The M1 services at Watford Gap, once frequented by the Stones and Beatles, are scheduled for demolition.

Watford Gap, Britain’s oldest motorway service station, has long been known as a less-than-welcoming spot for drivers. However, it was a popular late-night stop for famous musicians like the Beatles and Rolling Stones during the 1960s. Now, plans are in place to demolish the station and update it for the modern age of electric vehicles.

Situated at the historic entrance to the northern region – or for those traveling from the Midlands and northwest by transitioning from the M6 to the M1, a foreboding glimpse of the southeastern area – these facilities hold a special position in the nation’s cultural and physical environment.

The unimpressive short buildings on both sides of the M1 in Northamptonshire were quickly built to provide fuel for drivers when the UK’s main motorway opened in 1959. However, they will soon be replaced by taller structures and numerous charging stations for electric cars. Roadchef, the owner, has presented comprehensive plans for redevelopment, but is currently in talks with the Department for Transport to extend their lease.

The local gas station, originally called the Blue Boar, became a successful business with the emergence of the motorway. Its 24-hour service made it a popular destination for those looking for late-night activities.

The decision to permit services to sell alcoholic drinks was a topic of discussion among ministers for several months. This sparked outrage from the Guardian, who stated in 1960 that selling intoxicants on motorways should be prohibited.

Even after being prohibited, it was a well-liked destination for musicians on tour to visit at night. In 2009, a former employee of Watford Gap’s night shift auctioned off an autograph book that had signatures from notable figures such as Sir Paul McCartney, the original members of the Stones (including Brian Jones), the Eagles, and Dusty Springfield.

Jimi Hendrix

Dr. David Lawrence, author of “Food on the Move: The Extraordinary World of the Motorway Service Area” and professor at Kingston University, stated that by the mid-1960s, Watford Gap had become a significant cultural destination. During a time when pubs closed early and there was minimal traffic, the service area was able to attract individuals from the bustling nightlife of 1960s London.

According to Lawrence, there were no speed limits or traffic while travelling at the time. He was informed by Gerry Marsden, famous for his band the Pacemakers, that Jimi Hendrix mistakenly believed a service station to be a nightclub when invited to join. “After our performance at the 100 Club on Oxford Street, Gerry suggested we continue the party at the Blue Boar,” he recalled.

According to Lawrence, the government originally planned for service stations to only provide basic amenities like tea and restroom access. However, the operators saw the potential of a captive audience on the motorway and began to offer 24-hour services, which led to the development of a more glamorous atmosphere.

He stated that the charm of service stations had disappeared by 1970 due to increased traffic on motorways and vandalism, making them unpleasant locations.

In 1971, the restaurant gained enough recognition to be included in the Egon Ronay restaurant guide. However, it stood out by receiving a rating lower than one-star, deemed “appalling” by the critic. The guide criticized the establishment for its “flavorless beans, terrible desserts, and unpalatable tea.”

Renovations and expansions have significantly altered the inside, if not enhanced the appearance of the outside, but even those who support contemporary structures seem unconcerned about its destruction. Oli Marshall, from the Twentieth Century Society, acknowledged that while Watford Gap holds cultural significance, it was never particularly noteworthy in terms of architecture, so we shouldn’t dwell on its demolition.

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Manchester City fans in the car park outside the front entrance

The speaker suggested that instead of saving the physical structure, they should focus on documenting and honoring the interesting tales associated with the building. These range from being a rest stop for crowded family road trips to a gathering spot for touring rock bands.

Now Watford Gap, like Bob Dylan at Newport (festival, not Pagnell), is about to rip up its roots to go electric. A spokesperson for Roadchef said the company would “significantly increase EV charging capacity”, adding: “We’re proud to run Britain’s most iconic service station [and] the site needs to evolve to ensure it’s fit for the future of road travel.”

According to Rich Cross, an enthusiast from Motorway Services Online, the location of Roadchef is limited due to its placement near a river, trainline, and the M1. He also noted that Roadchef was one of the few remaining operators to offer traditional sit-down dining reminiscent of the 1960s, where customers can still enjoy classic dishes like fish and chips with mushy peas.

However, he noted that the times were evolving: “There is a growing demand for quick and convenient food options – and they have had to adapt to this.”


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