people, families.
Verdict: Drive on. If you must stop, try the northbound side or the Little Chef facing away from the motorway.
**BLUE BOAR, WATFORD GAP, NORTHANTS
M1, Junctions 16-17, north and southbound sites
This was the very first service station; it has, however, been refurbished several times since, most recently three years ago. The northbound site I visited was fairly small and facilities limited: there were only three telephones compared to the 15 or so to be found in larger sites, and a single restaurant, while most other service stations have a choice of several.
There was no sign of a play area outside, nor, with the exception of some cheerful hanging baskets, had there been much attempt to make the exterior look less utilitarian with trees or other plants. Nor did it have a fax facility (although the company later told us the public can use the office machine on request) or cashpoints. The shop had the standard range of sweets, drinks, magazines, flowers and novels by Danielle Steele and Jackie Collins, with a nod to culture in the form of Joseph Heller's Closing Time. A plus point was the friendly waitress who advised me which cake to have with my (leaky) pot of tea.
Clientele: elderly couples on day trips.
Verdict: adequate and pleasant, if you're not looking for a shopping experience. I wondered, though, if it was big enough to cope with a major influx on a bank holiday or if it would be over-run by a few coach parties.
****GRANADA, TAMWORTH, STAFFS
M42, Junction 10, single site, access from M42 north and southbound and A5
Tamworth is a strange combination. It's the site of Granada's latest novelty, a real 1940s diner brought over from the States and plonked down in the Midlands. It's genuinely fun to eat in - and fun is a concept rarely associated with motorway driving. The diner, which was virtually empty when I visited it, has glossy chrome and red plastic fittings, Fifties- style posters, and the music is a mixture of Fifties rock 'n' roll and early Beatles. The food isn't bad either.
Yet go into the main restaurant and it's a completely different atmosphere. There is the low murmur of businessmen having meetings over coffee or lunch, with barely a female face to be seen. The common herd have apparently been banished to the onsite Burger King. The shop reflects the more masculine market with its Alaistair Maclean and Wilbur Smith novels. Staff were helpful and facilities are excellent; the sales rep en route to the nearby Birmingham National Exhibition Centre can use three different cashpoints, send a fax, have a shower and even place a bet at Ladbrokes. There's a picnic and play area near a garden - though not a child to be seen when I was there.
Clientele: mainly businessmen.
Verdict: The only service station which, because of the diner, I positively enjoyed visiting.
***ROADCHEF, CLACKET LANE, KENT
M25, Junctions 5-6, west and eastbound sites
From the outside, Clacket Lane could easily be mistaken for a supermarket: standard, low-level building, constructed of red-brown bricks with a tiled pitched roof. Inside, there was a touch of class in the sculpture and fountain in the hall, and in the glass case of Clacket Lane archaeological finds. This up-market image did not extend to the shop, where you could buy an "I survived the M25" sweatshirt, or a kitsch breadboard with gaudily- painted mice, fruit and bread rolls stuck to it. The shop also had practical items to stock up with on the way to your French campsite: loo paper, rubbish sacks, pan scourers.
For food, there's a restaurant selling the usual fare plus Indian dishes, or a Wimpy, or coffee shop. The information bureau has fax and photocopying facilities and displays useful information such as phone numbers of local police and airports. But only one till was staffed in the shop, leading to the inevitable queue.
Clientele: families en route to Channel ports or Gatwick Airport. Verdict: has all the mod cons.
***WELCOME BREAK, SOUTH MIMMS, HERTS
M25/A1, off Junction 23, single site, access from both west and eastbound M25
Outside, South Mimms, too, looks like a supermarket. Inside we are in airport terminal mode. The hall even has a bureau de change while the main restaurant could be an airport lounge. It probably has the best shopping facilities of any I visited, with a classier range of gifts: specialty oils, vinegars and chutneys, and William Morris stationery. There is a separate drugstore selling toiletries such as suntan lotions (but no pharmacy).
One bonus is Caffe Primo, a passable imitation of a continental cafe with apparently real marble tables, under a glass roof, and apparently genuine palm trees. The main restaurant sells Indian and Italian food as well as the usual, or you can try Julie's Pantry (a burger bar) or Little Chef (similar, but with waitress service). There's a good range of facilities, too, including information centre, three cashpoints, children's play area, fax and photocopying. The only minor niggle - a teapot that flooded my tray.
Clientele: a mixed bag, a few arty types spotted.
Verdict: modern, pleasant, with good facilities, especially the shops.Reuse content