History of Trowell services
Trowell is one of few service areas which were initially handed to a smaller firm - this is the history of it.
Bids to operate the services opened six months late and included entries from Regent Oil, Top Rank and Mecca Leisure. Rank wanted a bridge-design with the views looking away from the motorway, but they offered a very low turnover and were rejected.
Mecca Leisure's hyper-local approach (using décor that had local connotations) helped them win the contract but this approach of theirs wasn't reserved for Trowell: in fact both Mecca and Rank bid for Hilton Park just a month later, and Farthing Corner earlier. Neither bid was successful for Mecca, and it's not clear what design they would have used at those sites.
Like all services, Mecca's grand design and insistence on providing the highest quality meant it was soon struggling financially. In its first year it lost £50,000. Unlike rival firms, they were not willing to cut corners to save cash, and rather than do that on 3 September 1977 they sold the site to Granada, who inherited it in October.
Mecca Leisure were owned by Grand Metropolitan, and their motorway services arm was managed by Michael Guthrie. After Trowell was sold, Mecca Leisure were sold to Rank and Michael Guthrie went on to create Pavilion.
When it opened, operators Mecca Leisure insisted that visitors thought of it not as a service area but as a "village". The site was entirely themed around Robin Hood. This was all removed when Granada took over. Much of the specialised stock had caused Mecca Leisure trouble as they were not approved for sale on motorways at the time.
The northbound side had a small, two-storey building. This was connected by a footbridge to the southbound side which had an area raised above the exit road, while the rest of it was on the ground floor. The main restaurant, on the southbound side, was called The Sheriff's Restaurant. Two café's, one in each upstairs area, were called Forest Cafe. Artificial trees were used inside all around, with a real garden outside.
In the entrance hall was a novel '60s feature. It was a large board with a map of the M1 on the left, and a map of the service area on the right. Above this was a grid showing Leeds, Sheffield, Nottingham, Leicester and London. Along the top were the words "sun", "fair" and "rain". A light would then display for each city showing you what the weather was. Next to it was another system of lights, showing you which restaurants were open. It's not clear how long this display was in use for.
The cafés were long rooms with windows all on one side, the other side having the service counter screened by tinted glass. Green trays were used. The main restaurant had a green and red tinted ceiling, red lampshades, Tudor-style oak furniture and a red and green carpet with a leafy pattern. There was a zig-zag shaped counter on which to sit, as well as ordinary tables with place mats.
Mecca called their facilities "an oasis on a concrete strip". Toilets and a shop were on each ground floor.
Egon Ronay, 1977
By the side of both buildings was a large grass area, which has now all been developed over. Covered and decorated walkways connected the main entrance to what they called the "coach promenade", as well as the main car park on each side. In each lorry park was a small transport café, with four small pyramids on its roof and a corridor leading to the entrance.
Mecca's architecture did not impress inspectors, who said such a rural location did not deserve such an unsympathetic design. The bright cladding around the forecourt was described as particularly distracting. The southbound upper deck actually extends over the sliproads, to take advantage of the limited space available.
In 1977 Egon Ronay made a rare positive comment about the services, describing the food as "almost good on occasion". It was the only place which he said was trying to provide a "comfortable, restful, pleasant restaurant", and appreciated the "extensive" menu. The café was not as good was the waitress service, but was still clean with prompt service.
Sir Owen Williams, who did much of the M1's design work, wanted the service area to serve as an exit for a farm, but was told it couldn't.
The Friar Tuck-In
Perhaps the most unusual concept introduced by Mecca Village was the service station's very own pub: The Friar Tuck-In. It was a large facility positioned by the main entrance, with its own bar and outdoor seating. Its name was a pun on the Robin Hood character Friar Tuck.
The pub's menu was entirely alcohol-free. Mecca Village said it was aimed at families as well as lorry drivers, and was provided in response to a number of drivers bringing their own alcohol from home and consuming it in the parking areas.
The pub would have opened in around 1975.
The cafés later became known as Marian's Pantry.
As a road safety trial, Mecca trialled a car wash here, but Granada removed it. Mecca's final work was to change the petrol station to a standard, self-service layout.
Under Granada a new coffee shop was introduced, and the upper level was initially stripped down to provide a more automated experience (with a conveyor belt to place dirty dishes on). This was called Platters - it later became office space. The pub was closed too. The initial feedback was poor; in 1978 Egon Ronay downgraded Trowell from "good" to "poor".
A new southbound dining area was then added to the lower level; that was then extended to provide one of the first mini-shopping malls. Shops included Tandy and Sock Shop, Superdrug, Clinton's and Thorntons.
In 1980 the two transport cafés were closed and became offices. They became effectively abandoned, and the northbound one was demolished in around 2002 to make more space for lorry parking.
On 7 April 1988 Edwina Currie (MP for South Derbyshire) officially opened the new Country Kitchen Restaurant. The new restaurant was described as a trial by Granada. There was another refurbishment in 1989, where Granada said they were going "upmarket". This included the addition of 'Business Point': an office suite with a secretary, fax machines and Teletext.
In 1987, Granada proposed adding a Granada Lodge to the northbound side. In 1990 they suggested converting the former northbound upstairs restaurant area, and received permission, but didn't do it. They then applied to build a separate lodge again in 1995, and it opened as a Travelodge.
On the northbound side, a tourist information centre was opened in a portable building in 1991. By now the building was painted bright white and red all around, and the first Burger King had opened. Part of the car park was leased to a pallet business which traded until 1999.
Until about 1996, the entrance to the toilets was still separate to the entrance to the rest of the building. At this point the two were combined to work with a single entrance. An extension was proposed to house a new game arcade, but this was replaced by a decision to build a Little Chef in 1997. This opened in an extension on the far left of the building, with steps up to it from inside the building. By this point most of the greenery around the building had been built on.
In 2002, a large extension to the northbound building opened. This added a large seating area, with more natural lighting, and a northbound Burger King. In 2006 it was accompanied by a second half, which added a new retail area by the entrance. The Little Chef was later converted to become a large M&S Simply Food. Cladding was placed around the distinctive upstairs restaurant windows, where the offices now are, covering it all up.
An unusual backlit motorway sign referring to the service area was attached to the motorway bridge at Waterloo Lane. This was finally removed in 2009.
On the southbound side more recently, in 2016 the redundant units added to the front of the southbound services were used to create one of few indoor West Cornwall Pasty Company units.