The Unlikely Romance of Service Stations

This week I moved my bubble south of the border. This was a controversial decision, but I decided with the prospect of a shortened summer holiday in Scotland and a break in the lockdown restrictions it was now or never, and the time had come to pack up the car and head for some TLC and sea air with my parents.

This meant a long car journey and I was worried about both the practicalities and legalities (mostly about satisfying the demands of the viscious circle caused by my weak bladder and lockdown caffeine addiction rather than being arrested at the border). Now, I consider myself to be something of a service station connoisseur, although I admit it is not much of an expertise to boast about. However, I have spent most of my life travelling up and down the country for one reason or another and have a list of favourites across the length and breadth of the motorway system that I like to visit and will gladly drive for an extra half hour with the frisson of fear that I might wet myself, if it means I can get to my stop of preference.

Many of the service stations that I pass on the way have little stories attached to them that remind me of different stages and pivotal moments in my life. They have become a kind of nostalgic roadmap that will be forever linked to particular moments of time that I like to muse on as I hurtle past each one:

A romantic rendezvous with a boyfriend who had driven from Glasgow to meet me as a surprise on my journey home from university for the weekend.

A coffee on a wet evening at Scotch Corner with the man who would one day become my husband to discuss whether we were going to be more than friends on our way back to Leeds after a night out and game of Scrabble that went too far.

An exhausted KFC at Gretna Green on my way home from a long day at work in Newcastle, wishing I could give it all up and be with my baby.

Lustful snogging in Lake District car parks in the throes of young love.

Weeping in toilets on my way home from another heartbreak.

Working out how to achieve the impossible task of changing and feeding a screaming baby, getting a coffee, walking the dog and going for a pee yourself whilst driving solo for 6 hours to a soundtrack of Disney movies, nursery rhymes and wailing.

Now the journeys are easier, and much less emotionally charged. The dog and the child know the score and travel well, happy to sit quietly until we get to the next snack stop. We are like a well oiled machine. We know what time to leave so that we can listen to Popmaster before stopping for a coffee, we know the bits of the journey where the radio signal drops out and have our playlist primed to takeover, we know the precise number of movies to download, and we know exactly where to stop and what we’re going to eat when we got there. It’s all part of the fun.

I remember one Christmas I had been given a book of ‘Boring Postcards’ which featured images of caravan parks and 60s town planning monstrosities as well as many images of some of the great service stations of the period. The tower at Lancaster (pictured above) is still a sight to behold. I took it to show my grandparents thinking they would find it as funny as I did, but instead they sat and reminisced about each Little Chef they had eaten at together. It made me chuckle at the time, but now I see that those are the small stories that make up a life and they are to be treasured. It was one of the last times I saw my grandfather, who was struggling with Alzheimer’s, be able to access those well loved tales, and after a lifetime travelling the UK in his Volvo fixing radars on lifeboats for the RNLI or exploring the country in his caravanette with his family, he knew more than anyone that the best parts of life are often to be found in the journey rather than the destination. So here’s to the service stations and all they represent. My days of romance may be behind me, but I will continue to enjoy the memories they conjure up each time I sink my teeth into another pork pie or queue for my coffee.

In case you were wondering, the Westmorland services at Tebay and Gloucester are the best. Miss them at your peril.

Loaded up and ready for our Lockdown bubble break out.

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