Hold tight: only 12 miles to Clacket Lane

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The Independent Online
WE WERE heading home on the M25 when the smallest child let out a cry of desperation. No parent dare ignore the imperious demands of a four-year-old's bladder. But as I calculated whether to draw up on the hard shoulder or steam on to the next exit, a mirage flashed past on the roadside. The sign said services four miles.

Like so many seasoned M25, M40 and M11 travellers, I'd been trained to expect, and indeed cope with, motorway deprivation. So it was not until a second sign appeared, reassuring motorists that services now half a mile away were fully operational that, to turn lavatorial, the penny dropped.

So we arrived this Wednesday at Clacket Lane, the new and only service station on the southern stretch of the M25, near Westerham in Kent. It was opened last month, seven years after the motorway itself, to end the notorious loo-less stretch of 184 miles between the Channel ports and Birmingham. It carries, therefore, a weighty responsibility - and not just because a site of scientific interest and a Roman villa have been grubbed up to accommodate it.

It was John Major, no less, who put the extraordinary failure of motorway planners at the top of the political agenda last year when he promised to take the decision of where to place motorway service stations out of the hands of Whitehall. Clacket Lane is a sign of hope.

At first I was thrilled with this new service station. For years I've grown accustomed to the attention-grabbing architecture of the old-style service areas on the M1, M6, M4 and M5, with their Sixties and Seventies swagger. Their very intrusiveness must go a long way to explain why there has been such opposition to new stations.

Clacket Lane is surprisingly reticent: a toned-down Tesco- style bungalow married to a miniature Home Counties shopping mall. To my children's delight a large dinosaur, promoting the local cinema's showing of Jurassic Park, frolicked outside the wide entrance, welcoming children with cuddles. The operator, Road Chef, is clearly trying hard.

But some things never change. The first port of call, the ladies' lavatories, were done out in pink and grey and already tacky. The panel of the first cubicle was torn off. Another three had notices posted on their doors saying 'out of order'. There were torn sheets of toilet tissue strewn over the floor; soap suds clogging hand basins. There was a whiff of something far from roses in the air. At least the seats were in place and not ripped off.

'It's not very clean, is it?' said my 10-year-old, the first to feel the dinosaur magic wearing thin. Next door, the babies' changing room stank. Perhaps its three bins had not been emptied since opening day. It was a small, grey, primitive room, like a linen closet. Why is it that mothers and babies are so often provided with facilities inferior to those for the disabled?

The food at Clacket Lane - not cheap - looked lovely. After settling my children at the Route 25 burger bar, I attempted to buy a Chinese stir- fry, but just at that moment the staff were otherwise engaged. Just as well, since as I turned to check on the children, I saw my four-year-old chasing the dinosaur down the central walkway past the two artificial trees.

The children rounded off their visit by testing the play area. Again, it was all rather British. You couldn't actually get to it because the patch of grass directly in front had been fenced off. So, like many other bored children before them, they walked along a stockade of wooden piles.

It will take years to make Britain's motorway service stations convenient, relaxing and even enjoyable. The Government's desire for a free-for-all, to allow stops to be built every 15 miles, depends both on the planning authorities and complaisant local populations. Yet until many more are built they will remain locked into what I can only describe as the London Underground syndrome: overcrowded and soiled at peak times. Even as the food and ambience improve, simple faults remain. Why don't the operators install on-the-spot attendants to check minute by minute on the lavatories? Simply building them to a higher standard with solid brick walls and tiles rather than rickety cubicles would be a start.

It is strange to ponder how Britain has been enriched by the great coaching inns and public houses of the past, that colourful and idiosyncratic network of support for travellers built in the pre-steam and motor eras. Even now journeys on the old A5 or A30 can be a surprisingly refreshing experience simply because of the variety of pubs, cafes and restaurants available, let alone the lay-bys at scenic spots allowing one to stretch one's legs.

As cars become more comfortable and reliable, people want to stop to relieve not just their bladders but the monotony. But let's not be too ambitious. I'd settle for cleaner and more frequent motorway lavatories for a start.