By Stephanie Holmes
There's more to motorways than tarmac, tailbacks and tepid coffee served at tourist prices. To prove it a lecturer took a minibus of students on a day-long tour of the M1.
Many people suppress feelings of mild dread at the idea of spending any time at all on a motorway. Few struggle with secret yearnings for the over-lit service stations areas that dot their routes.
Certainly, most would not choose to spend half their weekend thundering down the M1 - the road leading 193 miles (311 km) out of London - without the promise of, at least, arriving somewhere else.
But, according to David Lawrence, who is equipped with a PhD on motorway service areas, it was very different in the not-so-distant past.
As the shiny super-roads opened in the 1950s, "they became playgrounds for the fast and rich, rubbing shoulders with the newly affluent and motor-borne middle and working classes," says Mr Lawrence.
"When the first motorways opened," he adds, "service stations were incredibly glamorous, modern venues which people would visit simply for the thrill of driving up the motorways."
As part of the London-based alternative education institute, the School of Life, Mr Lawrence is taking a small class of travellers, who have paid £95 each for the privilege, on a journey up and down the spine of England's motorway network - the M1. This is a trip into the familiar, to reveal the unknown.
Commerce and culture
He conjures up pictures of 1950s motorway service stations with staff whose sky-blue suits match the faux leather stools, neon light gleaming off the steel and Formica.
While many might dismiss both motorways and their rest stops as inconvenient conveniences, Mr Lawrence wants us to view them as fascinating microcosms of modern life.
"They are these strange concentrations of commercialism, branding, people, architecture and design," he says. "They change quite rapidly, becoming wonderful platforms to see how perceptions of popular and commercial culture are made, and erased, in rapid cycles."
It isn't all about the shopping, either, though you could be fooled into thinking otherwise as you wander amidst the bewildering array of items on sale - from milkshakes to Mars bars, via electric massage chairs and padded corduroy slippers.
It's not just service areas that are the subject of this day-long lesson in motorway culture. There's the 193 miles of unbroken tarmac that connects Staples Corner in London with Hook Moor in West Yorkshire.
Mr Lawrence enthusiastically points out how clumps of trees, varying gradients and curving embankments were incorporated in the original design of the road, which opened in 1959, to offer a subtly stimulating driving experience, or to prevent you falling asleep at the wheel.
The way we adopt a grin-and-bear-it attitude to motorway traffic jams reveals much about British culture.
"It's like something out of JG Ballard novel - all these people in their steel and glass bubbles, prepared to put up with moving at an incredibly slow pace just to ensure privacy," says Mr Lawrence, who actually does not own a car - preferring to get about with a combination of public transport and folding bicycle.
Writer and philosopher Alain de Botton, who meets this class of itinerant scholars at the Welcome Break, Newport Pagnell, is another unlikely fan of the service station.
For him, the squat concrete buildings, harsh neon lighting and bland pop tinkle that tries, in vain, to strangle the drone of cars has a poetry all of its own.
M1 CONSTRUCTION FACTS
One of first motorways to be opened in the UK, in 1959
193 miles (311 km) in length
Major north-south route
20 million tonnes of earth and rock excavated to build road
5,000 road builders brought to work on double-decker buses
Workers' canteens needed every 2.5 miles
Construction cost in 1959, £50m
"They are the sort of places that most people think of as nightmarish," he says, sitting at a table near the hot food counter.
"They are lonely, but in a nice way. They are ugly but in a fun, interesting way. There is a special quality about them."
It's a quality, he points out, that has inspired artists like Edward Hopper, who returned repeatedly to the empty warmth of road cafes and petrol stations in paintings like Gas and Automat.
There is also a relief, Mr de Botton says, in surrendering to the embrace of loneliness in such a synthetic environment, where the feeling is almost a communal experience.
"It is a wonderful place to indulge that side of you that is lonely, that is sad, that is passing through. It's like listening to a very sad Leonard Cohen song. In a way it is grim, but it is also redemptive."
And, mingling with the heavy smell of fried food, there may also be just a whiff of romance.
Where better, Mr de Botton asks, to feel that pang of desire than spotting a potential love interest across the food hall of a motorway service station - isolated, vulnerable and even unhappy. And flat broke from the cost of an over-priced full English, one supposes.
"That unhappiness, far from being off-putting, can actually be a peg on which your feelings of love can hang," he says.
Altar to speed
Love has oft blossomed in venues on the edges of motorways. In the 1960s, for example, the Ace Cafe - with its prime spot at the centre of a knot of motorways - gave teenagers a place to meet, listen to music, and, crucially, flirt.
Ace cafe owner, Mark Wilsmore, has recreated a slice of motorway hey-day
The man who brought the biker cafe back to life, recreating a venue where English breakfasts are served round-the-clock to hungry, leather-clad men and women, is 51-year-old Mark Wilsmore.
"It may sound corny but this space is as much about England as Windsor Castle, Tower Bridge or Stratford-upon-Avon," he says proudly.
"This is almost a place held in as much esteem as Mecca and the Vatican. For those who love speed - who love wheels, rubber, tarmac and petrol engines - it's the high altar of speed."
And, if the motorway is some kind of destination in its own right, then maybe we can all be pilgrims, spiritually inspired while moving at speed.
"It is sometimes when you are on the road, that some of your best ideas come, that allow you a new perspective on your life," muses Mr de Botton.
Mr Lawrence agrees.
"We can still have adventure, even in our compressed and condensed society. That is the one thing that only the motorways can give us - the unpredictable unknown."
Below is a selection of your comments.
Driving on the M1 was an amazing experience when a child in the 60s. My parents would take me out in their Lotus and we would be the only car on the road. How things have changed now with the amount of traffic but every motorway journey is a new adventure in to the unknown. The motorway has its own history, its own chain of events and is alive with people.
Arnold Miles, Jacobs Well, Guildford, Surrey
The idea that people would choose to visit a motorway service station as a leisure time pursuit is big business here in Japan; a new stretch of motorway near my house attracts visitors from hundreds of kilometres away in 2008. Come to Japan; where the 60s spirit still lives.
David Samworth, Yokkaichi, Japan
I was brought up near Newport Pagnell and as a teenager used to go to the service station which I (and my friends) regarded as being a different thing to do on a Saturday night. Later on in my teens several of my friends earned good summer holiday wages working there. We used to roll pennies across the footbridge to see how far we could get them. Happy days!
Sara, Northampton, England, UK
I spend 20 minutes on the motorway every day. I'd sooner be going at a constant speed, listening to the radio, than shuffling into a major town or city on B-roads. I'm lucky, my daily drive on the M6 isn't that bad and in a short time I'm 30 miles from home and sitting at my desk. By public transport the same journey would take three hours (I know, I've done it). The odd instance where there is a crash or a traffic jam is a minor pain compared to sitting in traffic jams in towns and cities daily. Beautiful? Perhaps not, but they allow a lot of people to see beautiful parts of the UK easily.
Leigh Geary, Cannock, Staffordshire
I stop at the Woodhall Services south of Sheffield every Thursday evening on my way to my French class. I love it - just an hour or 40 minutes or so of peace and anonymity and a nice coffee to boot. If I could just persuade the bloke trying to sign me up for a new credit card that I'm never going to do it and he does not need to stop me EVERY week then it would be perfect. Very soothing.
Lesley, Hope Valley
When I was a child my parents did not have a car and one of the highlights of any holiday was the coach journey, and in particular the stops at the motorway service stations. We would often take the overnight coach from London Victoria coach station to Blackpool. When you are only eight or nine it is incredibly exciting to sit in a service station eating bacon and egg at 3am. Now I am old and cynical I still feel a thrill when we drive into a service station, even though the reality may not be as glamorous.
Pauline Keys, London
There's certainly a kind of tacky magic to these places. It can be hard to see during the day, with the more immediate concerns of traffic and work, but make a long solo late-night journey and things change. First, there is the sense of alienation - the solitary outsider coming in from the dark, probably not interacting with anyone else, only to go back out into the darkness a few minutes later. And the places themselves have an odd quality in the small hours: you come out of the darkness into an island of glare and shiny surfaces, a sort of artificial reality designed to make you feel human again by offering you the chance to buy countless humdrum things you don't really want. Just like real life. But don't try to apply too much psychology or sociology to how service areas work, because ultimately they're just a way of extracting money from a punter who's stopped for a pee.
Simon Harvey, Colchester, UK
For a change, I decided to go to the South West not by motorway, but by the non-motorway route. I arrived much later and exhausted. I went back on the motorways for sure. We thunder here and there, complaining, totally unaware of the wonder around us, or the sheer wonder of what we are using or doing. We fly around the world complaining about the food, legroom or movies unaware that we are flying at 50,000ft in our casual clothes. The trouble is we are often in a kind of zone when we are travelling. Especially driving. We go into these service station with a kind of refuel refresh get-on-our-way mentality. That may not be a bad thing. Motorways are dangerous places, and maybe it takes a non-driver to point these things out. It could be a driver taking into account all the beauty and history of things around him/her is not concentrating on the road.
No mention of the role they played in the Acid House movements of the late 80s? Many a rave kicked off with a meeting point at a service station (in our case Heston Services), then a convoy of hundreds of ravers would cruise round the M25 looking for the elusive venue.
Stef, Vancouver, BC
Am I the only person who doesn't see misery as a mandatory aspect of either the motorway or service stations? Granted, for £95 I'd have sooner got the train to Alton Towers with a friend, but I don't get steeped in depression whenever I close the passenger door. In fact, with the radio playing and somewhere exciting to be - even in traffic jams - I rather like the motorway. And service stations have always just seemed like any other cafe to me - somewhere warm you can go for a rest and a drink before you get on with whatever the hell else you were doing. Am I the only person who hasn't felt suicidal purely at the sight of the decor?
Steve Doran, Nottingham, UK
"Service stations... glamorous" - back in '63-64, when a student at Luton Tech, one or two of us had access to cars, and on a Saturday night, after the pubs had closed, or after our game of 10-pin bowls, we'd roar up the few miles from Junction 11 of the M1 (but no junction numbers in those days) to Toddington Service Station - treating this as a late-night glamorous version of a coffee-bar.
Paul, Braunton, UK
When I have to drive down into London I look forward to those service stations on the M74, M6 and M1. They're a kind of exciting stop because sometimes the journey is just as fun as the destination. It's the atmosphere of transience, of hot coffee and resting in the middle of something big. I hate jams though - so I tend to hit these places at night. And there's something very special about a usually busy place that's quiet.
Andy, Highlands of Scotland
Although I live in the North West, I find that travelling to the South East using the M1 is more pleasant via the M62 and the M1 from the Leeds area than taking the M6 down to the Midlands and joining the M1 near Rugby. With regular congestion on the M6 in Cheshire/Staffordshire/Birmingham and no intention of paying to use the M6 Toll Road, this gives me the reason to go other ways. The A1 & A1(M) are also both more enjoyable than the M6 so sometimes I will use these instead for a variation of route.
John R Jones, Preston, Lancashire
The M1 is my second home as I live in Leicester and have lived in Sheffield, Wakefield and Leeds - all served by the M1. I have family living in Nottingham, Chesterfield and Sheffield as well. The MOST annoying thing about the M1 now is the average speed restrictions. They serve no purpose at all, apart from annoying me!
Helen, why do you and so many other drivers think the Road Traffic Acts don't (or at least shouldn't) apply to you? The Acts set speed limits; people like you won't keep to the limits voluntarily, so we have to pay for speed cameras. I drive thousands of miles a month, and the arrogance of the average speeding driver still leaves me a bit gobsmacked. Those average cameras are there to save lives.
John Knight, Beverley UK
I think these guys should stop looking at the motorway through heavily-rose tinted spectacles before they have an accident.
Only a person who does not own a car and therefore does not have to experience the complete horror that is driving on motorways in this country would say they are good.
And let us not forget the vital role played by Watford Gap services in the social life and development of 60s pop. This was the place where long-haired musicians poured, exhausted, out of their cramped tour vans on their way to or from the next gig. As schoolboys from the north Midlands, on our way to the continent on a school trip, there was something exotic about Watford Gap beans-on-toast... with the chance of rubbing shoulders with the Rolling Stones. In some way the M1 was the UK's Route 66.
Andy Finney, Godalming, UK
I travel the same stretch of the M1 Motorway, between Junction 24 and 44, Nottingham South to Rothwell, Leeds most days. Have done for 13 years in the same job. I have never considered it in the way that it is described in your article, though have seen some BIG changes during that time... most recently the demolition of the iconic Cooling towers near Meadowhall, Sheffield. I will maybe look upon it in a different light on the way home tonight.
Dave Goodman, Nottingham, UK
Of course the M1 was originally built to connect the two most important cities in Britain, namely, London and Leeds. But surely the A1 (which it flows into) is more romantic, and more historic?
Hamish McGlobbie, Leeds
Ian Collins, Derbyshire