A few weeks ago I ‘listed’ a couple of petrol stations, both of which exhibited design features that harked back to an era when motoring was more of an ‘adventure’ than it is perhaps today. The experts at English Heritage had enthused about the ‘overlapping parasols’ and ‘hyperbolic paraboloids’ they displayed, and I was happy to endorse their recommendation.
The early sixties, when these designs were conceived, are rather before my time, of course. But it’s not hard to imagine the sense of wonder they must have inspired in motorists as they came into view. Exciting times were coming.
‘O brave new world, that has such (hyperbolic paraboloids) in it’ as Shakespeare might have remarked, had he been writing 350 or so years later than he did (and was less fussy about the sanctity of the iambic pentameter).
In the event, though, the focus shifted from ‘boldly going*’ to a quest for comfort and convenience in the travelling experience. And thus the Motorway Service Area (MSA) was born.
‘Are we nearly there yet?’
I seem to remember that, as a child, the MSA was very much a thing to be welcomed. For, although not of course the end of the journey being undertaken, they were a definite junction along the way – a break from the monotony of staring at the roadside as it whizzed by, or tormenting fellow passengers with demands for refreshment (can I have a drink please?), information (are we nearly there yet?) or entertainment (can we play a game of something?).
The transition from back seat to front
But as we get older, and make the transition from back seat to front, we see things differently and critical faculties start to kick in. Standards rise.
Now, before I go on, I should stress that – personally – I don’t think MSAs generally are anything like as dreadful as they’re sometimes portrayed. The popular stereotype of poor catering and inadequate facilities set in a windswept landscape is just that: a stereotype, with the handful of pretty abysmal examples dragging down the reputation of the rest. But I’m also a firm believer in the principle of regular assessment as a means of pulling up standards, so a warm welcome to this year’s VisitEngland MSA Star Ratings scheme.
Home baked bread and cakes
And this year, for the first time ever, they have awarded a five-star rating: to the family-run Tebay South in Cumbria. Owned by operator Westmoreland, it was commended for cleanliness, customer service, and good quality food made from locally sourced produce. The latter helped, I imagine, by the MSA’s location adjoining an award-winning farm, which supplies the onsite butchers counter with fresh beef and lamb, while bacon is sourced from local Cumbrian farmers.
Oh, and there’s home baked bread and cakes in the café, and a popular farm shop.
Unidentified frying objects
Better yet, Tebay South is not an isolated beacon of excellence. This year also saw a 19 per cent increase in the number of 4-star ratings compared to last year, and a whopping 88 per cent of those assessed getting a 3-star rating or above.
The days when service stations were synonymous with sticky floors, cigarette smoke and unidentified frying objects brooding on grease-spattered hotplates are now behind us. So all hail Tebay South, the shape of things to come.
*I readily accept that going from Shakespeare to Star Trek as source material in such a short space involves something of a grinding gear change but that too, I’m told, was all too often a feature of long car journeys in that far-off time.
Image credit: English Heritage