by Dave Randle

Whether because ‘tiredness kills’, as the signs have it, or because it is again necessary to charge up our ravening electric vehicle, we are more and more dependent on motorway services for our succour and sustenance.

If not the oldest profession, feeding travellers is a long established and happily symbiotic activity that, over the centuries, has responded to the specific needs of our methods of travel.

The Inns that served the pedestrian pilgrims and drovers, those on horseback and the carriage trade have adapted and survived or slipped into history on roads that have become byways to the barren non-stop motorways of today.

Those roads themselves were once the trunk roads of the country, the primary network connecting vital centres through the constant rumble of lorries and coaches. Inns and pubs along the way couldn’t always offer much in the way of parking for these vehicles and were limited in their opening hours, so ‘transport cafés’ began to spring up offering tea, something a bit like coffee and food that could be cooked and delivered quickly to fit in with people’s schedules.

Often regarded as ‘greasy spoons’, they none the less provided freshly cooked ingredients and chips made from actual potatoes.

More civilised ‘family friendly’ roadside food stops began to join them – Little Chef and Happy Eater offered similar fare but dripping free and identifiable from a photograph.

The arrival of motorways brought another element. Motorway services inevitably have an armlock on the traveller. Once you’re in the system, you can’t go wandering off. You have to have what you’re given at prices based on ‘take it or leave it’.

For a long while, at least what you were given was suitable to purpose. You could normally get a hot meal and the chance to sit and let the asphalt in your mind unwind. A breakfast or some kind of mid-Atlantic ‘brunch’, half a chicken with chips and gravy – even a decent pie. If all you wanted was a tasteless, salt-free egg and cress sarny, you could have that too. And there was even the option of grilled floor-scrapings in a bun for those with their hats on backwards.

Not all were consistent by a long way. There was a Granada on the M1 where I don’t think they ever washed the dishes. And anyone who offered to buy you lunch at Clackett Lane should have been given an ASBO. But, when you began to tire of the middle lane, or the Jeremy Vine show came on, you could usually be sure of some refreshment, some boost of protein, something heartwarming and substantial to fortify you before you repassed all the wide loads and logisticians you left behind you before the retreat.

When all my family was gathered together at a safe distance in Devon, Fleet Services was almost a second home. Ideally placed on the M3 to celebrate another lifetime on the A303 and the plain sailing of the M25 and M20 in prospect. A man can dream.

It used to be run by an outfit called ‘Welcome Break’ and very welcome it usually was.

Then, suddenly, we arrived there on a particularly bloody and hot journey to find the place taken over by aliens. Totally shattered and levels at zero, we made our way to the accompaniment of irritating music from one purveyor of toxic chemicals to another. Where once had been dining areas, now were bare tables occupied by bloodless souls eating crud out of cardboard. Some had been allowed plastic forks, but all were being treated as if they had learned their table manners from old PG Tips adverts.

I needed sustenance, and I needed it then, but I almost ran the risk of sleep or unconsciousness to return to the road to salvation.

How have we come to this? I have since had the misfortune to visit other disservices on the motorway network no better than Fleet.

At the time, I accepted defeat and, after thoroughly examining all the available ‘products’, I settled for some KFC chicken. We used to buy pots of this when we came out of clubs at midnight and had lost all sense of judgement. They had a cheap deal they called a ‘standard’. I used to order a ‘substandard’, which was even cheaper and didn’t have one of the more lamentable ingredients. Never knew what any of it tasted like and usually woke up the next morning for work with a breaded chicken drumstick up my nose.

All the staff at Fleet are American-speaking Chinese and very anxious to serve. I could not fault the politeness with which my waitress (if that’s the word – maybe she’s a grillista) explained that I was not entitled to a plate, a knife and fork, salt and pepper or, clearly, anything with which I could do any imaginable damage – even to the chicken. A drink to go with it was off-the-boil water with a teabag on a string in a cardboard cup. Squash it yourself, top it up with disgusting see-through skimmed milk and throw the whole bloody thing in a bin, from whence it will presumably be recycled into toilet paper.

I shudder to think what visiting French people make of it all. Their side of the Channel, you can be sure of something freshly cooked and nutritious almost anywhere, including services on the autoroutes for less than ten of their strange euros.

Regarding the fare to be confronted in these parts, one imagines them inquiring: ‘Does one eat it, or has one eaten it already?’

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