History of Rownhams services
When the M27 was built, Rownhams services's parking and access roads were built at the same time. The amenity buildings were developed afterwards and the first side opened about a year later.
The site of the services was chosen as it is 12 miles from the original planned services at Meon Valley. Residents were informed of the plan in August 1970 and, already annoyed about the route of the motorway, were furious.
When Rownhams opened to bids in 1973, Trusthouse Forte were forbidden from taking part because they already ran the nearest service area at the time, which was Fleet. In an administrative error, Forte were accidentally sent the tendering papers, which they used to argue they should take part.
Forte did get to take part, and were joined by Roadchef and two new firms: Blackburn & Son Ltd and Hanover Ltd. Roadchef made a typically ambitious bid.
Rownhams was one of three services which trialled only selling two brands of fuel, as the site was deemed "non-critical" when it was planned. Interested developers were also told that there should be a café and a transport café on each side, and that the investment must be at least £350,000.
The site was 33 acres in size, spread across two sides with the Department of the Environment providing a subway between the two. The Department's decision to build a subway was to reduce the visual impact, and to take advantage of the hill that the road is built across. Several motorway service area subways were planned in the 1970s.
Prior Report, 1978.
Whilst the westbound services were under construction, temporary buildings were provided here. The opening documents for the site were signed on 21 June 1976.
In the Prior Report of 1978, operating Rownhams was compared to "running an ocean liner while waiting for the tide to come in". The Department of Transport were more blunt, calling it "the white elephant". It stuck out from all the other services as a complete white elephant, which was blamed on delays in completing the M3 and M27. Various documents from the time would refer to Rownhams as the exception to every rule, policy and pattern, with one study excluding Rownhams because it had "well-known, special problems".
When the completion of the M3 was postponed indefinitely, Roadchef raised a complaint about the trade thy were losing as a result. In return they were offered a small amount of compensation.
The older of the two sides, Rownhams westbound opened a short while after the M27 and consisted of a white building with several hexagonal points, brown tinted windows and bare brick indoors. It had one large restaurant rather than the conventional two or three. It was designed to be relatively well camouflaged, with the whole complex being lower than that of the motorway and the main entrance being unusually discreet for a service station.
In the 21st Century the screening started to be taken less seriously, especially in 2008 when the M27 was widened and the majority of the trees which formed a gap in the tarmac were removed. The Rownhams 'green dream' had already been compromised when the original planning inspectorate's dream of a rooftop garden were written off as being too expensive.
Eastbound traffic could access the new site through the underpass, which came out at the coach entrance to the services. With the coach park moving and the need for the subway ending, this entrance became very quiet, although it saw a brief return to popularity when McDonald's was only available westbound.
A plaque inside marks the opening of a "RoadChef development" on 1 July 1985. This was attended by Lord Montagu, and celebrated the opening of a new 250-seat self-service restaurant and "indoor shopping mall".
From the outside, the building was largely unchanged from 1977 until 2012. One unfulfilled early 2000s plan would have added a curved aluminium roof to the building.
Branding and Layout
Upon opening, the toilets were at the front (facing the car park, one by each entrance), and the restaurant was at the back, which extended back further than it looks. Within this, a coffee shop was introduced to the middle and then moved closer to the aisle.
The western end of the restaurant was syphoned off to become a Wimpy bar, then The Burger Company. The exact history here isn't clear as proposals had been put forward through the 2000s to add McDonald's, Wimpy, Costa and Dr Beak's Chicken to the fringes of the restaurant, and many of these didn't materialise, but it looks like one former seating area then became a boardroom. In any case, by each entrance an extra shop was introduced - one was called Surf Shack and became a temporary Costa, and the other was replaced in favour of this mysterious supplementary restaurant. During these changes, the usefulness of the atrium room that was within the restaurant was reduced.
A motel was built here in around 1989. It was initially branded RoadChef Lodge, then Travel Inn, Premier Inn, and is now Days Inn. It was built next to what used to be the coach park, a decision which was justified because the parking areas were seriously under-used.
For some years, a portable building was positioned by the front of the building to provide tourist information. Tourist information has since been removed from most service areas, but similar structures have been used to hold temporary shops here. A children's play area was added to the garden in 1993, and removed in 2011.
In Spring 2012 McDonald's was introduced to the services, taking the opportunity to reface the front of the building, creating a much more prominent entrance and changing the layout of the interior to create a larger Costa area and smaller restaurant, with the lobby directing customers in to the restaurant area rather than the toilets.
Significant changes were made in 2017. The old rear entrance was blocked off and the toilets were moved here. Costa was moved to a new position underneath the atrium roof, bringing it back into use. A new entrance and foyer were built, directing people to a more spacious central area.
Rear Access Saga
When the service area was planned in 1971, the main objection from residents was that the Rear Access would be used as a shortcut to join the motorway. The Department for the Environment tried to assure them that this would be controlled.
Within weeks of Rownhams opening, complaints were received that drivers were using the rear access. The authorities were slow to act; they wanted to pass the issue to Roadchef, but were reluctant to do so because Roadchef were already unhappy with the costs of running Rownhams.
A year later, gates were installed, but these were frequently left open. In 1978 the Department of Transport admitted that they had no suggestions as to how the road could be controlled. Eventually, in 1979, Hampshire County Council agreed to carry out a traffic survey, but this established that the problem was not as severe as had been expected.
In the 21st century, Hampshire Constabulary continues to receive complaints from residents, though given the road layout in the area it is logical to suggest that the majority of the 'abusers' are local residents. A rising barrier was replaced several times during the 2010s, but usually vandalised within a few weeks.
The road was moved in 2015, to direct traffic away from the car park, making it safer to operate.
The eastbound building has a more traditional late-'80s brick and glass building. It is actually higher up than its surroundings, but the darker colours mean it still blends in. It's much smaller than the other side, but this is almost a given seeing as it was only built to relieve it.
The opening of the services was presumably delayed until the completion of the M27 past Hedge End, to make up for the traffic problems which were experienced by the westbound side. Until it was built, all the car park took you to was a pathway through to the other side. This is still there, but rarely used.
As a result of the smaller restaurant area, no fast food service was initially provided, although The Burger Company's products were sold. This all changed when McDonald's opened in 2015.
In 2000 and again in 2006, there were plans to build a lodge in the gap by the car park, but this never happened. The road signs still suggest there is a lodge here, and previously people would have been able to visit the westbound lodge via the rear access, but the markings for this have faded and the official advice is now to turn around at the next junction (which cannot actually be done, but never mind).
In November 2014 the eastbound service area was closed for four days after diesel was spilled across the exit slip road.
Early on the morning of 14 November 2017 the refurbished entrance to the westbound services was severely damaged when two vehicles were deliberately driven in to it, in order to access and steal a cash machine. The amenity building, which had customers in it at the time, was closed for several hours to allow for investigations and an inspection of the structure.