Sunday lunch and a tank of unleaded

Motorway service areas are up for sale. Jonathan Glancey looks at their appeal
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Eileen and Dennis Stevens are the elite of motorway travellers. Together, they have driven every mile of every motorway in Britain, the whole lot in a 1974 Mk III Cortina 2,000 estate. They are probably the nation's experts on the quality of the 44 government-owned service areas.

"Of a weekend," volunteers Eileen, "we like to drive to see new extensions and stop off for a bite in one of the service stations. We like the one at Potter's Bar off the M25 best. Sometimes we drive up from Hove for Sunday lunch. They do a nice roast, although we sometimes have the lasagne."

"We go round the M25 in an easterly direction," adds Dennis, "going back the other way after lunch."

The Stevens may be motorway extremists, but they are not alone in their enthusiasm. They represent several generations of Brits who get through the year without using public transport. Dependent on the car, not because they need to be but because they want to be, they measure out their lives in trips up and down Britain's ever-widening motorways. And they enjoy eating in motorway service stations. Why? Perhaps because the service station cafeteria is a perfect choice for a nation that thinks of food as fuel and is unprepared to linger over meals.

While British service station food has got healthier and tastier over the past 10 years, it remains a curiosity to visiting Europeans. Much more curious, however, is the fact that so many of these service stations have remained in government hands. Tory governments, mustard-keen to sell off the nation's silver - gas, electricity, the railways, coal - have kept service stations under public control.

Until now. This month the Government is putting 30 of them up for sale. It is likely that many will be snapped up by existing franchisers and operators, who have 37 years left on leases granted to them years ago. Yet some will be bought as a long-term investment by companies that believe we will be driving and scoffing furiously along the motorways throughout the 21st century.

Despite Eileen and Dennis Stevens' blind faith in motorway culture, to most people motorway driving is like a trip through purgatory - unutterably dreary with occasional frightening bits - and all we want to do is to reach salvation at the other end. The service station offers a temporary respite, a place for children to let off steam and everyone to buy bags of horrid sweets and go to the lavatory. The Italians and the French at least are able to eat good food in their service stations; the Americans have beautifully landscaped areas where it really is possible to enjoy a picnic. But the British like to get in and out as fast as they can.

Service station architecture in the Sixties was avant-garde, but its glass, plastic and revolving towers failed to stand the test of time. That of the Eighties - in the "cosy" superstore vernacular style with red-brick walls and steep tiled roofs - was banal beyond belief. Service stations built in the next few years could take many forms, but generally we seem to get what we deserve as far as architecture, food and ambience go.

But then some people, Eileen Stevens included, actually like it. "I'm not sure if we'd like to do the French motorways," she says. "We don't like the funny food."

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