King of the roadside

Britain's biggest service station, newly opened on the M6 toll road, boasts gourmet food, perfumed loos, and sleek, modernist design. But can Norton Canes restore pride to the much-maligned world of motorway refreshment? Josh Sims pulls over to find out
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The Independent Online

Steering between a strip of bare earth that will one day be a flowerbed and a row of stark saplings that will one day be mighty oaks, you could be forgiven for thinking that the slip road off the M6 into which you have turned has taken you onto yet another impersonal industrial estate. But then it looms up in front of you, with its impressive glass curtain wall, its sculptural covered walkways, its undulating roof and white support struts reminiscent of candles stuck in a giant birthday cake: a gift, just for you, the red-eyed driver.

Steering between a strip of bare earth that will one day be a flowerbed and a row of stark saplings that will one day be mighty oaks, you could be forgiven for thinking that the slip road off the M6 into which you have turned has taken you onto yet another impersonal industrial estate. But then it looms up in front of you, with its impressive glass curtain wall, its sculptural covered walkways, its undulating roof and white support struts reminiscent of candles stuck in a giant birthday cake: a gift, just for you, the red-eyed driver.

This is Norton Canes in Staffordshire, the site of the motorway hospitality of the future. Here are, a sign announces, "services for the discerning traveller". That's you.

Motorway service stations, those purgatorial hinterlands somewhere between here and there, have a disastrous reputation. According to industry research, only five per cent of motorway travellers ever stop at them. The vast majority prefer to hold it in, to pass on the limp sandwiches, weak coffee and the chance to stretch both saddle-sore legs and wallet. These travellers prefer the unbroken ennui of motorway driving: hours of pylons, blank warehouses and, in the distance, English country churches, built at a time when services salved the soul, not the bladder.

Norton Canes is RoadChef's state-of-the-art site. It is part of the motorway services operator's £33m investment into its business over the past two years. The company is currently upgrading 20 or so locations, including knocking a couple down and starting again; built and leased by Midlands Expressway, operators of the M6 Toll, Norton Canes is a 68-acre site, a £13m building, with £2m of services and at least a dozen varieties of Brian Turner gourmet sarnies. And very tasty they are, too - although the pickle (or was that the £4 price?) may stick in your throat.

RoadChef is promising a "new era in services". Whereas "many service stations look as though they're just thrown together," says Tom Fanning, the MD of Midlands Expressway, "we wanted something dramatic, something that looks pristine and is a talking point. I think any future services will have to look to Norton Canes now."

Inside, it is spotlessly clean. (Actually, it's clean everywhere - there is even a man operating a motorised sweeper to tidy up the car park.) One's overriding impression on entering the building is of having walked into a Swedish accountants' canteen: it has a mock industrial style, with factory-pendant lights and blond wood tables, complete with tablecloths and table service, and rip-offs of Arne Jacobsen chairs.

Once inside, you find the first "motorway services hospitality manager", who encourages the hand-picked staff (including a former maître d' of the Café Royal) to refer to visitors, not as "punters" or "customers" but as "guests". There are BT Openzone points for harassed execs to check their e-mails; the first motorway business meeting centre (for companies that are cutting back on the luxury team-building exercises, one presumes); a Costa Coffee - doing good business - and, somewhere out the back, an eco-bin for your glass and paper, should you be able to find it. There is also an alfresco, café-style seating area, with a glorious vista over the freshly swept car park.

The "guests" look as glum as ever, however, each possessed by one of the three mood-modes inspired by motorway services everywhere: either they are spaced out from too much concentrating on keeping their distance, relieved to be given a temporary reprieve from spouse and children, or frustrated that said spouse has disappeared and that hyper children now require paying off with sweets. Yet there is much to be happy about. There are the special lavatories, the "onRoute" cafeteria, the "reStore" shop (or "reMortgage", as it might be more familiarly known), a Wimpy for those who still like their burgers to be British, and the special lavatories. Did I mention those already? RoadChef is very proud of them.

"Motorway services have been held in bad esteem for so long, and standards have in general dropped over the past 20 years to such an extent that, despite a lot of recent improvements by all the operators, image has lagged behind," explains John Greenwood, RoadChef's CEO. "With Norton Canes, we've put in industry-leading standards to rival the high street. We hope it will change public perception and get people using services again. And the loos are the best. Toilets are very important to us."

Indeed, loos are the bedrock of most motorway services: 35 per cent of visitors stop only to use these facilities. If they disappoint, then visitors are disinclined to stay to buy a cup of tea or coffee - or some other drink with diuretic qualities that will ensure they must stop at another service station, 10 junctions up the road. Nearly all visitors spend a penny - it's the best deal you get get in these places, usually. So, not only do Norton Canes' lavatories have dedicated, 18-hour-a-day attendants - who must have been collecting detergent and paper when I visited - but they are designer, too.

With their faux marble counter-tops, eau- de-Nil resin splashbacks and automatic chrome taps (these last leaving you waving your arms about like Tommy Cooper trying to magic up some water), the loos of Norton Canes are, unquestionably, supreme money-spinners. Apparently, a special fragrance - Eau de Bahn, or some such - is pumped into the atmosphere to ensure the usual wafts of stale urine are kept at bay. On the way out, you can press a series of smiley faces on the wall to give your opinion of your experience. I give it a "very good". "Thank you," it says to me. "Your vote is appreciated."

"I have to say I'm impressed," says David Lowry, a casino worker on his way home to Manchester, who is cradling a cigarette from the rain and standing under one of the walkways with the holes in the roof. "It's certainly better than the old Seventies-style services, which are all pretty grim. We've only stopped for a quick five minutes but it's been a pleasant experience. That said, the smoking facilities are not so good."

That's because smoking is a filthy habit, and there's nothing filthy in here. Instead, the services encourage you to take your mind off nicotine with food in the "onRoute" section where, among the slightly jaded cakes, stands an actual chef, in an actual chef's hat, sweating over some genuine wok action. Motorway services have not seen real food like this before. With this hearty travellers' fare on offer, it's RoadChef by name and nature at last. Next door, the Wimpy looks appropriately named, too. By the tables are baby-bottle warmers and microwaves - not, presumably, to be used to reheat the food you've just been served.

The shop, meanwhile, offers the usual essentials found in motorway services: outsize pastel polo shirts, fairground-style cuddly toys, novelty beach towels - for Manchester's famed coastal resort. It is also helpful in directing your spending: "Thirsty!" shouts one sign over the drinks unit; "Hungry!" say the sandwiches; and then, losing the plot a bit, "Bakery!" and the persuasive "Great Choice!", just in case you were thinking twice about the three-CD set of "British Male Vocalists".

Some four million drivers nod off at the wheel every year, but no "Sleepy!" sign proffering fat pillows can be found. No more helpful are the three clocks behind the tills: two inform me that it is 11.25am both in Norton Canes and at Watford Gap. But, it seems, it's only 9am in Clacket Lane - which puts it somewhere in the mid-Atlantic. "It's on the M42," the cheery checkout staff tell me. "Only the battery's gone."

Maybe they should have no clocks here at all, all the better to dissuade people from leaving. After all, this is clearly the Las Vegas of services. Just as that citadel of glitz and pizzazz emerges out of the Nevada desert, so Norton Canes emerges out of the endless miles of grey tarmac. You can even gamble: its "Game On" area includes a bank of slot machines promising a £25 payout. At least that'll cover the cost of your sandwich.

"It is a bit pricey. But with this level of facilities, the menu, the furniture, you don't mind paying that bit extra," says Michael Owers, a professional driver who knows his services. "I have to say that it knocks spots off of most places. It's really clean, whereas many of the services I go to are just filthy. And the loos are great."

"People say it's like an airport departure lounge. All we're missing is the runway," says Norton Canes' site director Jonathan Corps, formerly of the Hilton Park Lane. "We treat our guests as if they're in their own home - but give them a bill - and sales are up 60 per cent on expectations. People have to pinch themselves because most think of services as dirty, expensive places with unfriendly staff - you know, staff who are there because they couldn't get a job anywhere else. They see people cooking food in front of them, see loos that top hotels would be proud of, and I speak from experience. It has a wow factor."

As in, "wow, look at the price of this sandwich!" To be fair, the amenities do justify what are not exorbitant prices, especially if punters - guests, too - are kind enough to consider the huge overheads of running motorway services, especially ones with lavatories like Norton Canes. And besides, there are some great offers on here. Adverts on each table draw your attention to the cut-price picnic hamper now available, or the tenner off a "flying UFO", an offer which could put motorway services nationwide out of business if taken up in large numbers. Greenwood has even thrown down the disposable glove: "If anyone has a stir-fry here, and can say they've had a better one anywhere for £6.99, well, I'd call them a liar."

So, have I seen the future? And can I now get a drinkable latte? I believe so. Figures have yet to be collated, but RoadChef estimates an unusually high number of cars stopping off here, and it is already having to recruit many more staff. This is good news for business: "The bottom line is that because the cost base of operating services is just massive, and because not many people stop at services, operators don't make much money," says Greenwood. "But if we could get just one per cent more of travellers to stop, the industry could double its profits."

The new toll road's free-flowing traffic - 37,500 cars a day - will help: counterintuitively, perhaps, the more time that travellers save by taking a quicker route, or by a lack of congestion, the more likely they are to stop at services. So it seems it really is the journey and not the destination that counts. But these are services worth stopping for. Would you believe staff have already identified some 20 regulars, travelling businessmen, presumably with not much business on right now, who make a point of visiting at Norton Canes all the time? They must like the special loos.

GIVE US A BREAK

* With 83 service stations across Britain, you can fill your tank with petrol - or your stomach with over-priced food - every 30 miles or so.

* More than 65 million people use motorway stops annually; nearly half do so just for the free "facilities".

* By law, service stations must offer free loos and parking 24-hours a day.

* Britain's first service area opened on the M1 at Newport Pagnell in 1960. One of the first meals sold was minced beef cutlets and chips.

* During the Sixties, the Blue Boar on the M1 was a popular stop-off for touring musicians. Jimi Hendrix apparently heard the name so often, he thought it was a new nightclub.

* More than half of Britain's motorway service stations are owned by foreign investors.

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