The motorway shop where you want to stop

MOTORWAY driving is not a pleasure. Motorway services are at best a necessary evil. But there is an exception – indeed there are two. And it is no coincidence that they are independent, owned by the same family, and not part of some global corporation.

For many years, motorway driving on the M6 north of Preston has been a joy, not only for the relatively open roads and the vast landscapes of Morecambe Bay, the Lake District and the Pennines, but also for the anticipation of a motorway stop in lovely surroundings with good food, dog walks and a shop stocked with local produce.

Tebay in Westmorland was started by the Dunning family in 1972 when the motorway was extended across their land. It has always been a celebration of the food and crafts and traditions of the Lake District, a (real) “welcome break” in the long trek to and from Scotland.

When it was announced that the Dunnings were to open a new pair of services stations, 40 years later and nearly 200 miles further south, on the M5 in Gloucestershire, there was some scepticism. Would the rushing hordes on this constantly buzzing motorway want the slightly more leisurely style of Tebay rather than the pack-em-in-pack-em-out pace of the conventional Moto, Roadchef or Welcome Break?

Those of us who know and love Tebay were delighted. The existing M5 services range from depressing to utterly awful. They are useful if you need a loo or to fill the car, and if you want a quick sugar or salt blast from one or other of the fast food and coffee franchises. But they are also noisy, full of people who seem to be at war with the world or at least with their fellow travellers, and littered with half-eaten pasties, sandwiches and drinks containers. You generally leave with the uncomfortable sensation that you have been ripped off.

The Dunnings have “a fierce passion for, and a pride in, our landscape, our people, our environment and its products” and they have carried that passion south, demonstrating that innovation and tradition can go hand-in-hand in building a successful independent business even in the unlikely location beside a motorway.

Part of the success of the northbound Gloucester Services was that, from the start, it displayed that same sense of being rooted in its place as its older sister in the north. Most of the food on sale in the farm shop or the cafe is grown, reared or produced within a few miles of the services, exemplifying the motto “You can’t buy happy, but you can buy local.”

We have just been to Shropshire for a few wet but blissfully wifi-free days after the hectic two weeks of the Screen Bites Food Film Festival. Part of the route planning included not only a stop on the way north, before turning off the motorway at Tewkesbury, but our first opportunity to visit the new south-bound Gloucester Services.

We mentioned the trip to friends who share our interest in the provenance of our food and supporting independent retailers and local producers. Who knew that a farm shop on a motorway could become a destination to be desired rather than a refuelling stop to be dreaded?

Gloucester South is as attractive as its northbound counterpart. On the day we visited, the weather was awful, heavy rain and horrible driving conditions, but there was a warm welcome from the helpful staff in the farm shop, restaurant and service areas. The loos are spacious, clean, comfortable and eco-friendly. The cafe is light and airy. The shop is stocked with excellent fruit and veg, dairy and other produce, first-class meat from local farms, bread from local bakers including Bath’s famous Bertinet Bakery, wine, beer, artisan pies and cakes and a selection of books, magazines, clothes and gifts.

Now that long trek up to Birmingham holds out the prospect of an enjoyable break, just as Tebay has for four decades promised fresh air, good food and a chance to recharge your batteries on the high road to the Scottish border.

Whether you are stopping for petrol and a comfort break or taking time out for a meal or to restock the fridge and larder at home, the farm shops on the M5 take some of the pain out of the journey. And that is probably good news for all motorway users, because if you are rested and refreshed, you will be driving with more attention. So it’s a win-win for everyone.

Fanny Charles