Gloucester Motorway Services: Food, Community, Sustainability, Society

A report on Stroud Civic Society's talk on 22nd January 2015
Gloucester Services - interior - view through servery.

Gloucester Services - interior - view through servery

It was a full house at Stroud’s Old Town Hall in the Shambles on Thursday 22nd January as people crowded inside to hear an illustrated talk about the new service station on the M5. Certainly, we were offered three speakers for the price of one, and the atmosphere at Stroud Civic Society meetings is always warm, but such interest in a motorway service area—it all seemed a bit odd!

However, chatter ceased as Juliet Shipman, chair of the Civic Society greeted us before calling on Tim Mars to introduce the first speaker, Mark Gale, Chief Executive of Gloucestershire Gateway Trust.

Based in the Matson area of Gloucester—one of the poorest areas in Gloucestershire and in the top five percent of most disadvantaged communities in the country—Mark Gale came up with the extraordinary notion of building a motorway services on the M5 immediately adjacent to Matson as a means of providing income, training and employment for local people and communities.

Around 28 million vehicles a year stream past Matson on the motorway, carrying some 50 million people. Previously they came into Gloucestershire at one end and left at the other, leaving just pollution, congestion, accidents and a cost to public services, with nobody in the county benefiting. Mark’s thought was: let’s turn that around and make the motorway an asset for local communities. Instead of being a purely negative channel sweeping past Matson and offering nothing in return, the idea was to turn it into a positive asset for local communities by building a very special kind of service station.

The Trust teamed up with Westmorland, which owns and runs Tebay in the Lake District—the only independent motorway services in the country—to deliver this vision. Tebay is famous for the quality of its food which is predominately locally sourced, providing an invaluable outlet and income for local farmers and food suppliers. Gloucester Services goes one step further. It is unique in combining the local/farm/family model of Tebay with a social/charitable/community dimension represented by Gloucestershire Gateway Trust. It is Tebay with a twist.

At the heart of the project is a commitment to supporting the surrounding communities: 300 jobs will eventually be created, the restaurant and farm shop will showcase local, artisan-made produce, and sales from the site will generate around £10 million over 20 years for residents’ groups and charities.

A slide showed a band of smiling people poised with feet on spades to break the first sod on the site of the northbound services, demonstrating the wide range of people, community groups and organisations which came together to push forward the motorway services project. From these groups, Mark explained, had already come a furniture recycling project and a plethora of training initiatives of all kinds.

After loud applause for Mark, Sarah Dunning, Chief Executive of Westmorland—which has Tebay motorway services at its heart—took us back to 1967 when her parents had been a Cumbrian hill farmers rearing cattle and sheep.

In a wonderful video we saw her father silhouetted against the stunning landscape of the Lake District. In between whistling to his sheepdogs, he explained the resourcefulness of a hill farmer through a Cumbrian saying that translated as: ‘It’s a bare hillside he’ll cross over in which he won’t find something to make use of.’ So when the M6 crossed the edge of their land they set out to make use of it. A site was designated for a motorway services area and bids were invited. The Dunnings sent in their proposal—and were successful.

In 1972 they opened the only family-run motorway service station in the UK, a small 30-seat café serving home-cooked, locally sourced food. Before long they had 28 members of staff, and with time added a hotel, truck stop, caravan site, visitors’ centre and an award-winning farm shop. They are now, Sarah added proudly, welcoming two million customers a year.

Sarah had always been involved in the business, but in 2005 she took over from her father as chief executive. She was looking for further ways to strengthen, develop and diversify the business when she received a call from Mark Gale asking if Westmorland would be interested in joining with Gloucestershire Gateway Trust to build and run a new service area on the M5.

As a business proposition, a service area in Gloucestershire had three major things going for it:

  • the M5 is a very busy motorway, carrying far more traffic than the M6 in the Lake District
  • Gloucestershire has better, richer, more fertile soil than Cumbria
  • the county has a huge and diverse range of farmers and food suppliers

And importantly, the involvement of Gloucestershire Gateway Trust meant a strong local and community connection as well as a charitable dimension. This would not just be Westmorland parachuting a satellite of Tebay into Gloucestershire.

‘At the centre of everything we do’, Sarah said, ‘is the fact that we love food!’ Almost everything is locally sourced and prepared on site, and she said what fun she had had finding amazing foods producers in Gloucestershire—130 local businesses within 30 miles of the site now supply the farmshop and kitchens. She discovered a wonderful sausage-roll maker in the Forest of Dean. Through supplying Gloucester Services, Cinderhill Farm has become famous. As a result, they have taken on four extra staff and created a new production area.

Sarah concluded that Westmorland is better off for being embedded in the local community in Gloucestershire and the community is better off for their involvement in the service station.

Sarah sat down to huge applause and our third speaker, James Spencer of Glenn Howells Architects, took over. He began by showing us slides of the Savill Building at Windsor Great Park, with its sweeping gridshell roof, and the new visitors’ centre at Westonbirt Arboretum—both buildings using wood and glass in new and exciting ways. The practice has a wide and diverse portfolio of projects which has won them over 80 awards.

James showed early sketches for the Gloucester Services site and explained how they approached the sensitive task of inserting a 60,000 sq ft motorway service area into this Cotswold landscape. To protect the immediate environment and avoid impinging on long-distance views, the main building is embedded in the undulating landscape, its roof hunkering down below the horizon, and its profile softened by its organic form and grassland covering. Its airy sky-lit interior aims to reinterpret the rural vernacular in a contemporary manner. Cotswold stone sourced from a nearby quarry (Tinkers Barn) and local timbers were used to create a peaceful retreat from the motorway—an experience enhanced by a landscaping scheme that includes picnic areas and an ‘edible garden’.

With that, time was up and after a lively question-and-answer session, the three speakers left the Old Town Hall to speed off in different directions—Sarah back to Cumbria, James to Birmingham and Mark to Gloucester.

It was a fascinating and informative joint presentation: three very different but complementary perspectives on a unique venture. Gloucester Services is a truly heart-warming and inspirational project. And who’d a-thought anyone would ever say that about a motorway services area…?

It all made for a wonderful evening. So it was particularly gratifying that such an enthralling and inspiring presentation on such an unusual topic was so well attended.

Undoubtedly it will mean more of us setting out for a treat, visiting—of all places—a motorway service station!

May 2015 Update: The Services, nominated by us, have been short-listed for a Civic Voice National Design Award – for more information click here.

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