History of Sandbach services
The services before refurbishment.
Sandbach is a very rare example of a successful infill site. When the M6 opened in 1963, the four slip roads at Sandbach were built, but the service area itself was put on hold until traffic levels increased.
Until it was needed, each side of Sandbach had an access road running close to the motorway, as well as a link to the A533. The southbound side had the maintenance compound in the south east corner, and an additional farm access that led back to Reynold's Lane.
See also: M6 Service Area Planning
The contract was opened to bids in 1972, as nearby Knutsford had reached full capacity but Rank didn't want to invest in it. The contract described Sandbach as a 12 acre site, aimed primarily at commercial traffic. An emphasis was placed on protecting the Rear Access to Newcastle Road from trespassers.
Bids were received from Ross, Blue Boar, Roadchef, Hanover Grand Ltd and Manor Holdings Ltd, with Roadchef offering the highest rent and winning the contract. Roadchef had only just formed; this would be one of their first restaurants and their first solo project.
Initially, each side was provided with a single parking area, finished with a HGV-friendly concrete surface. The two buildings were each formed of three diamond-shapes, and were practically mirror images of each other, with toilets and a shop on the right, a servery on the left, and seating in the middle.
The buildings had exposed brickwork, flat roofs, with rounded canopies by the entrance, similar to those used by the footbridge. The decision to erect a new footbridge over the motorway was unusual, and its distinctive covering was thought to be added in 1978.
The facilities were fitted around Manor House Farm and Betchton Heath Cottages, leaving almost no room for any greenery. It would be one of the last service areas to open with so much hard surfacing. The Rear Access remained for staff use, and the farm access was still there, coming out in a discrete location near the maintenance compound.
Opening and Changes
The service area was the first in the country to have one large restaurant, instead of several smaller ones for different classes of driver.
Fuel was initially sold by BP, Shell, Esso and Mobil. By the 1990s it had concentrated to just BP northbound and Shell southbound.
A 1986 report said between 100 and 150 people were employed here.
Plans to widen the M6 between J16 and J20 were announced in 1989. At the time, widening normally involved building a whole new motorway. There was particular concern about the impact it would have on Sandbach because it made up such a large share of Roadchef's income, and Roadchef became hesitant about investing in it. When the roadworks eventually happened in 2017, the work was done on a much smaller scale, with very little impact on the service area.
The restaurant has been branded Orchards, Hickory's and Foodfayre. Coffee was provided by Cafe Continental, which became Costa Coffee in around 2000.
RoadChef planned to build a drive thru Wimpy here in the late 1990s. This didn't happen, but a Wimpy was provided by the back wall on each side, beside the game arcade. The southbound building was extended in around 2006, and a new lobby was added. Northbound gained a new lobby in around 2008.
The restaurant was rebranded several times again, becoming onRoute and then Restbite. Roadchef's use of the Wimpy name expired so that became The Burger Company, as the units couldn't immediately be converted to McDonald's. To do that, first the restaurant servery was converted to a Hot Food Co. counter (later Fresh Food Café), leaving space for new McDonald's units alongside. New cladding was provided all around each building.
By this stage the footbridge looked incredibly unpleasant. It began to be repainted from 2013 and now has more attention paid to it, but new paint doesn't distract from how claustrophobic it is inside.
As part of Roadchef's plan to focus more on retail than refuelling, the filling stations were sold to BP in August 2017.
The southbound side had a Regus Express meeting room for a time. This was removed in 2019. The southbound Fresh Food Café unit also closed during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 and never reopened. The space has become an additional storage room.
The service area was in the news in 1992, with reports that its car park was being used by revellers for Saturday night open-air acid parties.
There were further headlines on 10 July 1996, when the place was evacuated after a bomb scare. Service areas are busy transport hubs and had to be on high alert during this difficult period.
In September 2014 the southbound service area formed a makeshift drop-off point for donations to the Cheshire Dogs Home near Warrington, after an incident at its sister site sparked a surge in donations. The demand was so strong that severe delays to build on the M6.
The 2022 Transport Focus survey calculated a 94% satisfaction score for the northbound services and 89% for the southbound services.
In Spring 2021, Which? Magazine placed Sandbach fourth-from-bottom, with a customer score of 42%.
In Spring 2017, Transport Focus calculated a 89% satisfaction score for the northbound services and 84% for the southbound services. By 2018 this had risen to 98% and 90% respectively, and in 2019 it was a mixed picture with scores of 83% and 94%.
In 2015, VisitEngland rated both sides of the services as 3 stars. In May 2012, the northbound side fell down to 2 stars, but in August 2011 both sides received 3 stars.
In late 2006 the BBC's 'The Money Programme' took a look at the services. Whilst the northbound side was almost acceptable, southbound was dirty and the toilets had several broken locks.
In 2006, Holiday Which? graded the services at 2/5.
In 2004, Good Housekeeping rated the services as 2 stars, calling it "mediocre and predictable".
The services were inspected by The AA on 3 and 4 April 2004. These are their results:
|Road safety and parking:||Good|
|Outdoor facilities:||Very Poor|
|Access and indoor facilities:||Poor|
|Final Score:||Very Poor|
This review said it was the worst service area in Europe, with the inspectors remarking "You could stop for petrol and perhaps buy some provisions, but we wouldn't recommend taking a break there".
The shops and staff were the only good things found: it had poor facilities, litter "everywhere", a dirty restaurant with a poor variety of unappetising food, high prices, dirty showers, the building and its facilities looked poorly maintained, it had no information and it had very little to help the disabled. Even the car park was said to be poorly marked and poorly maintained. This damning criticism was widely reported in the media, in an era where service station reviews were only just starting to become popular, and gave Sandbach a bad reputation that stuck for a long time.
In 1991, Sandbach came top in a Which? survey.
A 1978 government review described the services as "pleasant but disjointed".
In 1977, Egon Ronay rated the services as "poor", but he did say it was "light and airy".