The absolute no-nonsense top 10 greatest UK motorway service stations
Pockets of joy on the nation's transport arteries
So, the great British public have been surveyed on their favourite service stations and, once again, like every other time they’ve been asked for their opinion on something, they’ve got it wrong.
The top five, out of the UK’s 112 service stations were named as: Reading Services Westbound; Rivington Services Northbound; Corley Services Northbound; Gloucester Services Southbound and Gloucester Services Northbound.
Apparently 8,700 customers were questioned about key factors including staffing, food and toilets but by the looks of that list they mainly just asked people from Gloucester the question, “What is the nearest services to you?”
I’m sorry, but the issue of motorway service stations is simply too important for me to stand by and let this sham of a list become the accepted rankings, because you people - even though you don’t appear to know anything about service stations - deserve better.
So what gives me the authority to rule on this issue? Well, let me explain.
Through the course of my life, I have, for one reason or another, ended up driving a lot. I have been up and down the country, from the very north to the very south, countless times, at all hours of the day and night. This time last year, I passed 100,000 miles in my trusty old Golf just outside Bristol and the excitement was almost too much to bear.
And, while I embrace the loneliness of the long-distance driver - just you, the open road, Magic FM/local radio equivalent and the thoughts inside your head (mainly ‘my god, Lionel Richie’s done some tunes’) - there is something glorious about those oases of humanity that you encounter along the way: the humble service station.
All walks of life are there, you can stretch out those cramped limbs, you can complain about the inflated prices in M&S (or Waitrose if you’re feeling flush) and pay it anyway, you can wonder who on earth buys the wooden ducks and wetsuits, you can have a nice chat with the lad or lady behind the counter during those few seconds when your petrol bill is coming through and you can leave with your grab bag of salt ‘n’ vinegar Squares and Crunchie Rocks (which have set you back the best part of a tenner) or, if it’s ‘proper mealtime’, you can take your pick from the finest fast food establishments that the UK has to offer.
It’s an independent ecosystem all of its own; time stands still as you look out from the bridge bit over the endless flow of traffic below - nothing can touch you here. Unless there’s an oversized vehicle that’s misjudged its height. But still: every service station is beautiful, but which is the most beautiful of all?
Move into the slow lane, indicate left and prepare to pull off into paradise.
10. Killington Lake, M6 Southbound (Roadchef)
I make no apology for my bias towards service stations on the M6, for the M6 is a truly glorious motorway, being a) nowhere near London and b) giving you some glorious vistas as you head between the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales. And so the first in our top list is Killington Lake which features bugger all decent shops (a Maccy D’s begrudgingly opened here in 2014), but what there is is a freshness in the air and the feel of open space. If this was on the northbound side it would be even better, as it would contain the anticipation of being your last stop off before the lakes but, instead, view this as your chance to wave goodbye to nature before re-entering the smog-filled lands of the south. I remember stopping here in a spot of January drizzle after a trip to Carlisle to buy the Football League Paper and a packet of Quavers. I have rarely felt more at peace with the world.
9. Norton Canes services, M6 Toll (Roadchef)
I’m torn on this one because its greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. Being on the M6 Toll, it has a rarefied air about it which can only come from knowing that your fellow service companions are in the class of motorist that can afford that £5.50 to speed at will (nb. for the purposes of any police reading I would never do this myself) on the smooth, smooth privately-financed highways that skip merrily around Birmingham. Consequently, you feel smug; there’s no chaff here, only wheat. But then you realise everyone else is smug too and you feel like perhaps you’re the sellout here - you should be keeping it real with everyone else at Hilton Park on Junction 11. But then you spot the free table service in the restaurant area and the nice Costa and you think: no, sometimes it’s good to be pampered.
8. Fleet, M3 (Welcome Break)
Fleet has always been a trailblazing service station: in 2006 it was one of the first service stations to carry the new corporate identity for Welcome Break and it was also one of the first stations to house, under one roof, the ‘holy trinity’ of Burger King, KFC and McDonald’s. It also shot to fame in March 2016 when its bridge was renamed after Radio 1 DJ Scott Mills before shooting to fame again for an entirely different reason later in the year when a massive fire broke out there. It’s currently still under reconstruction but we confidently predict that it will rise like a phoenix to be even better than before. You can’t keep a good service station down, as the old saying goes.
7. Sedgemoor, M5 Northbound (Welcome Break)
In this list for one reason, and one reason alone, this is the first major services on the way back north from Glastonbury, and was the place where I first managed to taste fresh water and clean some of the mud off my legs after the monsoon year of 2005. Sedgemoor, I told you I’d always be grateful, and I hope this can go some way to paying back the eternal debt of gratitude that I owe you.
6. Cambridge, A14(M11) (Extra)
A true oasis of a service station this one, coming as it does after the boring post-Stansted bit of the M11 and a short way into the when-will-this-nightmare-end dullness of the A14. As with most Extras, it’s a ruddy belter, shopwise, with a KFC, Maccy’s and an M&S. There’s even - prepare yourselves guys - a bloody Patisserie Valerie, in case you fancy some wildly overpriced artisan baguettes. What would this area of the country be without this service station? An absolute barren wasteland, that’s what.
5. Gloucester, M5 (Westmorland)
OK, OK, the appearance of two Gloucester service stations on the survey mentioned in the intro wasn’t just an effort by the Gloucester locals to rig the polls in order to become the big fish of the service station world - they are actually 24-carat bangers. They’re one of the up-and-coming Westmorland service stations, which are the opposite of everything you think you know about service stations: no fast-food chains, eco-style architecture, lots of green space, a farm-style shop and even a gift shop. However, as with Norton Canes, strengths are also weaknesses - what is a service station but a chance to enjoy a guilt-free KFC (’there was no other choice!’) and to marvel at the glorious mundanity of British life? On balance though, and again like Norton Canes, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of the high life now and then. Just don’t indulge too often.
4. Watford Gap, M1 (Roadchef)
And what better demonstration of what a true, workhorse, backbone-of-Britain service station is than Watford Gap. It’s slap bang in the middle of the country (it, of course, practically defines the point where ‘The North’ meets ‘The South’) and was, along with Newport Pagnall, a famous meeting point for football hooligans in the ‘70s. Truth be told, it’s a bit crap isn’t it - its sole ‘big name’ is Maccy’s - but it’s the Watford Gap. You feel like you’re becoming part of history every time you stop off for a quick Twix. Some things are bigger than ‘choice’ and ‘quality’ and the youth of today would do well to learn that, preferably by spending a day out at Watford Gap services.
3. Oxford, M40 (Welcome Break)
An absolute corker of a services, this is immediately in my good books for being on the M40, for my money, pound-for-pound the best motorway in the UK. You’ve got everything here: KFC, Burger King, Subway and - catering for the upper echelons of society as well as your average Joes - a Harry Ramsden and a Waitrose. It also has a lovely fountain area outside, and according to Wikipedia, it is also known as ‘Rippy Fountain’ services, due to the water displays outside the park which are similar to the now defunct Ripsaw ride at Alton Towers - a nickname which I have never once heard anyone use but which I will start using from now on. Always a pleasure to visit Oxford services, always a pleasure. Also small note, once interviewed Paul van Dyk whilst sitting in the car park here. On the phone. Not in person. Although I’m sure he’d have loved to have been there given the chance.
2. Tebay, M6 (Westmorland)
A second appearance for the Westmorland group this is, quite simply, a stunning services. It’s got the range of farm shops, cafes and gift emporiums that Gloucester also enjoys (a mate who visited recently commented that it had a ‘quality sock selection’), whilst this - genuinely - was on sale in the gift shop:
However, what elevates this above the Gloucester ones? Well, it’s nestled between the Lakes and the Dales, so the surrounding scenery is utterly stunning. Well done Tebay, you are - nearly - the best. But then, you never stood a chance against the top dog.
1. Beaconsfield, M40 (Extra)
The king, the lord, the big dog, the greatest. Just take a look at that tower of delights above. Beaconsfield is, if you both pardon and embrace the pun, a beacon of everything that a service station should be. It’s for the everyman, it’s on the M40 (as discussed, the best motorway in Britain), it’s the largest filling station in the UK (36 pumps) and it’s got every type of shop imaginable, including a clearly preposterous but also truly brilliant 24-hour Wetherspoons - still the only service station pub in the country. Stepping into the atrium is to step into service station heaven-on-earth: you can almost hear the angels serenading you from above. You want a 20 box of nuggets at 4am while checking out BBC News 24 on the giant screens above your head? You got it bud. You got everything you want here kid. Do not ever miss a chance to stop off at Beaconsfield - and you can visit the Model Village afterwards (just a 10-minute drive away) too.
(Main image: Rex)