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Opinion: Motorway service stations - is bigger really better?

Autocar logo Autocar 20/01/2018 Matt Prior
Bigger services are swisher but are they really better? © Autocar Bigger services are swisher but are they really better?

Recently, one prompted transport legislation minister John Hayes to say that “motorway services can and should be lovely places for drivers to enjoy – not just places they have to stop”, because, presumably, he couldn’t have just said “meh”.

But is he right? I’m not sure he is. I mean, I can think of ‘lovely places to enjoy’: a Caribbean island, a lover’s arms and/or a spa. But I don’t think a WHSmith’s off the M42 is ever going to be one, no matter how good the deal on travel pillows.

Anyway, that survey concluded, also wrongly, that Reading is the best services to stop at. It isn’t.

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Look, at the risk of sounding a bit Alan Partridge, it’s fine and everything. It has petrol and coffee and tidiness and probably some slot machines (I forget) but there’s a large, cheaper petrol station and shopping centre and café and fast food joint and all of those things (probably not slot machines) off of an adjacent M4 junction.

So just as there is London Colney (J22, M25), which renders South Mimms (A1(M)/M25) largely redundant, Reading ought not to be troubling the top of the list. Because what surveys like this tend to overlook is that there is more to a services than just how ‘satisfying’ the facilities are.

Consider, for example, the routinely less ‘satisfying’ Oxford (M40) services next to its larger, way more accomplished Beaconsfield (M40) rival. Sure, the Shell garage at Beaconsfield is so nice that they even have pot plants in the loo, but because of how long it takes to get from M40 to fuel pump and back again, I’ll take Oxford – shabbier, but perhaps a minute faster either end – every time.

A customer drinks at a M40 Services pub in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire. © Steve Parsons/PA Archive/PA Images A customer drinks at a M40 Services pub in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire.

I get the point of these surveys, of course. Usually, they arrive with a press release of somebody trying to sell you something, but they highlight cleanliness and efficiency and niceness, which is to be commended, and they’re usually reasonably accurate. Quite rightly, Tebay (M6) and Gloucester (M5) services are always highly regarded.

And I won’t deny that I’d score the A1(M) Wetherby services highly because it usually means I’m travelling somewhere interesting. Norton Canes (M6 Toll) services feels like a French one because of an unfathomable exit roundabout set-up, so it feels a bit like you’re on holiday. Surely, that’s got to be worth an uptick in a survey. But these things are best experienced if you have time. What is this mythical thing called spare time?

The Hope and Champion pub at the M40 Services in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire © Steve Parsons/PA Archive/PA Images The Hope and Champion pub at the M40 Services in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire

No, go in, get done, come out. I’ll take somewhere crummy but empty over luxurious but rammed and try to look on the bright side instead. Take Toddington (M1), which usually scores badly because usually it is bad, but exiting southbound, you have to go under a tunnel, which makes it feel like the pits at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. So, y’know, swings and roundabouts.

Ultimately, though, barring one or two spots in beautiful parts of the country, speed beats niceness. ‘Lovely places to enjoy’ are the ones you’re going to, not the ones you stop at on the way. Because the less time you spend going somewhere, the more time you spend in the place you want to be.

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