6 January 2008

"Please call again!"

The thing I hate most in the whole world is the motorway service station.

Yes ok, maybe I should hate racism, cruelty, injustice and poverty more. And I do. But as far as daily humdrum irritations are concerned, the Moto or Welcome Break service areas every 25 miles or so on our motorways absolutely do my head in the most.

Sadly, when you have commuted as much as I have in the last decade or so (60,000 miles a year since 2001) they become a necessary evil. Were it not for nature's calls or refuelling issues - either for tank or belly - I'd not stop at them at all.

You know we occasionally have a spate of headlines in our more unforgiving newspapers castigating "Rip Off Britain"? Well, take the sub-editors to our service stations (as I'm of the narrow-minded northerner's opinion that they never leave London) and they'd see that they are channeling their argument in wholly the wrong direction.

When it comes to shamelessly fleecing innocent, unwealthy human beings, forget those loan companies. Forget away supporter admission prices at Stamford Bridge. Forget premium rate numbers on ITV. Forget return tickets on Virgin Trains. Forget even inheritance tax thresholds. Motorway service stations are the masters.

Yesterday, as is my wont, I chose to drive a Mondeo's worth of footballing friends to an FA Cup tie at Plymouth. It was a round trip of 722 miles, which began at 7.30am and ended with my bleary-eyed greeting to the Natural Blonde at 11.10pm. For that sort of distance, even in an economising diesel vehicle, stops for fuel are inevitable.

I filled up locally before picking the others up, as local city garages do tend to flog their diesel at a cheaper rate per litre than the service stations, although the price of fuel at the moment is madly beyond fairness now - it finally reached a quid a litre late last year and shows no sign of sinking.

Off we went, and made good haste. I managed to drive past one service station (McDonalds and Shell) on the M62, and one (Burger King and BP) on the M18, plus three on the southbound M1 (various, all as bad as each other) before one of my passengers announced that they could do with a comfort break.

We negotiated half an hour on the M42 (in the past, some passengers to matches would have been content with a quick slash against a crash barrier while truckers papped their hooters at them, but we had a lady with us this time...) before reaching the M5, our route to the south west, and stopping at the first services they had. Can't remember its name, but it had a Welcome Break (the contradiction of that name is not lost on even the most knucklescraping of driver) nu-complex which was all glass, all in one room and looked like a Centerparcs which had been bought out by the service station maniacs midway through construction and swiftly altered.

I bought a cup of tea for £2.45.

You know, I reckon service station staff are sick to the back teeth of ordinary commuters of not great means looking at them incredulously when they ring through your order and ask for something resembling the national debt.

A cup of tea is only worth £2.45 if served in a platinum cup, having had the plant picked by naked Sri Lankan concubines with gigantic hooters and the written reassurance, signed by the consul in Colombo himself, that the leaves were rubbed against those very jubblies prior to shredding and bagging.

What I actually got was a tiny tea bag on a string (yes, you have to make the damned drink yourself, which I've always resented, irrespective of price or venue) which was never big enough to fill the ridiculous mug in which it was placed, thereby making the size of the portion a total irrelevance. The milk was UHT (vile as hell) and you could only stir it with one of those strange plastic holey things which have no effect in actually making the sugar dissolve into the tea, thereby giving you an unsweetened drink and a small pile of wet but still powdered sugar at the bottom of the cup, should you get that far.

It gets better. Have you ever had a motorway service station breakfast?

They have varying sizes of fry-up. Normal, Regular, Super, Super Duper, Uber Super Duper, You Gullible Coach Driving Dimwit and Oh My God, It's Moving Towards Us. These breakfasts are usually only a rasher of bacon or an extra teaspoon of tepid beans different to the next, but the prices all remain astronomical. For £10.95, I'd want my bacon to come from the sty at Balmoral, the beans to have been tinned by Mr Heinz himself and for the fried tomato (singular, you notice), mushroom and hash browns merely to be remotely edible.

Fish and chips - tough fish, cold chips - fleece you for a fiver.

Some of these places have somewhat fancy brands of otherwise mundane cafe items. I've never seen the crisps they sell in any other store. And they cost £1.35. Sorry, but it should be unlawful and punishable by birching for any firm to think they can charge proudly ordinary drivers that amount of money for an unhealthy potato based snack which tastes not half as nice as an honest bag of Walkers (which themselves weigh in at nearly a quid where sold in the shops). A bottle of Coke, retailing at 87p in a decent village shop which doesn't purvey dishonesty or greed, chimes on the tills in a service station at £2.19. And then there's the great "refill" rip-off with carbonated drinks - buy a draught (ie, unfizzy) Coke for some unspeakably high price, but hey! you can go back and fill it again and again and again. So drink an inordinate amount of sugary crap which makes you belch and urinate - eventually you might actually refill it enough times to make it worth the original price.

Fuel. It's bad enough paying more than a quid a litre at apologetic filling stations on the local city thoroughfare, but 110.6p a litre - for diesel - was what a BP garage on the way back from Devon in the evening threw at me when I pulled in for wares. I was almost tempted to refuse on principle, until I remembered that motorway service station Travelodges cost more than the ones in towns, and therefore I'd have been polishing a turd. Plus I had people in the car (all soon to be asleep, natch) who were relying on me to get them home. And I don't think the AA give you a free tow home because you object to the price of fuel. So I lodged the nozzle into the tank and delivered my hideously expensive diesel, muttering angrily.

Even the franchised food outlets at these places are dearer. Buy a Zinger or something else with a stupid name from the service station wing of KFC and it'll cost you more than from the high street, and somehow will taste worse. Burger King's stuff too.

Buying a "proper" meal? Try almost ten quid for a pie full of gristle, lumped-to-the-gills mash and tough garden peas. An Eccles cake costs almost as much as a trip to Eccles (near Manchester, sometimes mentioned on Coronation Street, one of the places where you're geographically entitled to be a Manchester United fan) to make the bloody thing yourself. A banana? 85p.

Then there are those things for sale which are not only less than vital for a journey, but would be fantastically dangerous if you had them in your car. A child sees a soft toy, in shrink wrap, wants it. It costs a bomb, but it looks ok and it might keep the sprog quiet.

Opposite effect. Child gets tangled in shrink wrap and asks driving daddy or navigating mummy - incessantly - to open it for them.

Some underpaid youth with the complexion and skin-tone of a newly-exhumed Pharoah is always trying to get you to join the RAC in the car park.

Oh, and the ATM charged me £2 - the most I've ever known at a cashpoint - to remove my own hard-earned money from my own bank account. So even if they can't get my cash directly, they can hire another firm to take it from me instead.

This is a genuine scandal. How much money do these companies think we have? Working class families off on a British holiday in their cheap car have to pay a king's ransom to get to their destination and get hot food (well, supposedly hot) into their kids' tummies. It's an outrage.

We have a return trip to Plymouth for a League match in a month's time. I intend to fill the car up locally and add an extra three cans of diesel for boot storage which might get me back home afterwards. And I'll take a large packed lunch. Make that two. Or I'll just starve...

I wouldn't be surprised if, like London railway stations, these unspeakable, evil places start charging us for using their lavatories soon. Which, if I'm honest, is the only reason I ever really have any desire to stop at them. Or I could just take a sponge and stay on the road...


Sky Clearbrook said...

Well said, that man! I especially loved your use of the word, "hooters".

Clair said...

When I was a kid, my parents didn't stop at service stations, and I thought this was evil, so when I first went into one, it was like wonderland. An overpriced, greasy wonderland. Now I'm like Mummy and Daddy and bring my own travel comestibles, but I still wonder why it's so expensive - surely if their prices were more reasonable, less people would walk out saying 'I'm not bloody paying that'.

Valentine Suicide said...

Well said indeed. I spent most of the nineties on the road and sometimes they're the only place to stop when you're in a hurry. Another irritant were the dodgy watch/suit/ aftershave salesmen on the car park.

The only ones I'll stop at now are the ones with an M&S presence...

Unknown said...

Motorway Services Online

Hmm, this looks interesting.

"Love them or hate them, we've all used a motorway service area before. This site attempts to catalogue them all for both researchers and travellers. Are they really that bad? And are there certain companies to watch out for?"

The one which they recommend most (or hate least) is Hopwood Park on the M42, so maybe with hindsight you should have stopped sooner.

I've traced your route on their map, and I think this is the Welcome Break you stopped at. I think one or two negative words are in order.

They've even got excuses for the prices!

Matthew Rudd said...

Actually it was before Michael Wood - I carefully avoided Michael Wood for reasons of previous experience...

Interesting site. My heart does not bleed for them remotely though. Ultimately all people should need at a roadside, even on long journeys, a bog and a fuel pump. They can provide their own food. Or sell the franchise to the supermarkets - their fry ups are three quid and tasty.