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History of Sarn Park services

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Sarn Park entrance.jpg
The old-style amenity building, pictured in 2015.

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Temporary building opened 1981?
Opened by Trusthouse Forte 1986
Re-branded Welcome Break 1988
Re-built 2016

Like many service areas on the M4, customer levels have increased, but not by as much as in the rest of the country. As a result, Sarn Park managed to miss out on funding, with parts of it falling into disuse. Competition from the huge retail development opposite made it even harder to compete in an era where most road users just wanted any takeaway branded food.

As a result, in 2013 plans were put forward for a new, replacement service area building, which opened in 2016. Changing the buildings in theory made Sarn Park more appealing to visit, and helped with maintenance as the original building had reached the end of its useful life. The main problem was that the old building's awkward shape had made it difficult to adopt Welcome Break's new preferred layout with no restaurant and many small takeaway counters; the replacement therefore addressed this, helping it blend in with the rest of their estate, and made it easier to operate.

First Two Services

"[It was] Nissen huts scattered on a muddy patch."
Kim Howells MP, 1992.

Details on the first service area are scarce, except to say that it was a cause for embarrassment. Sarn Park was Wales's first motorway service area, built by local firm West Park Hotels on the site of the East Glamorgan Hotel and isolation hospital.

West Park Hotels said said they were going to incorporate the best of the English service areas. The site was dug lower than the surrounding area to minimise the environmental impact.

The sub-contractor apparently ran out of money part-way through the project, and left it permanently unfinished. There was limited food and limited surfacing. What was available had opened by 1981. After several years of complaints, Granada showed an interest in the project, but operators were put off by its low traffic levels.

It was eventually taken on by Trusthouse Forte, who opened a full service area in May 1986. Their building design was also very unusual, taking advantage of the small footprint and low traffic levels.

It consisted of three octagonal buildings; one was later disused, one offered toilets, and one was a restaurant that was actually eight segments and an extension all stitched together. The roofs on these buildings stood tall and draped low, creating a design which appeared to engulf the visitor.

In addition to the amenity buildings, there was a two-storey HGV MOT centre in the HGV parking area, which became disused, and an RAC hut positioned outside.

Space was left on the roundabout for the hotel to be built on a separate site, which soon opened as a Little Chef Lodge. It has a long driveway connecting it to the main site. Both parking areas had space to be expanded when necessary, but unusually this proved not to be required.

The site was initially branded Trusthouse Forte, with the Little Chef restaurant being the main facility. Forte merged their own brand with their Welcome Break brand in 1988, and Sarn Park became a Welcome Break service area. A leaflet dated a few years later said it had The Granary, Little Chef and The Shop. These progressed into Eat In, Starbucks and WHSmith. The nearby hotel became Welcome Lodge. The small service area building had no space available for a game arcade, which further reduced its income.

Some of the road signs were still original to the site, and in 2016 still included directions for "Commercials" - a word for HGVs not used beyond the 1980s.

Access and Footfall

Until the M4 opened, all motorway service areas had been planned and supervised by staff in London. With the M4, that task was delegated to the Welsh Office, but to save time with what could have been a very long and complicated process, the Welsh Office merely invited interested companies to plan service areas wherever they liked.

Sarn Park was ultimately a small site next to a busy junction. Providing eastbound access was easy, but as the junction has become increasingly busy, the journey to and from the M4 westbound has become extremely complicated.

Even travelling east, the strange road design used to require users to complete a full lap of the service area, before they can enter the car park.

Despite the complicated arrangements, the idea of using a small site by a busy junction should have worked. However, the open planning system meant there was nothing to stop rivals opening up nearby, and Cardiff West and Swansea West did exactly that. As a result, all three felt much quieter than a typical motorway service area.

The hotel remained a Welcome Lodge until December 2006, when it was given a £400,000 refurbishment. The new name, "Days Inn Bridgend-Cardiff", received negative media coverage as it implied Bridgend was merely a suburb of Cardiff.

New Services

Sarn Park new building.
The new amenity building and drive thru.

With the slip road running horizontally through the middle of the site, the redevelopment saw the amenity building and car park moved from the south side of this, to the north side. This was to allow the old building to remain open while the work took place.

The new, square building, has a large zig-zag roof stretching well over the front of the building to create a small terrace. A Starbucks cafe with WHSmith behind it are on the left of the concourse, with Burger King on the right. The public toilets, game arcade and deliveries area is on the back wall.

Space has been left for a concession in the lobby, and another in place of the picnic area if necessary.

As the site is on a down-hill, the front of the building is well above the car park, with steps leading up to it. A Starbucks drive thru is included with a single window at the back.

As part of the works, a rebuilt Shell garage gained a small Waitrose-branded retail store.

Although the swapped parking areas both offer more spaces than they used to, much of their alignment remains the same, with kerbstones being recycled.

A Subway store was added to the main building on 12 August 2021, in space left empty next to Burger King.

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