ALTERNATIVES TO SERVICE STATIONS IN THE UK

There are times when public transport just doesn't get you to where you need to go, and travelling by car is the only option. A long journey on Britain's roads can often condemn you to stopping off at service stations for petrol, refreshments and rest, but they are expensive and soulless places with limited choices. There are however attractive and affordable alternatives if you just know where to look.

A road sign next to a motorway
(Image from Google Streetview)

British service stations have always been something of a national joke.


They announce their arrival on a motorway with a countdown of road signs plastered with recognisable logos - the golden arches of MacDonald's, the red beans of Costa Coffee or the green mermaid of Starbucks - brightly coloured trademarks designed to offset the dreariness of the grey concrete motorway and entice you in to have a break and buy some convenient, processed food.

A sprawl of ugly buildings and signs
Thurrock - voted the ugliest service station in the UK

When you get there you find a giant car park and a vast flat, ugly building, often filled with noisy arcade machines, small supermarket concessions selling horribly overpriced food and an endless choice of eateries which promise to serve you quickly and get you back on the road as soon as you can.


The overpowering smell of frying food, the impersonal service and the wretched facilities all contrive to make the whole experience an unpleasant one.


And if you want to stretch your legs a bit - forget it. You may be lucky to find some scrubland to walk on, but the thousands of dog poos and noise from the motorway means you dash back to your car as quickly as you can, just to get away from the place and onto your destination.


Imagine the alternatives.


Leaving earlier than you need to gives you the time to not just pull off at a service station but to leave the road by one of the exits and in less than a 10 minute drive you can often find yourself in unspoilt countryside where there is no traffic noise, you can stretch your legs in woods, fields or on a river bank; you can stop to eat in a locally owned café or pub where the staff are happy to see you; you can even pay a normal, un-inflated price for your petrol.

The Black Dog at Chilmark is just off the A303

Best of all, you can give your money to local people, not the multinational corporations, who really don't deserve it.


In the UK, most service stations are owned by just three companies - Moto (owned by private equity firm CVC with $117 billion of assets), Welcome Break (owned by Applegreen who have an annual revenue of over £3 billion) and Roadchef (revenue of nearly £200million p.a.).


Do you really want to give your hard-earned cash to them?


There are some really good alternatives out there, and all it takes is a look at the map before you set off, and leaving a bit earlier than you would normally. Just work out where you are likely to want to stop, and find somewhere in the vicinity that will provide you with a walk/food/petrol.


There are four good types of places to look for -

  1. Country Pubs

  2. Farm Shops

  3. National Trust properties

  4. Garden Centres

The UK countryside has thousands of country pubs which are just off the main roads - their traditional clientele gone with the creation of the roads which keep their potential customers speeding past them towards a service station full of junk food. The pubs usually do excellent food, have friendly service and you will always be able to find a nice place to walk in the area.

L: National Trust-owned Nuffield Place, just off the A4130

M: Edington Farm Shop, 5 mins off the A350

R: New Forest Lavender Gardens and Tea Rooms, an 8 min drive from the M27


Farm shops will often provide plenty of healthy, local food to chose from as well as places to walk and many of them have cafes on site. Garden Centres these days nearly always have a restaurant or a café, and give you a good walk outside.


National Trust properties are great for members who will not have to pay to get in. There is always a café for something to eat and beautiful grounds to walk in. If you have the time you can visit the house too and really make an outing of it - there is no better antidote to the speed, noise and stress of the motorways.


You may then have to drive a little further on to get petrol, but at least you won't have to pay the hugely exaggerated prices you find at the service station pumps, where they know they have a captive audience.


If you don't want to do your own research about places to stop off, there are now resources out there to help you:


Just Off Junction is a website where you can search by the roads you are driving on and find food, hotels, petrol stations and kids play areas - even pharmacies, supermarkets and car repair garages - all within a 5 minute drive of the junction. The site is free to use and companies do not have to pay to be listed on it, so you know you are getting all of the options available.


The Extra Mile is a similar website which aims to "steer you away from mediocre, expensive motorway service stations and into the arms of the UK’s best farm shops, independent cafes, and cosy pubs, all within striking distance of a junction". They have a huge range of ideas of places to stop off at - from a Mongolian Yurt serving vegan food just off the M40 to a honey farm just off the A1 - there is something for everyone.


Fabulous Farm Shops gives you the low down on farm shops across the country.


The Good Pub Guide: you can search for pubs by location, read reviews and find out what facilities they have to offer.


Petrol Prices.com: This site and free app helps you to find the cheapest petrol near any location in the UK


So - I urge you to drive away from those awful service stations and vote with your wheels for the independent, local, sustainable and unique option.