Service stations: retail purgatory


Everyone has to use them – so why are they such unpleasant places to visit?

On a recent vacation to the Lakes (sometimes TBP employees are allowed them), this blogger had an opportunity to soak up the intoxicating atmosphere of a gridlocked M6. Taking a breather from the tarmacadam torture, I was reminded just how awful motorway service stations are here in the UK.


Bill Bailey describes motorway service stations as "cathedrals of despair"


We’ve become accustomed to trudging round these rain-lashed festivals of misery; despairing, tired drivers relieving their bladder and emptying their wallets on extortionately-priced confectionery; a sea of morose faces for whom the holiday is already a distant memory and work on Monday too real a prospect (non-TBP employees of course). I guess it’s a commercial reality that these places need to be stuffed to the gills with shops & food outlets – but that doesn’t go to say that they need to be this soulless.

The problems are multifarious: they all seem the same; they could all be anywhere; they have the same dark, dingy feeling to them; their branding is bland and dated. Perhaps the sullen faces inside them aren’t just because there’s a long journey ahead; perhaps it’s the environment they’re in.

In recent years, places like Westfield have proven that shopping needn’t be the hellish experience it is so often billed as by beleaguered boyfriends. Its vaulted, quiet, day-lit spaces feel modern, spacious and calm – a far cry from your average M1 Moto.


Westfield: not too bad, actually

Even Little Chef – that last roadside bastion of times past – has had an overhaul which suddenly makes it feel relevant. Can service stations learn design lessons from these places to create more characterful, unique, contemporary, enjoyable spaces?

Little Chef: thinking big
Tebay Services

There is hope. Cumbria’s Tebay services feel more like a Buddhist retreat than a service station…



Gloucestershire Gateway by Glenn Howells Architects





… and Glenn Howells Architects’ Gloucestershire Gateway services promises a log cabin feel that sets it apart from its ilk (if it makes it to reality).




Sadly these examples are few and far between. Let’s hope some of the lessons these spaces offer can be learnt – and here’s to roadside retail that refuels the spirit as well as the tank.