M40 joins network of motorway services: Motorists seeking a break from the sights and sounds of a busy highway can stop at a calming, green oasis. David Nicholson-Lord reports

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The Independent Online
The biggest gap in Britain's network of motorway service stations is closed today, ending eight years of argument among planners and landscape designers and three years of frustration for motorists.

Granada's pounds 20m Cherwell Valley services, at junction 10 near Banbury on the M40, marks the final break with the pioneering days of motorway services - it aims to help people forget all about driving. Thanks to deregulation, it may also be one of the last of its kind.

When the first generation of motorway service stations appeared in the 1960s - the first 'cafeteria' on the M1 opened on 15 August, 1960, at Newport Pagnell - many were built over motorways so that people could marvel at the traffic. At Cherwell Valley, by contrast, 'you can't see the motorway and you can't hear the motorway', a Granada spokesman said.

To satisfy the planners, and to create the illusion of a world apart, Granada claims to have achieved ecological standards 'others will struggle to equal'. It has planted 120,000 trees, built four ponds, reclaimed a stream, created areas of meadowland and introduced management schemes for three woods, one of them mentioned in the Domesday Book.

Small man-made hillocks surround the 56-acre site, making the buildings almost invisible to nearby villagers at Stoke Lyne and Ardley. Motorists, meanwhile, are 'shielded from the sights and sounds of the M40'.

The 1960s enthusiasm for motorways has largely vanished. According to a poll commissioned by Granada and published today, 61 per cent of people do not enjoy motorway driving - the figure rises to 64 per cent amongst women and 73 per cent among people aged between 25 and 34.

One in three motorway drivers are also driving too long without a break, putting them at risk of 'nodding off' at the wheel, according to the poll. Police recommend a break every two hours, but nearly one in 10 drive for up to four hours without stopping.

The 120-mile M40 from London to Birmingham, completed three years ago, was the longest stretch of motorway in Britain without services. Over the last three-years the number of fatigue- related accidents on it has risen from 11 to 22 per cent - compared with 14 per cent on the M4.

Since 1992, when John Major joked to the Conservative Party conference about the problems of children on motorways without lavatories, the building of service areas has been deregulated. The M40 services were built under the old rules, under which the Department of Transport identified sites at 30-mile intervals and sought planning permission. Because services were large and intrusive, they usually ran into delays: the Cherwell Valley site was first identified in 1986.

Under the new rules, services should be smaller and more frequent - the department has suggested 15-mile intervals - and developers can suggest sites. There are 31 schemes already in the pipeline.

Bert Morris, public policy manager of the AA, said: 'The old system patently didn't work. The cost was enormous, the services were very intrusive and planning permission was difficult to get. We are looking for small-scale services now - maybe just a filling station with a bit of parking and a vending machine.'

(Photograph omitted)