Hailing from northern skies but living in the South West means that I know both the M5 and M6 quite well. Being able to predict your ETA based on the landmarks around you is quite handy, and guessing the name of the next service station is a good game to pass the time.
Until recently, that, and the relief of a long-awaited ‘comfort break’ was the only entertainment the service stations offered. Being charged double the normal price for anything edible and having to suffer tea which resembles dishwater is not my idea of fun.
But all this has changed. Now, reaching Gloucester not only signals that I’ve chipped 2 hours off my journey, it also provides the chance for a nosey at interesting local produce and to grab a quality snack.
You can tell that Gloucester Services is not your average as you leave the motorway. It looks more like Teletubby land with lush green grass in bumps on the approach to the building, which is embedded into the hillside. In contradiction to the impression its cosy Hobbit hole-like exterior may give, inside is an impressive light and open plan space not at all like the rabbit warren styles of other service stations.
The further I got into the building, the more breaks in convention there were to be found. Visiting the ladies was not the usual experience of having to hover/hold your nose/get out as quickly as you can, and should I have felt so inclined, I could have refreshed myself with a free shower.
The shop boasted an abundence of interesting food, drink and gift products more akin to a posh Farmers’ Market than a service station. It even had it’s own butchers counter. Yes, you heard me correctly, a quality, locally stocked butchers counter.
In the café area I was able to choose from some delicious local snacks, which weren’t just homemade, many of the options were actually healthy. This is fast food on a quality level, without the need for any guilt. And what was my slow fast food of choice? Freshly baked croissants with a selection of homemade jams, washed down with a quality cup of tea. Unlike in the overpriced coffee chains, it was presented in a proper little tea pot so that I could mash the bag to my heart’s content and add as much milk as I wanted.
So what’s the story behind this refreshing service station idea? Well, it all started 200 miles further north, much closer to home for me in Cumbria. Local farmers the Dennings, in partnership with a local bakers, set up a service station at Tebay when the M6 motorway was built. This family-run motorway service station – the first of its kind in the UK – was a success, largely through its home cooked, locally sourced food and forty years on in 2012, a sister station to Tebay was born at Gloucester. Northerners educating Southerners on how it should be done. Music to my ears.
My journey up-country which saw me first visiting Gloucester Services also took me to the Lake District a few days later, and of course I couldn’t miss the opportunity to visit the Mothership. With views across to the south lakes hills in the background and more immediately a delightful little pond, Tebay offers the same impressive selection of local and artisan ingredients as Gloucester, but with something extra: Northern charm.
This time, after a wander around the shop, perusing the ales, exotic chocolates and another expertly managed butchers counter, I sat down to enjoy a homemade cherry and pumpkin seed flapjack. Very nice indeed.
After a pleasant interlude munching my snack and peering out to the view, I left Tebay Services, and even my exit out of the building was entertaining, with the story and timeline of the business decorating the walls on the route out. They’re obviously proud of their history and I can see why.
I wish there were more services like these and I already couldn’t wait to stop at Gloucester south-bound on my route back down to the South West, where I’ve heard they have a fantastic fishmongers counter. That’ll be my dinner sorted, then.