The Last Homely Hobbit-Hole East Of The Sea

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“We’ve Bin Wearin’um for Years”

Sometimes, on CleanTechnica, I have seen articles extolling the virtues of futuristic designs for service stations for electric vehicle drivers that include full user facilities for their refreshment and entertainment. As Ringo Star said when asked about the new topless bathing costumes, “We’ve bin wearin’um for years.” The motorway network in the United Kingdom was begun in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and has always had such facilities. (A “Motorway” is a fast road for exclusive use of motor vehicles. It has at least 2 lanes in each direction, and other roads only join it or leave it by slip roads. it has no intersections, roundabouts, (rotaries), or traffic lights. and stopping is only allowed in emergencies at the side of the main carriageway.)

Gloucester Services M5 UK
Image via Google Maps

Frequent Services for the Motorway Traveler

From the start, part of the design was to have service areas every 30 miles or so. Each area had its own dedicated slip-road off the motorway, and would have two sites on opposite sides of the motorway, often with a footbridge in between. This is known as an “on-line” site, being built on the line of the motorway. The one near where I live has the unusual feature of the footbridge being enclosed in glass, and having the restaurant inside the footbridge itself, so that people can watch the traffic as they sip their coffee or eat their lunch. Some later service areas are built on junctions, which is more efficient for the operators as they only have a single site, not two, and people can access them from the motorway and the roads leading off it. Following a public consultation, the Department for Transport announced in 2008 that new services should be located at on-line sites, unless a junction site is the only possibility.

Brutalist Grey Concrete

As you might imagine, those built in the 60s tend towards the brutalist style of architecture, and are grim, grey, concrete structures, and somewhat soulless. Even more recent ones are rather utilitarian in their architecture. They all provide the basic amenities of a large car park (parking lot), restaurants and cafes for refreshments, public lavatories, and fuel pumps. These areas have been kept up-to-date, and are generally well maintained and modernized, and these days include all manner of shops and facilities, including fast chargers for electric vehicles. They are welcoming rest places for the weary traveler, but they have a reputation for being somewhat expensive, and for my tastes are a bit too “fast-food” to be very attractive.

Journey to Somerset

I live in North Leicestershire, and my younger daughter lives in Somerset. The route I take to visit her is down the M42, and then the M5, and then the M4. I drive an electric car, and it was on a journey to visit my daughter that one of the charging stops just happened to be Gloucester Services. I have never heard of it before, and never been there before, but it was a most pleasant surprise when I arrived. I expected the usual grim grey concrete edifice, housing the usual fast food restaurants. To my surprise, the whole appearance of the place was green and spacious, quite unlike any other service area I’ve ever been in.

Falling Into a Hobbit-Hole

When I first arrived, my first concern was to find the fast-charger to plug into. Having done that, I then looked around for the building housing the public facilities. From where I was I could see a green hill right in the middle of the area, which had a stone retaining wall at the front of it. The wall was wedge-shaped, starting where the hill came up from the ground, and rising higher as the hill rose higher. As I followed the line of the wall, I then realized that the wall had an area of glass in the middle of it. It then dawned on me that the hill I was looking at, with a retaining wall at the front, actually was the public facilities. It had the modern glass doors, rather than a round wooden door of an actual Hobbit-hole, but had that same natural feeling to it. This architecture was so very imaginative, and such a refreshing change from the grim grey concrete I am used to. The interior of the building was in no way dark, but once inside, I found myself in a large spacious and well-lit area, full of people and good things to eat and drink.

So, that explains my interest in the place, and I have often thought to do an article about it. You might ask what this has to do with clean technology, and I would say that there is no point in having a beautiful EV and a beautiful road to drive it on, if you do not have a beautiful place to stop to charge up. Clean tech is about having respect for life, and this place gives your whole being a reboot.

See Slide-show below

Have a look around for yourself on Google Street View by clicking this link

An Interview with Danny Martin

Having got in contact with the people who run Gloucester Services, I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Marketing Director Danny Martin, who was very knowledgeable about the history of the place, and able to answer all of my questions.

Here are some of the questions I put to the team, and Marketing Director Danny Martin’s answers.

Me: The first thing I wanted to know about are dates, as the website does not say when the project started or was completed.

Danny Martin:

We opened in May 2014, on the Northbound site, and May 2015, on the Southbound, but the story doesn’t start there. It starts back in 1972, when they built the M6 motorway, in Cumbria. It cut right through the middle of the farm belonging to John, and Barbara Dunning, who were hill farmers. They decided to turn disaster into an opportunity, by setting up a service area for the new motorway. They named it Tebay Services which started as a small 30-seat cafe, serving home-cooked, locally sourced food.

That was 46 years ago, and was very different from the kind of fast food restaurant that people are used to on the motorway service areas. The Dunnings had a passion and pride for the land and its produce, and wanted to provide quality food, grown in the local area, and to make the service area a truly unique Cumbrian experience.

The same ethos applies to the Gloucester services.

Me: They were obviously very enterprising people, and they had a natural, existing connection with the Tebay Services, but Gloucester is a long way from there. How did they come to set up in Gloucester?

Danny Martin:

It was through their connection with Mark Gayle, CEO of Gloucestershire Gateway Trust. He was interested in finding a means of creating sustainable income and job opportunities for people in the local community. Creating a new service area on the M5, near Gloucester, with the same ethos of providing locally grown and prepared food, created a lot of opportunities for local people. More than 400 jobs have been created, and we have130 local suppliers, within 30 miles of here, and a further 70 from the wider region. The partnership we have set up with the trust also enables us to donate a percentage of our sales back into the community, each year.

Mark Gale from the Gloucester Gateway Trust said,

“We had 28 million vehicles a year carrying over 40 million people into Gloucestershire at one end and going out the other on the M5. No-one in the communities it passed by got any benefit; it was just seen as a problem, bringing pollution, congestion and noise. Now we’ve turned the M5 into a community asset.”

Me: I want to know about the site. It is such a perfect place for it, in that bowl of hills and trees, and is like a green oasis in the motorway desert. Was it a case of that site being designated by government or its agencies, or was it a site that you chose for yourselves and asked for that to become a service area?

Danny Martin:

When we built Gloucester Services, we were building in an area just on the edge of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AOB) so we took great care to design the services to minimise the impact on the area.

The services are carefully planned to isolate the service environment from the motorway and succeed in creating a place that emanates quality as well as clarity.

Me: It is a brilliant site, isn’t it, and the hobbit-hole-like architecture is a total departure from anything I’ve seen before in any of the service areas I have visited. Was the idea of that building, with a completely green roof disguised as part of a hill, an idea you had to start with, or was it a case of employing architects who then came up with that idea for you? What exactly is the story of that?

Danny Martin:

The buildings in Tebay Services were chosen to be in keeping with the natural surroundings, and the artisan foods supplied there, using natural wood and stone, rather than concrete and glass. We wanted to achieve the same here, and in bouncing ideas back and forth between ourselves and the architects, the grass roof design was what we ended up with and works superbly with the surroundings. Instead of being a building in its surroundings, the building is part of its surroundings, and blends in completely.

The architects were Glenn Howells, who applied the same levels of sustainability into the Services’ built environment as the business does to the locally sourced food and drink it sells. As a business operating in rural areas, where landscape sensitivity is high, creating sympathetic designs and using natural, sustainable materials was at the forefront of the design brief.

Our offer, of a uniquely different motorway services, starts with the building. It’s functional, welcoming and beautiful.

Me: The interior is also very beautiful with the wooden beams and pieces of suspended tree branch, and seems very open and spacious, with the large expanses of glass either side. I expected it to be rather dark and cave-like, but despite the green roof over the whole of the thing, it’s really bright inside. Again, what is the story of the interior design? How did that come about?

Danny Martin:

We wanted the interior to be natural using wood as the main building material, the aim was for a light airy space, so we conceded to the modern glass doors, and glass wall at the back, to let in the light, to give that bright airy feel to it.

We also wanted the building to interact with the view, the pond, and the grounds, seamlessly.

Me: I see on the website that there are architectural Awards from The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) mentioned, so perhaps you’d like to say something about that? Did they approach you, or did you approach them? How did they come to know about the existence of Gloucester Services, and the unique building in the middle of it? Is the award for the site as a whole, or just the building?

Danny Martin:

RIBA National Awards are given to buildings across the UK recognised as significant contributions to architecture. It’s a tremendous honour to win these awards and we underwent a very lengthy judging process.

We had a great partnership with our architects Glenn Howells and we’re very proud of our achievement.

Me: As far as the actual business side of it goes, what you are selling — the atmosphere and the ethos — seems to be rooted in your original project on the M6. There, it is near your own farm and you have your own produce that you can sell and use, but how did you go about contacting the local producers to set up a similar operation here?

Danny Martin:

We held a series of “meet the buyer” events in Gloucester with our buying teams telling them about our ethos and plans for the services. We opened with a dedicated band of local producers and as the reputation of the services has grown, so has our list of suppliers.

People hear about us, recognise that our ethos matches their product, or produce, and then come to us.

We have a huge variety of local produce available, including our traditional butchers, a fishmonger, a cheese stall, and an artisan bread stall, all manner of delicious sweet, and savoury baking, and even locally pressed fruit juices, ales, and ciders. We work with 130 local suppliers, within 30 miles of our farmshops, and a further 70 from the wider region.

Me: Yes, I have seen the photographs, and it all looks very beautifully made and delicious. Do you provide for those who would prefer vegetarian and organic options?

Danny Martin:

Yes, we cater for everyone who uses the motorway network. Our customers are Mr., and Mrs. Great Britain; we offer a wide range of food including vegan and vegetarian options, which are gaining popularity with customers. All of our food is freshly made on site every day.

Me: I have seen a plaque which says that his royal highness the Prince of Wales opened the facilities. Is there anything you can say about that; when that was, and how that came about? I can imagine that Prince Charles would be very taken with the whole ethos of the place, as even though it is modern architecture, it is modern ecological architecture, very in keeping with the surroundings, so should suit his sensibilities. Did he express any opinions about the place?

Danny Martin:

His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales opened the Southbound Services in July 2015. The services had worked closely with his rural charity, The Prince’s Countryside Fund and our local sourcing vision resonates with the work the Prince champions.

He’s a keen campaigner to save our bees, and he finished our mural with his signature and a honey bee.

Me: In my opinion, Gloucester is a model on which all future service areas should be based, as it is undoubtedly the most beautiful service area that I have ever visited. Just being here filled me with a sense of well-being that I have not experienced at any other service area, ever before. I understand that this and Tebay are voted into the top ten service areas in Britain. Has anyone approached you with a view to building anything similar and asking for advice? Do you as a company think you might build anything similar anywhere else on the motorway network?

Danny Martin:

Motorway services take a great deal of planning and cooperation with the highways agency that regulates the industry. We have recently revamped Cairn Lodge on the A74 in Scotland adding a farm-shop, bringing the foyer and toilets up to date. With the addition of the farm-shop, it means we can create a network of local suppliers local to the services with the same ethos as ours.

Me: I was reading that you have 4.8 million customers a year between the Northbound and Southbound sites at Gloucester, so you must be doing well as a business. Where it suits someone like me, someone who is into ecology, and green things, I can imagine it would be a bit of a shock to some people, expecting the kind of fast food restaurant that is normally at service areas. What sort of feedback do you get from the customers?

Danny Martin:

We get great feedback from our customers who are genuine fans of our locally sourced offer. It’s very satisfying when our customers share their love of Westmorland on social media and with staff. It’s hugely motivating. We need to stay one step ahead of the trends and keep at the very forefront of consumer tastes. It’s a 24 hour 365 day a year business, we offer a “service” to motorists and we take that very seriously.

Me: Yes, you can add my name to that list of satisfied customers, as I always stop here now when I am traveling this way. Thanks so much for answering all my questions. Perhaps when our readers see this place through my article, it will inspire them to come here, or perhaps press for something similar in the countries where they live.


So, if you live in the UK or are visiting, and happen to find yourself on the M5 near Gloucester, do make a point of visiting this truly remarkable place to charge up your car and your own spiritual batteries at the same time, while attending to your physical needs at high class facilities with good natural food and drink on offer.

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Andy Miles

As a child, I had the unrealistic expectation that I would learn about, and understand, absolutely everything during the course of growing up. Now, at the other end of life, I am fully aware of how much I have not learnt and do not understand, and yet, I remain interested in everything. My education, starting with an arts degree and going on to postgraduate studies in everything from computer science to hypnotism reflected my broad interests. For 20 years, I worked in local government. I am now retired, living in North Leicestershire in the UK, with plenty of time for doing whatever I like. I have always had a keen interest in everything alternative, which includes renewable energy and energy efficiency and, of course, electric vehicles. So, naturally, I have taken ownership of an EV, now that they are affordable and practical forms of transport. Writing is also one of my great pleasures, so writing about EVs and environmental issues is a natural evolution for me. You can find my work on EV Obsession, and CleanTechnica, and you can also follow me on twitter.

Andy Miles has 49 posts and counting. See all posts by Andy Miles