HEADING north on the M5 has just become a bit more enjoyable. There is a new motorway services station that promises more than congested fast-food eateries, noisy slot machines, crowded chainstore shops full of grumpy travellers and toilets at least half of which won’t be working on any given day. And that’s without mentioning the litter-strewn car parks and the unsavoury areas where bored children and dogs can stretch their legs.
British motorway services are generally a disgrace, particularly when compared to some of the high quality services provided on European autoroutes and autobahns, where you can routinely find good food as well as safe and attractive picnic areas.
But a visit to the Gloucester Services, newly opened on the northbound carriageway of the M5, is a treat. And when you realise that it is the new sister (or should that be brother?) of the Tebay services on the M6 in Cumbria, it begins to make sense.
For more than 40 years, Tebay has been the preferred stop for millions of travellers on the long road north – and for those returning south. And the steady growing success of the Dunning family’s brave move into serving motorway traffic, back in the early 1970s, led to their new development, serving the even busier motorway that links the West Country and the Midlands.
Tebay, with its farmshops on the north and south-bound lanes of the M6, which were officially opened by Prince Charles in 1972, has until now been the only family-owned service station in the UK. It has a glorious setting on the high Cumbrian hills, and the food in the shops and the restaurants is a welcome reminder of the countryside through which the motorway passes.
Over the years Tebay has grown and includes not only a duck pond and a safe area for dog walks, but a hotel and a truck stop, all operated by the Westmorland Family business, which has now taken a big step – several hundred miles actually – to the south.
Gloucester Services draws on the rich food and farming tradition of the Cotswolds – as Tebay does with the Cumbrian hills. There are no franchise shops – and the buildings are beautiful, architect designed with care for the travellers, the people who work there and for its setting. Even the petrol station is well designed, with a turf roof like the main building, to fit into the landscape not stick out like a garish sore thumb.
There are huge windows and glass doors, ensuring that the whole visitor building is light, airy and welcoming. The cafe is spacious and the food is simple and delicious. The farm shop stocks everything you would expect from a motorway services, with the addition of delicious bread and patisserie from Bath’s famous Bertinet Bakery, pies and delicatessen goods, fresh fruit and vegetables, and a butchery counter selling local meat and sausages. There are 130 products from within 30 miles and a further 70 from the region, including Dorset Blue Vinny and Somerset’s magic triangle of traditional Cheddars – Montgomerys, Keens and Westcombe.
It is a huge investment for the Dunning’s Westmorland Family business and a major boost to the local economy, with the creation of 300 jobs.
But as if this wasn’t enough good news, there is also a partnership with the Gloucestershire Gateway Trust, a charity which supports sustainable regeneration in Gloucestershire, particularly the communities of Matson, White City, Podsmead, Tuffley and Stonehouse. Contributions to the charity from turnover from the new services are estimated at £10 million over 20 years.
There have been people who complain. There always are. That’s life, and it’s the bad comments and the complaints that tend to stick in our memories, rather than the happy faces and the compliments. So there was the man who complained that there were no slot machines; the family unhappy because there wasn’t a McDonalds – and the Victor Meldrew who predicted: “It won’t last.”
But give the last words to the blackboard behind the efficient tills staffed by enthusiastic and friendly staff: “You can’t buy happiness but you can buy local.”
We would happily raise a glass of Cotswold cider to that!