A food blog on a motorway service station. Yes, weird I know. But once you’ve been to Gloucester Services, you’ll know why I feel compelled to write this. Motorway services are a necessary evil, right? Slightly dated, sad looking places full of a strange mixture of coffee chains, fast food joints, gaming machines, and shops selling things like camping chairs and compilation cds. They are places devoid of any soul, probably because they’re never destinations in their own right. They’re just places people stop off at for fuel and food. And a wee, of course.
But halfway down the M5, the motorway services has been reborn. Gloucester Services is the phoenix rising from the ashes of the burnt-out fire that is the motorway service station. Not just a stopover, it’s been created as a foodie destination in its own right. There are no chains, no Burger King, no Costa, not even a Waitrose or an M&S. Instead, the owners vowed to work with local suppliers and those from further afield in the southwest to lay on an array of produce to rival any upmarket food hall.
We stopped off on our way back from a jaunt down south. First impressions? No sad buildings, instead a serene looking glass-fronted, grass-roofed dome. It’s bright and airy, and clean (including some of the nicest motorway toilets I’ve ever had the pleasure to visit!). But it’s the food that is the winner here, for me anyway.
The canteen is worlds apart from anything you’ve seen in previous visits to service stations. No soggy battered fish or rock hard jacket potatoes lying on a hot plate. No sad looking pre-packed sandwiches. Instead, a selected of fresh breads and freshly-made sarnies, with wholesome, imaginative salads to accompany them. A central display creaked with scones, muffins and cakes, while another was piled high with breads and pastries.
Into the shop, and it was more like being in an indoor food market than a services. From crates of fresh vegetables, to bottles of locally produced ales and ciders, and specialist chutneys, jams and pickles. A wander further along took us to fudges, chocolates and toffees, then to a fridge stacked with homemade ready meals, cold meats and fish. And then, sitting at the back waiting patiently for its flock to come, lay the meat and cheese counters. The queue for the butcher’s was as long as it gets in my local butcher – hard to wrap your head around when you remember you’re not in a town or village shop, but somewhere next to the M5. It was understandable though, after a look at the broad selection of fresh-looking, well-trimmed meat.
Next to it, a tasty cheese counter boasting more than a few obvious choices, instead featuring a wide range of treats, from Pont l’Eveque to locally produced cheeses. And from here, it was to the delicatessen where we gazed adoringly at pies and scotch eggs with tempting brown crusts and saliva-inducing descriptions.
After a wander around this foodie oasis, Mr M and I decided we couldn’t leave without having lunch – a doffing of the cap to the efforts the owners have made to make this a place that you really you are coming to for lunch, not just a quick stop. Mr M chose us a New York style sarnie, packed with pastrami, pickles and mustard, with three side salads to join it. The bread was sourdough I think, nice and fresh, and the sandwich filling, yet piquant. We tried an edamame bean salad, curried chickpeas, and a tasty pasta salad. The whole plate, plus a drink, came to around £10 which we didn’t think was too bad, considering it fed both of us.
Being gluttons, we couldn’t resist trying a pork pie from the deli, as well as a scotch egg. The pie was meaty, with no gelatinous jelly, and was topped with rich, caramelised onions. The Scotch egg was light years from the strange wobbly mess you get from a supermarket, with a golden, sunshiney yolk, tasty meat and crunchy breadcrumbs. Oh, and we ate it sat outside, overlooking a lake and fountain. A far cry from the melamine tables packed side by side that you get in most services.
I know I’m a lover of food, and I’ll probably find joy in a half-decent pork pie given the chance, but I firmly believe that the people behind Gloucester Services are onto something special. And it clearly isn’t just me, because the place was packed.
The chief exec of Westmorland Family, which runs the services, is quoted as saying: “We believe proper food matters. So we serve it where you would least expect it – on the motorway. Local food shouldn’t be considered the preserve of a handful of high-end shops. It should be at the heart of everything we make and eat.”
In my view, that hits the nail on the head. Whether you’re a family going on your hols, a businessman stopping off between meetings, or a lorry driver taking a well-earned break, why shouldn’t you be able to get decent food, and enjoy that break? So goodbye fast food-crammed 80s-style service stations, your time is up. A new dawn has come, and it could make motorway services the new place to be.