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History of Corley services

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Corley exit under construction.jpg
The service area under construction in 1971, with the exit closed off.

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Opened by Trusthouse Forte 1972
Re-branded Motor Chef 1974
Re-branded Welcome Break 1988

When the service area went to tender, Granada were forbidden from bidding for it, as they already ran Frankley which technically was an adjoining service area. Granada protested that this was pedantic and were eventually allowed to bid.

In the event, the best bids came from Esso and Fortes. Fortes were proposing a full restaurant whereas Esso just wanted to provide automated catering, and with Esso having not proven themselves at the time, Fortes won the contract.

Corley opened on 17 January 1972, almost a year after the M6. 300 jobs were created.

Design

See also: M6 Service Area Planning

The site for the services was originally going to be to the west at Chapel Green, but this required too many earthworks, so Corley was found instead.

When it was being designed, Corley was thought to be one of the only commercially attractive service areas available, with the other 30 proposed service areas effectively being a waste of money.

Corley was planned to be very large, mainly to allow for more landscaping than had been done previously, and it required local roads to be diverted around it. A previous plan used much less land, sticking much closer to the motorway.

By the time Corley opened, most operators had decided it was best to design buildings that took customers' minds away from the motorway. Fortes still believed that a distinctive building would attract passing customers. They had hoped to build a bridge-restaurant here, but the footbridge had already been built by the Department for Transport, so instead they covered the footbridge with yellow glass reinforced plastic, designed to have aerodynamics like a vehicle.

"You see it from some way off and immediately want to slow down to investigate further."
Design Journal, 1972

The yellow GRP wasn't just "interesting", it was also chosen because it was durable and easy to maintain. The only maintenance the bridge needed was an annual waxing. The architect was Garnett Cloughley Blakemore and Associates.

The buildings themselves had steel frames, large windows around the dining area and flat roofs with cladding to hide the pipes. On the south-eastbound side was a cafeteria and a transport café with a shared kitchen, plus an entrance hall with access to toilets, a shop and slot machines. The north-westbound side was the same but with a grill and griddle available too.

Corley was thought to be the largest service area in Europe when it opened. Despite this, the buildings were slightly too small, and the entry foyers soon became crowded.

Operation

Corley motorway service area.
The amenity building designed to look attractive to passers-by.

A 1972 edition of Design Journal compared Corley with the architect's previous work at Scratchwood. They concluded that Corley looked "cheaper and less polished", and called the orange upholstery "somewhat nauseating". They were impressed by the distinctiveness of the footbridge though, and remarked that this was likely to be the last interconnected footbridge to open at a UK service area. Overall, Corley was said to be both interesting and relaxing.

Unfortunately the service area did have a poor relationship with its staff union. Within a few months of opening, it had to close for a two hour strike on 15 October 1972, and again for a day-long strike on 24 June 1974. Female employees experienced further tension with the union in 1977.

Meanwhile in June 1975, 80 members of staff were made redundant as fears of subsidence from the coal seams below caused the north-westbound building to be temporarily closed. Forte had previously tried to force the National Coal Board to stop mining nearby. Secretly, Forte were delighted that the closures would allow them to reduce their losses.

There was tension with the Department, too. By the late 1970s Forte were refusing to extend the toilets, but did provide new takeaway catering units in the car park. The inspectors were unimpressed that Forte were only interested in investment that would make them money, and despite the initial problems, Corley was becoming one of their most profitable sites. They tried to take advantage of the crowds with facilities such as a bouncy castle and a crazy golf course, which got them in further trouble with the inspectors.

In 1977 Egon Ronay rated the south-eastbound service area as "poor". Although accepting it was clean and cheerful, even if the toilets did smell. A 1978 government review described the service area as "scruffy and prison-like".

Improvements to the service area were put on hold in the 1990s, as a plan to widen the M6 had emerged, which could have been the place demolished. The M6 was eventually widened in 2020, but without using any extra land.

Brands

Corley motorway services.
Inside the foyer in 1983.

Originally each building had a shop, a main cafeteria and a transport café, with the north-westbound side also having a grill and griddle.

The motorway network's first Julie's Pantry was added in 1979, and by the mid-1980s Little Chef and The Granary had joined it to totally replace the dining offer. There was a Little Chef and Julie's on each side, which all closed in phases between 1995 and 1998.

There was also a Thorntons shop in the early 1990s.

On 12 May 2006 a Starbucks facility along with Coffee Primo was added to the westbound side. It was the first Starbucks to be built on the motorway network. The services had been the first to get a Coffee Primo several years before.

The hotel opened on 1 June 2008, but one had been planned here for many years - as early as 1972. At one time a Little Chef Lodge was planned.


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