Last Summer’s opening of the new Gloucester Services on the northbound M5 between junctions 12 and 11A brought a unique concept to west country motorways.
The operation is a relative of the only family-owned facility of its kind in Britain – opened in 1972 by local farmers John and Barbara Dunning, as Tebay services on the M6 in Cumbria. Now, over forty years on, the same family has masterminded the new Gloucester operation, although this time local charities are also deeply involved.
This service area dares to be very different. Familiar franchises are absent; careful design has ensured the grass-roofed main building is sleekly unobtrusive, and there’s a wide range of eat-in or takeaway food and drink on offer – sourced from local and regional producers. The intention is to maximise local employment opportunities, and bring benefits to nearby communities through those charitable connections.
Not everyone welcomed the new venture: there was notable local opposition, the Highways Agency had early concerns – and planning permission, granted in August 2011, was challenged in the High Court by operators of existing services both north and south. The challenge was dismissed early in 2012; the northbound facility opened in May 2014, and southbound services should follow in June 2015.
Rather remarkably, this is the first new service area to be built on the M5 between Birmingham and Bristol since the motorway opened – though that wasn’t quite the intention of the original 1960’s road planners. Then, anticipated traffic growth led to the original motorway network being designed with an eye to providing more service areas than were initially completed.
Like others of its time, the M5 south of junction 8 for Strensham services and the M50 was planned with service areas every 10 to 15 miles. From here its a 55 mile haul to Gordano services at Junction 19, with the major M4 interchange along the way – but when this M5 section opened, only Michael Wood’s facilities offered any relief in that entire distance. These services are strategically placed for traffic northbound from Bristol and M4, about 15 miles north of Gordano – itself strategically located for southbound M5 traffic. But… Michael Wood is 33 miles south of J8/Strensham, and in that distance two more service areas were anticipated.
Today’s Gloucester services was never one of them: this location first emerged in the 1990’s, when a Roadchef application was refused. Lying north of Junction 12, this area probably didn’t appeal to 1960’s planners because of anticipated traffic entering and leaving southern Gloucester at what was a limited access intersection – not helpful for services placed north of it. Today’s busy Junction 11a might have strengthened the case, but wasn’t foreseen in the original M5 scheme.
Thus the planners chose a site at Moreton Valence for a future motorway service area – about 14 miles north of Michael Wood. Its just south of Junction 12, adjacent to a section of the M5 with a special place in the region’s history.
This was once home to an RAF station which hosted some of Britain’s earliest jet powered military aircraft – and a mile of motorway here is built on the main runway foundations. Drawings were duly worked up, and fields either side of the planned carriageway at the extreme southern end of the old runway were earmarked. Motorway construction hereabouts included service area emergency access roads – and four slip road ‘stubs,’ leaving and rejoining the motorway carriageway in both directions.
This motorway section opened in December 1971, after which… nothing. Traffic grew, but political zeal for road transport spending simultaneously fell – and existing service areas were proving more of a financial millstone than milch cow for their operators. Moreton Valence services were never built, but that preliminary work remains – silent witness to very different times gone by. Today’s M5 users pass clearly visible slip road stubs – nowadays often known as “ghost” slips – a mile or so north of Junction 13. The especially enthusiastic – or sad, depending on your viewpoint – can also indicate decaying remnants of never-used emergency site access roads.
The final link in this tale of pathos and intrigue lies 15 miles north of Moreton Valence, where the 60’s grand plan anticipated yet another service area. This was to be Staverton services, located about as far north of Gloucester as Moreton Valence was to the south – and just 12 miles from Strensham services at Junction 8.
Little survives concerning planners’ intentions here, and it seems no land preparation or local infrastructure was completed, but between Junctions 10 and 11, Staverton’s ghost slips still stand ready, awaiting those cars that will never come.
The M5 is in good company: around Britain: there are plenty more locations where service areas were planned but never built. Our region hides at least three more sites on the M5, and four on the M4. The ethereal Pucklechurch Services, between J18 and J19 on M4, probably has the highest profile, drafted in original plans, ghost slips laid down – and almost resurrected in the 1990’s. Its location also once achieved notoriety for a possible M4 intersection with the now long dead Bristol motorway ring road project.
And talking of long dead motorway projects, buried deep on the edge Western Group region lies the metaphoric skeleton of a missed opportunity on a very grand scale…Definitely a story worth digging up and revisiting – some other time.
The family run operating company behind Gloucester and Tebay Services
Listings and available information on many known but unbuilt service areas
Information on unbuilt Pucklechurch services on M4 near Bristol
Sabre Roads have a list with available information on 58 known but unbuilt service areas around Britain. Some info is very sketchy.
This map shows Moreton Valence services site with the “dead end” emergency access roads as built visible in situ on both sides of the motorway, starting near the overbridge and then running alongside.
A site with a range of historical info on motorway service areas. The timeline page lists opening dates where known, and shows the order service areas commenced operations.
This is a semi-official site with a detailed collection of information relating to the development of the UK motorway network. Describes itself as the online encyclopaedia of UK motorway heritage.
Food on the Move: the Extraordinary World of the Motorway Service Area.
David Lawrence and others. Paperback: 192 pages, Publisher: Between Books; 1st edition (11 Sep 2010) ISBN-10: 0953698017 ISBN-13: 978-0953698011
Dave Moss has a lifetime connection with the world of motoring. His father was a time-served skilled engineer from an age when car repairs really meant repairs: he ran his own garage from the 1930’s to the 60’s, while Mum was the boss’s secretary at a big Austin distributor. Both worked their entire lives in the motor trade, so if motor oil’s not in Dave’s blood, its surely a very close thing.
Though qualified in Electronics, for Dave it seemed a natural step into restoring a succession of classic cars, culminating in a variety of Minis. Writing and broadcasting about these, and a widening range of motoring matters ancient and modern, gathered pace in the 1970’s and has taken over since. Topics nowadays range across the modern motoring mainstream to the offbeat and more arcane aspects of motoring history, and outlets embrace books, websites national and international magazines, newspapers, radio programmes, phone-ins and guest appearances. Spare time: hard graft on the garage floor attending to vehicles old and new. Latest projects: that 1968 Mini Cooper S has finally moved again after 30 years, and when the paint is finished, the 1960 Morris Mini 850 will also soon be ready for the road again…