Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

A mini-break on the M1?

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The Guardian

In these straitened times, there can be few better ways to holiday than touring the motorway

On the contrary I can think of many better ways to holiday. I rather think that this is not meant to be serious. Or maybe not

Now the School of Life, a new cultural enterprise offering “ideas to live by” is challenging these assumptions about where we should spend our vacations. This weekend it is organising a mini-break on the M1, to “unearth the story of the motorway’s construction, reveal the poetry of its monumental architecture, dine in its historic service stations and recover the utopian thrill of its early days”. The sightseers will meet historians, architects and one of the original serving staff at Leicester Forest East. A holiday at Heathrow is also in the offing.

Curiously, the “Comment is Free” page did not include a link but as usual, Google is my friend, so I added it. And it looks like this really is on offer. I would caution against it. The British Motorway service area was designed to avoid the need to do what you have to do on most North American freeways – get off the freeway to look for gas and food. They are much more elaborate than “rest stops” but wholly commercial. No picnic areas or dog walking – and not much reference to the local surroundings either. No one would think of them as “destinations” – they are merely places to refuel your vehicle and yourself. They have been improved a bit over the years – mainly because the habit of taking foreign holidays has raised expectations. Catering in Britain has been transformed, and some of the worst providers like Little Chef have simply gone out of business. Thank goodness.

Service areas have also spread to major intersections of non-motorway routes, and begin to look very like food courts in North American malls – and often with the same outlets. They have absolutely no sense of place,as they are are designed to be modern, corporate and branded. So it does not matter where you are – you can buy exactly the same things in exactly the same environment.

In one of the odder moments of my early career, I was asked to do a survey of transport caffs. No seriously, I mean it. The new A12 (not a motorway – they have M numbers) was built as a series of by passes, taking through traffic out of towns and villages and through quite good agricultural land. This had two related impacts. Lorry (truck) drivers had nowhere to stop for a meal and small places lost business. No-one could get planning permission for a service area then because of the regulations against “ribbon development” along major roads. We produced a map with indications of where services could be found that was distributed by the Road Haulage Association to its members, and I became a connoisseur of sausage, eggs, chips and beans.

At one time it was possible in North America to follow the signs at the freeway exit and find somewhere that is distinct and local. There are still a few places like that. Grandma’s – just off I5 in Yreka is one such.

Food next right

Food next right

But mostly the strip just off the freeway is now almost the same mix of gas stations, big box stores and fast food wherever you are. In Britain that is not the case. Towns and villages are still real places – though many have lost their services as pubs and post offices across the land have fallen to breathalysers and rationalisation. And it is worth getting off the motorway and seeking them out. Indeed as a tourist I urge you to do so, to support the sort of independent operations that will never get a franchise on a motorway.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 24, 2008 at 6:10 pm

One Response

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  1. Interesting link, reminds me of a Cable 4 community access show a few years back of a couple of intrepid explorers that set out to transverse the length of the King Geooge Highway, tounges firmly in cheek of course. Such “service plazas” exist on the US “turnpike” interstates in the east, and they certainly dissuade you from leaving to venture into town… At least in the west there’s plenty of choices off the interstate, I was going to recommend the Bozeman Trail Steak House in Bufallo Wy as a good place I’ve stopped at many times in the past, though a quick search reveals that it has “gone downhill”… of course a road trip to the “real” America means getting of the freeways and onto the “blue” highways, google maps used to have an “avoid highways” feature, but it seems to have been replaced by “walking distance”… only 26 days 9 hours to Kansas City!

    David Banks

    October 25, 2008 at 12:31 am

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