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History of Lancaster (Forton) services

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Forton drawing 1963.jpg
A dramatic drawing from a publicity leaflet.

Camera icon

Opened by Top Rank 1965
Tower closes due to low use 1989
Sold to Pavilion 1992
Sold to Granada 1995
Renamed 'Lancaster (Forton)' 1996
Rebranded Moto 2001
Granted listed status 2012
Renamed 'Lancaster' 2010s

When Lancaster services was first commissioned, under its local name of Forton, there was no clue that its design was going to go on to become so iconic. In fact, the Ministry weren't actually that keen on it.

Tendering

See also: M6 Service Area Planning

The documents were sent out in 1962, describing it as a 17.7 acre site, requiring at least a £250,000 investment. This would include an eastern corner reserved for a picnic area. It emphasised that the views to the west must be considered in the design, and that facilities must be provided on both sides.

Five replies were received, and they were analysed by their rent offer, fuel offer, catering offer, traffic flow, landscaping and company stability.

Telefusion Ltd

Telefusion were made up of 20 companies who all rented out televisions. They proposed building one restaurant and one café on a bridge, plus a transport café on each side. Seating would have been provided for 750 people. The design included a footbridge over the southbound access road to reach the picnic area.

The café and restaurant overlooked the motorway. The rent offered in return was low, the building layout was poor and the catering plans were too vague to be used.

J Lyons

The established catering firm who had been encouraged to try for a service area proposed one grill-restaurant and two snack bars on the bridge, with a transport café at each end of the building. Below the restaurants were two walkways (one for staff and one for the public), with shops.

Outside the entrance to the restaurant (in the middle of the bridge) was a rounded foyer, while the snack bars were at the top of each flight of stairs. The building was described as "heavy and ugly", with "bad shapes", and it didn't account for any of the views offered.

Their rent proposal was great in the short term, the catering was good, but the car parks were too small and needed a significant redesign.

Lyons would have used the name Normand Ltd, with catering provided by The Robley Group of Liverpool.

Banquets Catering Ltd

Banquets were planning one top-floor restaurant, one ground-floor café and a transport café on each side, seating 740 in total. The rent offered was low, the layout was poor and the catering proposal exposed a lack of industry knowledge. The car park had been screened by walls of local stone.

Granada

Granada services.
Granada had to wait until 1995 before they got their logo here.

Granada would eventually come to own the services as their monopoly of the region grew. They clearly wanted a head-start with this.

At Forton, Granada wanted a restaurant and café on the northbound side, with a takeaway hut on the southbound side, as well as a transport café on both. Overall they would have seated 950 people, mostly on the northbound side where they felt most of the trade would be.

Next to those restaurants was a grass area, reserved for a future expansion. The large buildings took on a rotunda shape, with concrete on the upper sections and glass on the lower sections, all elevated above the surroundings, with toilets and a shop on the ground floor. The covered footbridge met the building at mezzanine level.

The café would have been further divided into sections offering full meals and refreshments, and the restaurant would have had a private dining room.

The rent they were offering in return was excellent. This, coupled with the vast and unnecessary plan, means it likely would have ran at a loss. Granada were repeating a trick they had tried at Leicester Forest East, where they hoped they would own a site so large that no other sites would be needed.

Once again, it didn't work. In addition to being caught out, had it been built as per their plan the sewage system would have needed an extensive and expensive upgrade.

During their investigations, Granada enquired as to whether they could tunnel under the road. They were told they could - but that it wasn't clear why they would want to.

Fortes

If you thought Granada had been trying to circumvent the rules, Fortes had tried something even cleverer.

Motorway Services Ltd, the company part-owned by Fortes who had built most of the country's motorway service areas so far, were told regulations preventing a monopoly meant they could not bid for this site. So Fortes decided they would put their name on the bid, and point out it was the first bid they had submitted!

The plan had a restaurant and café on the bridge, with an exposed terrace at each side, above a transport café and entrance hall, altogether offering seating for 600 people. Predictably, the catering was great. The landscaping received a mixed reaction, while it is the only proposal to be additionally submitted to the county's engineers, who confirmed the bridge-restaurant almost certainly would not stand as they had drawn it. There would have been a mobile catering unit in the picnic area.

Fortes didn't win the contract partly because of the engineering concerns, partly because their existing sites weren't operating perfectly, but mostly because they had tried to take advantage of a loophole and the Ministry weren't going to let it slide.

Rank

The Pennine Tower.
The service area shortly after opening.

See also: The Pennine Tower

Top Rank's plan came "consistently highly" rated by all the experts it was passed between. It showed a restaurant and a self-service café on the west side, the restaurant being at the top of a 96ft (29m) tower. At the top of the tower was a sun terrace ("a roof with glass walls"), which they had described but hadn't included any suggestions for how it could be used, adding that maybe it could form an observation platform or serve teas. It was designed to allow an additional storey to be built for the restaurant.

Including a transport café on each site, seating was provided for 700 people, with 101 toilets and 403 parking spaces. A kiosk and toilets were provided in the picnic area. Each building, including two takeaway units, the picnic building, the tower and the two restaurants, all took on a hexagon-shape, with the restaurants extending outwards over the area below. Even the flower beds at the front were hexagon-shaped.

"The winning design looks first class. Congratulations."
Granada's team to the Ministry, 1963.

The agreed initial rent was the highest of any 1960s service station. However, it was the only service area to use a constant revenue curve (where the rent did not increase as custom did), meaning in the long-term it could have become one of the cheapest to run. At £885,000, it was the most expensive service station Rank built, and was considerably more than what had been asked of them.

Architects T P Bennett & Sons had been commissioned to design the services, and had been given a reasonably blank canvas to draw whatever they liked. They would later come up with something similar for Hilton Park. The county surveyor and chairman of the county highways said it was by the far the best option put forward. However, it didn't offer anything for southbound traffic. It was therefore summarised as "not ideal but imaginative".

On this weak recommendation, they won the contract, but on a condition imposed by the Landscape Advisory Committee that the height of the tower was reduced to something less imposing.

Opening

Automated catering.
The southbound catering trial.

Lancaster was opened in 1965 by Rank as 'Forton services'. The petrol station opened early in January, with some additional southbound facilities opening that Spring. The motorway had been opened ahead of schedule, and Rank had paid a significant sum to accelerate the speed of construction of the services to be ready for the motorway, even though they were under no obligation to.

In November the northbound amenities opened, including a separate car park to be used as a picnic area, as well as a police outstation. As with all their services, Rank issued celebratory promotional leaflets to go with it.

The northbound building had an entrance to the main hall (with a wooden spiral staircase by the entrance, leading to the tower restaurant), and next to it were steps up to the first floor. Another entrance provided access to a gift shop. The main structure was painted white, with blue and black sections. Wooden panels were all around the building, and still remain on the bridge ceiling.

The southbound amenity building had a lowered section with a Quick Snacks machine, as well as the toilets. There were stairs on each side and a walkway running beside the motorway.

Above the toilets was the transport café, which had only an Autosnacks machine, where staff loaded hot meals into the back and customers paid to release them. These were the motorway network's first catering vending machines, and the Ministry of Transport were won round by the idea. On the other hand Rank weren't so impressed - they removed the machines due to low demand.

Shortly after opening, the service area struggled to recruit staff. Inspectors were also slightly disappointed by the lack of attention to detail, concluding that the architects, who had previously worked on Strensham, needed closer supervision.

As with many service areas, trade was disappointing and profits were low. This was reflected in its catering.

In 1977, Egon Ronay rated the service area as "appalling". The steak and kidney pie was "an insult to one's taste buds" while the apple pie was "an absolute disgrace". He said the whole site needed maintenance and a coat of paint, the toilets were smelly and dirty, and the food on display was "most unattractive". The tower-restaurant's tables were neatly laid, even if the food it sold was "an insult to the public".

A 1978 government review described the services as "a soulless fairground".

Changes

Beige Forton services.
The northbound side in 1981.

As Rank's finances began to improve, the building was refurbished in 1979. The building was now painted beige, with a red interior. A stamp dated 1982 commemorated the opening of Britain's first 'motorway sub post office' at Forton.

In 1987, a takeaway building on the northbound side was turned into a tourist information centre, and the main building had an extension to gain a new shop. Inside, the toilets and game arcade were along the back wall on the ground floor. Between 100 and 200 people would be employed here, depending on the time of year. The general manager spoke to BBC Radio Lancashire, suggesting that buskers should be performing at the service area.

On the southbound side, a small entrance area was provided in front of the toilets. The stairs on the left still led directly to the café, while the stairs on the right were removed, and the external staircase on the far right was covered and became the main internal stairs. The building was extended further in 1987, with a shop on the left as you walked in, a fast food unit on the right, and the game arcade by the toilets.The old takeaway building was demolished.

When the tower closed in 1989, Rank reorganised the building. Yorkie's Transport Diner was placed on the northbound first floor, to the side of the main restaurant, with 88 seats. It had its own rest area, with a TV, and separate toilets. The first floor Oasis restaurant remained its present position, with a separate entrance leading into the servery. A second exit, which may have been for emergencies, led to a flight of stairs in the middle, which then ran underneath the building.

At the tower base, the wooden staircase by the entrance was blocked off with a partition, and the lift manufacturer ensured that the buttons to reach the top floors would only work if a key was presented, although this was the company's standard lift key.

The Rank Motor Lodge was opened in 1990, in place of the northbound picnic area, re-using the car park there.

When Pavilion took over, they wanted to invest considerably in the buildings. They placed many bright green signs on the outside, reading "Forton", while painting the buildings white.

Initially, the new northbound shop became the Snack Cafe, with Pavilion's shop placed at the back. On the southbound side, the shop was on the left, with the Snack Cafe on the right. The toilets and game arcade remained at the back. Above the southbound toilets (visible to the first floor restaurant) was a fish pond.

In 1993 a roof was placed over the petrol stations, which carried the Pavilion logo, and sold Shell and Esso fuel. Esso was promoted more dominantly. The southbound first floor café became Burger King, while the building was extended, making the front more level. This looked like a diner, with low windows and awning all round it. The tourist information centre and game arcade moved here, and a plaza was supposed to be provided at the front. A third flight of stairs was provided from the main building, up to the first floor, which involved making the steps down the toilets narrower and less grand.

The northbound building was extended, providing seating for the Snack Cafe, in turn bringing the entrance forward. The game arcade was moved to the front. Inside, a flight of stairs now led direct to the main restaurant, while a second flight led to the bridge, in addition to the external bridge staircase. The internal restaurant exit was filled in and closed.

To save space, Pavilion proposed making the car parks double-deck in 1994, but this didn't happen. This was still being pursued in 2004.

Granada Era

Granada Lancaster.
The front of the southbound services in 1996.

Under Granada, the northbound Snack Cafe became La Brioche Doree. The northbound trucker's café closed, with the main restaurant (which was soon converted to Fresh Express) catering for everyone. Escalators were installed up to the restaurant area.

On the southbound side, the Snack Cafe became Little Chef, with flimsy partitions separating it from the corridor. The retail unit behind it became Ladbrokes, blocking off the old staircase up to the first floor. The first floor Burger King remained, with its external entrance and the new internal entrance. The tower became a regional office.

In 1996, Granada wanted to rename the site from 'Forton' to 'Lancaster'. Granada often promoted their sites using the name of a major city, with the actual name in brackets, so naturally this one became "Lancaster (Forton)". There's nothing to suggest that there had been any custom lost because of the change, but there might have been a bit of confusion.

What's unusual is that this became its official name, used on road signs, which was probably due to someone at either the Highways Agency or Granada (or both) misunderstanding their own policies. In any case the 'Lancaster' name stuck, and continued to be used on publications, while the 'Forton' suffix was frequently dropped. It was formally removed from the road signs during the 2010s.

England's national highway authority still refer to it as 'Lancaster (Forton)' when there is an incident at the services.

Further Changes

Moto Greggs Lancaster.
The southbound building in 2013, with Moto and Greggs' colours.

Granada's last move was to extend the northbound service area again, adding three new units which they would have called a shopping centre. The toilets were moved upstairs to the former café area. The external stairs up to the bridge were modified.

Both petrol stations were branded BP. The northbound side was demolished in 1998 and replaced with a new one, becoming one of Granada's flagship forecourts.

On the southbound side, a multi-faith room was provided by the bridge, where the old staircase was.

The northbound tourist information centre was demolished by Moto in 2002. Inside, Claire's Accessories and a large Halfords were the two shops at the front. The Gscape game arcade was in the former snack area.

By 2006 the paint on the tower had faded badly, so the building was repainted in Moto's turquoise.

From 2007, the northbound ground floor consisted of WHSmith (where the original shop was), M&S Simply Food and Costa. Cotton Traders, Fone Bitz and Greggs also opened here. Upstairs, Burger King and EDC (with its own Costa concession) were the main restaurant offers. The EDC counter became smaller as buffet counters went out of fashion. EDC became Arlo's, but this closed in 2019. Several takeaway concessions were placed at the front.

On the southbound side, the Little Chef became Caffè Ritazza and then Costa, while the tourist information was unused for a while before becoming Greggs. All the windows were filled in. Upstairs, the main facility continues to be Burger King. The southbound toilets continue to be at basement level. However, as the majority of the southbound building is a ground-level extension, the basement now only occupies a tiny portion of the building.

When the tower was listed in 2012, its colour was recorded as 'green'. Moto changed this to 'light ivory' in 2016, attempting to recreate its original colour. They said that they could see no way the tower could be brought back into use, but they did provide heritage photos around the building, and contribute to several history projects. The original lifts were replaced between 2014 and 2017, requiring new bespoke-shaped lift cars.

The service area was listed by the Highways Agency as an "approved truckstop" when they ran their short-lived truckstop guide.

This leaves the mystery of what happened to the southbound picnic area. It was between the rear access and the slip road, where there are now thick trees.


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