The Motorways

In 1959, the first inter-urban motorway was completed. This early iteration of the M1 stretched from Watford to Rugby, providing a gateway for faster travel to the Midlands before eventually being extended into the north of England.


Conservative politician John Walter Edward Douglas-Scott-Montagu, otherwise known as Lord Montagu, had lobbied for a road that would connect London to Birmingham in 1923, but the arrival of the Second World War halted progress. It was a further 26 years until the Special Roads Act of 1949 was passed. This parliamentary act authorised the building of roads that were restricted to specific types of vehicles and paved the way for the early motorways.

The Preston Bypass, a section of the modern-day M6, was opened in 1958, becoming the first motorway in the United Kingdom. Designed and paved by the Lancashire County Council, their planning of the road began in 1937 despite there being no legislation to allow its construction. It was through necessity that plans were drawn up, as the A6 through Preston consistently failed to handle the volume of traffic that sought to use the road. This was particularly evident during special occasions such as the nearby Blackpool Illuminations when tailbacks and congestion would disrupt regular traffic. James Drake, a surveyor from Lancashire County Council, was instrumental to the planning process and encouraged a visit to Germany, as he sought to emulate the success of their road infrastructure.

Upon completion and with over £3 million spent, prime minister Harold Macmillan opened the road on December 8th 1958. Not without faults, the road deteriorated rapidly within its first year of use due to the effect of freeze-thaw. During the building of the road surface, there had been a failure to understand the possible damage caused by lingering surface water in cold conditions. Freeze-thaw caused cracks; potholes emerged within the first 46 days of use. The first stretches of the motorway lacked street lighting, crash barriers and speed limits, though halved the time it would have taken to drive from London to Leeds in 1945. 

The Preston Bypass, followed by the completion of the M1, were important milestones in the democratisation of Britain. They signified the beginning of a new way of being for British people, allowing personal travel to new towns and cities. Those with a car were now gifted with the freedom to travel where the railways did not venture. However, the car economy and subsequent growth in road traffic had not been sufficiently accommodated. In 1963, ‘Traffic in Towns’ was published by the Department of Transport, advocating for the construction and reorganisation of towns and cities to accommodate for the needs of the motor car and lorry, much of the report has become the burden of green planning policy today. 

Despite concerns about road traffic, the mid-1960s welcomed the expansion of the motorway network. The M1 began its development in the north of England. Passing through Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, before culminating in Yorkshire, the extension opened up a greater portion of the country to new, quicker travel. A desire to extend the motorway network bolstered the understanding of the dangers of high-speed car travel. The UK Minister for Transport Industries, John Peyton, announced that sections of the motorway that were prone to fog would be lit with street lights, in works that were to be hastily completed by 1972.

By 1972, the first thousand miles of the motorway had been built. In the preceding decade, a unique culture of road use had formed. They had become the favoured means of transport for most people, leading to swathes of the railway network being closed and urban tram systems being resigned to extinction. Similarly, the network of motorways began to erode ‘local distinctiveness of foods, dialects, architecture and culture’ by centralising broadcasting, brands and government. Harlow, a ‘new town’ of the 1950s that is conveniently located for commuters into London, has also benefited from its proximity to the nearby M11. Similarly, Crawley and Milton Keynes have attracted residents because of accessibility to the M23 and M1 respectively.

Since the first motorway opening in 1959, there have been over 320 openings of motorways or sections of motorways across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. During these passing decades, the motorway network has underpinned the economy of Britain, helping to deliver goods and services to the farthest corners of the country. Along these roads, where haste is essential, service stations have provided motorists with respite. Though often dilapidated and bearing weary facades, the service station is a mirror of many towns and cities.

Alongside the excitement for the new road network, hauliers expressed concerns that they would not have adequate areas for them to take breaks. A ban on private properties adjoining the motorway would lead the drivers to continue using the congested A5. Possible sites for service stations were identified, including the famous premises of Toddington, Newport Pagnell and Watford Gap, where the first service station was built in 1959. In these formative years, it was unclear how the motorway services area could best provide for hauliers and other weary motorists. Uncertain was how ‘businesses would feel about setting up on this unprecedented design of road’. The Ministry of Transport distributed a questionnaire to over 300 businesses, including catering companies and motoring firms, asking for them to state their preference of service station site, and asking for an explanation of their proposed facility to award a contract to the finest proposal.

The carriageway of M1 found at Watford Gap is geographically significant; an interim space for motorists where the south-east and Midlands meet. The initial contract was acquired by a company called Blue Boar, whose vision for the services was never as glamorous as initially promised. Yet Watford Gap would become a culturally significant landmark, a microcosm of British society, ‘showcasing a newly democratised and modernised British society where people driving Ford Cortina’s and Vauxhall Vivas could rub shoulders with the great, good and the famous’. Leicester Forest East, located approximately 30 miles north of Watford Gap, epitomised the grand ideas that planners had for motorway services. Run by the Ross Group of Grimsby, fresh fish was delivered to the Terence Conran designed restaurant each day. Waitresses in airline style uniforms would greet motorists. Far from the meal deals of today, travellers could expect table service to rival fine dining restaurants in London. Vastly different to the elaborate dining halls of the 1970s, Leicester Forest East’s modernist interior now houses fast food outlets and convenience retailers. The facade of the building, much of which stretches wearily across the many lanes of the expanded M1, is unchanged.

The Pennine Tower viewing platforms

Lancaster Services, once called Forton Services, is perhaps the most famous service station in England. The Pennine Tower viewing platforms design resembles an air traffic control tower, evoking the exclusivity of airliner travel, with the room atop the tower offering carvery meals. Built to provide extensive views of Lancashire and nearby Morecambe Bay, the tower was closed to the public in 1989 because of updated fire regulations. The lack of alternative exit meant that it could only be used for storage and staff training; despite little use, the tower was granted Grade II listed status in 2012, preserving the landmark for future generations. The iconic structure, once deemed to be a ‘luxury observation platform’, looms above a service station that has become reminiscent of many British high streets; tired and worn. 

Although the motorways and their adjoining service stations were primarily used by motorists, the formation of this travel network allowed pedestrians to explore with greater freedom. Long lines of hitchers would appear at hotspots such as Watford Gap, a gateway to the north of England for those without the use of personal transport. Simon Calder, a travel journalist, published the ‘Hitch-hikers Manual: Britain in 1979; the book provides a glimpse of a subculture that has since become extinct. A cultural shift took place at the end of the 1970s as Margaret Thatcher came to power. Some speculate that the society of ‘us’ and ‘them’ contributed to people not wanting to help others; Thatcher’s car economy increased the feasibility of car ownership for students and young people and the number of hitchers dwindled. Additionally, railcards were introduced, coach services were made more affordable and backpackers were travelling further afield. 

The shift in usage of motorways and service stations saw the slow degradation of the latter, a process that can be seen today. More cars than ever before make use of the motorway network, but service stations have often found themselves redundant due to improvements in car engineering. Motorists are no longer required to stop for periods to allow their overheating engine to cool. The popularity of fast food outlets within service stations is partly because of the brief stops that motorists now make on their travels. 

When the M25 opened to motorists in 1986, service stations welcomed a new demographic through their doors. The opening of the orbital motorway allowed teenagers and young people from London and the home counties to travel with greater freedom. The counties of Berkshire, Hertfordshire and Essex became important spaces for free parties; rural England was instrumental in acid house culture. Ravers, a generation of young motorists, would congregate at motorway service stations awaiting the announcement of a location for their illegal gathering. With the government and police force keen to prevent these events, organisers used the motorway as their means to evade capture and regroup. The motorway service station was a meeting place for pre and post-party gatherings; young revellers were eventually drawn to organised city venues upon Thatcher’s implementation of policy that clamped down on revellers.

The motorway today is seen as an in-between space, an interim landscape between the start and culmination of a journey. The places and scenes that are passed whilst driving on these roads are often overlooked, with travellers having little time to absorb the landscapes through which they are passing. Less care is needed in the planning of a journey that utilises the motorway network. Gone is our sense of place, where once the motorway network provided vibrancy and the opportunity for people to explore. Its importance as a connective network for goods and commuters has exceeded the early predictions of planners, making much of the network unusable at certain times; our ‘hyper-mobile society becomes hyper congested’. The motorway and its environs of today have lost their identity; where once the service stations were unique, offering elaborate dinners and the chance of a celebrity encounter, they now offer the same retail and catering options at different premises across the country. Though they have always been transient spaces, motorway service stations have an important role in the social history of Britain; as our patterns of consumption change and the shift to electric vehicles becomes widely adopted, our service stations will be revolutionised. 


With thanks to Motorway Services Online, a digital guide to service stations.

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