The only lovely service station on Earth. Are we there yet?


by Magnus Shaw.


There are so many religions, beliefs, creeds and philosophies we can't really be sure what hell would be like. But it's a reasonable assumption a motorway service station would be involved.

I don't know what it is about these places, but misery seems to thrive in them. Perhaps it's the pokey little, doorless room, painted black and crammed with noisy video game machines; or the shop overstocked with sunglasses, cuddly toys and giant bags of sweets, all priced roughly 2000% above the usual retail rate. Even if one manages to avoid these torments and you can always treat yourself to the most indigestible cooked breakfast even conceived, warmed and almost evaporated by giant lamps. Yours for a mere £15.00. By the time you've dodged the tragic soul selling AA membership and the haunted eyes of the Costa Coffee servers, to wend your way through the sleeping juggernauts and back onto the exit slip road, the sensation of relief (and poverty) is all but overwhelming.

Despite the number of companies involved in this industry, the horror of these places appears to be unending and unchanging. Wherever you are in the UK, wherever your journey is taking you, the experience is unnervingly identical and inevitably depressing. Unless you are visiting Tebay, on the M6 in Cumbria.

Tebay is owned and operated by the family Westmorland company and is a beacon of light in the ocean of existential, service station darkness. These are the only services in England built and operated by local people, and they do things differently. With a reputation for delicious home-made food and friendly staff who actually appear to be happy in their work, the site is literally exceptional.

The services first opened in 1972 to the delight of the northbound carriageway. Then in 1993 southbound traffic had their shot at contentment. 500 people work here now and all are tasked with delivering properly tempting dishes, carefully chosen refreshing drinks and unique Cumbrian produce in the two award-winning farm shops. (Not that it's a guarantee of anything, but Prince Charles opened these farm outlets).

At Tebay, kids aren't encouraged to rot their brains in the games machine cell, instead they can feed the ducks (oh yes, there are ducks), bounce about in the indoor activity area or just drop a coin into the magic wishing well (all proceeds go to the ducks). For the hungry adults, there's a menu which would put many bistros to shame. In fact, so popular are the dishes, Westmoreland publish the recipes on their website.

You don't get that with Moto - and to be honest, I can be pretty certain this is the only motorway service station which accepts telephone dinner bookings.

From a cheese of the week to a special club for coach drivers, it's obvious Tebay has revolutionised the whole service station concept, but what lessons does their enterprise have for the wider business world? Well, for one thing, they put their customers first. It sounds obvious, but it is a principle most British companies find so hard to grasp. Outsourced call centres, overcharging, rudeness - frustrations we all must overcome on a daily basis. But the funny thing is, as Westmorland has discovered, when you care about your punters, they care about you - and that's actually very profitable.

Tebay also has a genuine passion for what it does. It's a massively overused claim - every second ad bangs on about the advertiser being passionate about spaghetti or toothpaste or whatever, without really meaning it - but the Tebay folk clearly go to great lengths to build something they can enjoy and believe in, and in which their visitors can share. It's telling that all this has all been achieved by a fiercely independent, family concern, rather than a corporate multiple. The bigger the entity, the more it is run by accountants and impersonal executives. But surely even the most expansive, monolithic multi-national PLC can see the good sense and joy involved in the Tebay operation? Or maybe that's asking too much.

Indeed, perhaps it's best Tebay Services remains in its own wonderful niche. That way, on the terrible occasions we find ourselves wandering lost and distraught in one of the many concrete circles of M1 Hades, all hope of an affordable coffee and wee gone, we can comfort ourselves with the knowledge that somewhere in the Lakes District, there's a place where everything is done properly. And we can smile.

Magnus Shaw is a copywriter, blogger and consultant.


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