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History of Heart of Scotland (Harthill) services

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Photos of the services in the 1970s.

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Opened by Blue Star as Harthill 1971
Sold to Alan Pond 1976
Rebuilt 1985?
Sold to Roadchef 1986?
Roadchef facilities closed and demolished 2005
New forecourt, renamed Heart of Scotland 2006

Originally named Harthill services, Heart of Scotland was the first service area in Scotland when it opened in 1971.

The Scottish Office approached England's Ministry of Transport in 1963, asking them for advice on motorway service areas. The Ministry of Transport explained that their experience with roads like the M1 and M6 had been that motorway service areas needed to be much larger than might be expected.

Highway Restaurants Limited

"Harthill has shown how pointless it is to use English precedents"
Scottish Office, 1975

The site was put out to tender, but the only reply came from Highway Restaurants Limited. This was a consortium between caterers Trust Houses and fuel retailers Blue Star and Burmah. Highway Restaurants had failed with many bids in England, but were successful here, and signed the contract in 1967.

Harthill services opened in 1971. An official opening event was held a few months later, attended by Lady Clydesmuir, with a plaque left in the hallway. It cost £650,000 to develop and created 200 jobs. The Scottish government provided high mast lighting, which was common in Scotland but shunned by England's service areas.

The Blue Star name was used on signs across the building. There was a transport café on each side of the road, and a large restaurant on the upper level of the eastbound side. A long, heavy bridge linked in with it, looking tall amongst the flat landscape. Inside it was built with high ceilings and large windows.

Highway Restaurants encountered financial difficulties, and within a few years they only had the eastbound restaurant open. Despite their struggling finances, this restaurant had a good reputation. Egon Ronay listed it as one of the few good service stations when he visited in 1972.

The rent had to be renegotiated in July 1974. This unusual decision was taken because nobody else wanted to run it. The Scottish government concluded that Harthill suffered from "over-provision and high overheads". The expected traffic had not materialised; the M8 was a short motorway used mainly by commuters who didn't need to use the restaurant.

Alan Pond Group

In June 1976, the site was taken over by local fuel retailer Alan Pond. Advice on catering was sought from a recently retired chip shop owner in Harthill village. Together they turned the main restaurant into 'The Inshore Fisherman'. They also reopened the transport cafés, which had been attracting vandalism, and replaced both forecourts.

The Inshore Fisherman was a waitress service restaurant with a fish and chip-shop inspired menu, mainly fresh fish - which at the time was a rarity on the motorway. This was the only 24 hour offer, and reservations could be made. A fence made of trelliswork hung with fishing nets, glass floats and plastic lobsters separated this from the main café.

The larger side of the divide was the main café, whose décor was more plain and functional, selling food which was unashamedly frozen. The self service counter lead off at right angles from the main seating area and had a separate entrance from the hallway. A red-with-bits-of-blue colour scheme was used.

Despite their enthusiasm, Alan Pond struggled to keep it running. In 1977 there were rumours that they were in financial difficulties, and in 1979 the operator made an agreement to pay a reduced rent, close half the facilities, stop their breakdown service, and close at night - yet still made a loss. Vandalism continued to be a problem too.

The previously-impressed Egon Ronay called the place "appalling" when he visited in 1977: he called it "rather desolate and vandalised", the toilets "unsatisfactory" and the waitress service "the loosest meaning of the term". He was more satisfied in 1978, when he said it was the only place that was any good.

Roadchef and Harthill 2

Roadchef Harthill.
The old Roadchef restaurant.

There is some confusion as to when Roadchef took over. Planning records show that permission was sought to modify the service area in 1984. A documentary on the project was commissioned and filmed in 1984 and 1985, although this was never released. An official reopening ceremony was held on 1 October 1985, attended by the Minister for Home Affairs and the Environment.

However, most records show that Roadchef's responsibility for the service area began in 1986. Construction of the main building overran and this may be when it was completed. The project also involved refurbishing the forecourt, which was likely to have finished first.

What we do know is that Roadchef had been rebuilding several service areas in this period, including Scotland's Bothwell and Hamilton, and Harthill was rebuilt in a similar style. All of the old facilities had been demolished, except for the bridge which now stood on its own. A new, single-storey amenity building was built on the eastbound side, while the westbound side only provided access to the bridge.

Roadchef did invest in the service area. A 36-seat, drive thru Wimpy restaurant was built next to the westbound car park in 1997. At the time, drive thrus were very rare on the motorway network. Roadchef said they wanted to target people who wanted to eat in their cars, but ultimately no more of these opened.

Meanwhile planning permission was secured to build a hotel on the westbound side in 1995, and on the eastbound side in 2000. Neither of these projects were followed through.

The overall picture was more bleak. The demand for the facilities was very low, as the M8 was mainly carrying traffic travelling short distances. Roadchef described their own car park as "under utilised", and usually had sections of it closed off, giving some idea how barren the whole complex was.

The old bridge, which now stood on its own, had a particularly unpleasant reputation and attracted graffiti and undesirable behaviour. For westbound travellers this would be their only way to access the main facilities. The vandalism was so severe that in 2001, Roadchef considered closing the bridge at night. The local police revealed that over a third of the crime reported to them in the Harthill area involved the service area.

BP and the third effort

Heart of Scotland bridge.
The old bridge and new services.

BP had been providing the fuel at Harthill since the 1980s. In partnership with the Scottish Executive, in 2004 they proposed building a new forecourt on either side of the road, and demolishing the existing facilities. Roadchef sold the site in early 2005, and following a £4.1m investment, the new forecourt was finished in 2006.

The new site is now effectively two large petrol stations, with a lot of surplus land. The project was finished by renaming the service area Heart of Scotland (Harthill), although BP themselves still call it 'Harthill'.

A further project took place to replace the bridge, which was by far the oldest structure at the site, with a more modern one. Despite its unappealing appearance, the old bridge was said to be well used, partly because people were using the car park for car sharing. Roadchef and the Scottish Executive had been promoting Harthill as a park and ride site back in 2002, but their efforts had been somewhat half-hearted because patrons needed to use the steep-stepped and unpleasant bridge.

A new bridge was lifted into place on 3 October 2008, by the largest mobile crane in Europe. BBC News has footage of the new bridge being lifted in to place. It is a lattice tube structure, specially designed to mark the half way point on the M8. As well as being fully accessible with ramps, the new bridge has CCTV coverage, and a much more striking appearance.

The latest installation allowed a formal park and ride car park to be created. At the same time, the two rear accesses were blocked off: eastbound was abandoned, while westbound was connected to its own dedicated parking area for local traffic. The old bridge was soon demolished.

Meanwhile, BP advertised the surplus land for sale in 2008, suggesting it be used for a hotel or restaurant development. This was never taken forward. The attempted sale may reveal one of the reasons why the service area's name was changed to "Heart of Scotland": it sounds like the sort-of name that a land developer would promote.

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