By Claire Heald
BBC News Magazine
Motorway service stations have become a byword for bad food at top prices. As the government launches a consultation, how does one stop-off, where the food was compared to Harrods' food hall, manage to get it so right?
Not your average service station
After a couple of solid hours driving on the motorway, the body demands a break, a nice cup of tea, a trip to the loo and something, anything, good to eat. But motorway service stations have drivers and restless families over a barrel.
At what is the only stop-off option, any pleasant amble is replaced by a weave across a crowded car-park. All for a cup of coffee more expensive than petrol, real milk optional and the ambient jingle of a mini video games arcade.
To eat: fast food staples or a sandwich with a shelf life longer than a weekend break. The only joy perhaps is choosing a "meal deal" from the chunky doorsteps, bonus bag of crisps and share-size soft drink.
The loos, according to consumer surveys, are sometimes overcrowded, dirty, lockless and unloved.
In a bid to cut tiredness-related accidents and encourage motorists to take a break, the government wants people's views on service stations.
It says they must not become a destination in their own right on an already overcrowded motorway network. But it wants to know how they could be improved.
The industry is dominated by big chains but just north of junction 38 on the M6 in Cumbria, sits Tebay Westmorland, England's only family-run motorway stop-off. It boasts what most cannot - a loyal customer following and a "best" rating from Holiday Which? magazine.
The site used to be a remote farm. But when, 35 years ago, plans for a major trunk road which cut through the site, were given the go-ahead, John and Barbara Dunning decided to build and run a service station. Their daughter, Sarah, now chief executive, says that farm ethos permeates a successful business.
In place of fast-food franchises, pre-packed sandwiches and shopping tat is homemade food, with beef and lamb from the farm. The sandwiches are fresh daily. The farm shop offers local produce - meat, cheeses, fruit and veg.
Out: pre-packaged sandwiches
There are beautiful views over Howgill Fell, while outside picnic areas are made of sympathetic stone. There is even a pond. With ducks.
"Everything we do is connected with our beautiful environment and farming as it's one of our biggest assets," she says.
One visitor, Clare, 33, from London, says it is a world away from "paying £4.50 for a cup of tea and a dirty scone. It was good, better than others. They had made a real effort, with a deli, local produce and it was quite countrified."
At £3 plus, the sarnies are more expensive than on the High Street, due to overheads, says Ms Dunning. And the site is not at the busiest stretch of motorway. But it is on the edge of the Lake District, a tourist hub, and on a major route from Scotland and England.
In a country where most services are busier and less picturesque, could the major chains learn anything?
Fowl and fells: Not always a roadside option
"It's not the most glamorous business, but we have a real passion about what we do," says Ms Dunning.
The industry suffers from the legacy of what was on offer in past decades but it is improving, she says. As strong food brands like Marks and Spencer come in, standards and competition can only improve.
It is a balance between offering a good service first and the bottom line, she says.
Not everyone can drive to Cumbria for a cuppa, but motorists can well be enticed to stop at one service station over the next.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
I used to stop at the Tebay Westmorland services regularly on my frequent trips from Dorset to Aberdeen. I would always plan my trips so that I had enough petrol to get there and to arrive there at lunchtime so that I didn't have to rely on other places. It's nice and relaxing, eating a decent meal, in a clean place, looking out over the pond, watching the ducks.
Now that you've brought it to everyone's attention, it's going to get crowded there, so 0 out of 10 for that! However, maybe it will show motorists how it should be done and they'll demand the same from the other places.
Phil Rogers, Bournemouth, Uk
On those occasions when my family and I are on the M6, we always aim to use these services in preference to any others: clean, good food, and quacking ducks.
Gordon Clark, Hampton
Another example of halfwits in government: they want people to use service stations more, but fail to recognise that service stations run by monopolies offer bad service and rip-off prices - when an independent service station is fantastic!
We should learn from the Australians who have road side stop offs called the "driver reviver" where you can pull off the road and have a free cup of tea/coffee and a biscuit and use the loo etc.
I believe they are voluntary/charitable however I think the cost of free tea and coffee is much less than the clean up costs of accidents caused by overtired drivers.
David Norfolk, Tiverton, Devon
Westmorland is the only motorway service station we have ever enjoyed visiting. The farm shop in itself is worth a detour. On a particularly busy day, they even had someone stationed in the car park helpfully directing traffic to spaces. Well done the Dunnings!
The situation here in the US is much the same, if not worse. Due to the long driving distances there are plentiful roadside service stations, but the same problems plague them all. It's next to impossible to get anything remotely healthy to eat, and the food and drinks are overpriced. I wish a chain of health, organic food shops would set up business in the stations - it would make my trips a lot more pleasant!
I try not to use motorway service stations if I can help it, they are very expensive. Nowadays petrol costs the earth, so why add to the insult? Take a flask and sandwiches, and stop regularly to refresh.
Terry Isherwood, Torpoint, Cornwall
I recently visited this service station on my way to Scotland and was quite simply amazed at the quality of food on offer. I sat outside eating my sandwich, watching the ducks play on the water, and for a moment or two I quite forgot that the M6 was 200 yards behind me.
Darran, London, UK
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