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History of Washington services

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Washington cafe opening.jpg
The restaurant area in the 1970s.

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Old Port services closed 1968
Services opened by Taverna 1970
Sold to Granada 1973
Re-branded Moto 2001

Washington attempted to be something special: it was Taverna's first site and they were keen to be revolutionary, with their love for walkways and automation, but it had a steady decline into becoming very indistinct.

Site and Operator

Motorway skywalk.
The exciting 'skywalk' between the two sides.

See also: A1(M) Service Area Planning

Esso already owned a petrol station here, known as Port (as in Portobello), which they had already drawn up plans to expand by adding a restaurant and hotel. A small restaurant was already provided on the northbound side.

When the A1 was upgraded to motorway, Esso asked if they could save the Ministry of Transport the £200,000 they were due in compensation in return for permission to build a motorway service area here.

The Ministry were starting to struggle to find anybody who was keen to build a service area, so they agreed to bend the rules for Esso. Another possible site at Pea Flatts, which would have been an infill site, was considered but Washington was considered a better option because there was a theory that service areas near the ends of motorways attract more customers.

Owing to the unusual agreement arranged with Esso, they were told they wouldn't need to be open 24 hours, and the new service area would be built by the motorway contractor to allow for a phased construction. It was the first site to be allowed to sell only brand of fuel, which naturally was Esso.

The old petrol station closed on 1 June 1968, and the direct access from Portobello View was closed. The new buildings had to fit around the existing terraces, but the Methodist Church was demolished.

Naming Contention

Much of the time planning the service area was spent naming it. Esso asked if their original name could be changed because at the time motorway services held a much higher profile than ordinary petrol stations, and they felt the phrase "Esso's Port Services" would be confused with other projects they were working on.

When designing the motorway, the Ministry used a temporary name of Vigo for this service area, but then confirmed the services would be called Washington. Chester-le-Street Rural District Council objected to this, and wanted it to be called Birtley. After much debate, the Ministry reluctantly agreed to settle the matter by officially renaming it Washington-Birtley. When Esso heard this name they were not impressed, as they felt the new name was cumbersome and difficult to market. They suggested customers would ignore the "Birtley" part.

The service area did open as Washington-Birtley, but with much marketing material referring to it as just Washington. After some time Granada shortened the name. Highway authorities still refer to the site by its full name.

Meanwhile, Esso decided to operate the services under the brand name 'Taverna'.

Design

Taverna walkway.
The once-exciting walkway, now rather bleak.

The new building occupied a 12 acre site.

Esso initially wanted the main amenity building to be on the west side. The County Surveyor wanted the services to have a subway to reduce its visual impact.

Amongst other considered options, Esso looked at having the second storey of the southbound building hang over the access road. The Ministry also looked at tying the northbound service area into the junction south of here, to try to overcome the difficulty of how to efficiently lay out the parking areas in such a tight space.

Opening

The design of the building was inspired by the idea of air travel; it marketed itself at modern, pan-European travellers. As part of its desire to be futuristic, the food it offered was part-cooked, then put into a vending machine where customers could buy it and carry it to a microwave along with cooking instructions. This was quite novel at the time, and the Ministry had severe concerns that motorists would not take well to the automated catering.

The futuristic catering was really about getting motorists in and out the building as quickly as possible, as the car park was only small. There were 420 seats in the main restaurant and 285 car parking spaces.

Adverts were issued with the slogan "step into another world" and "a perfect end to an evening out".

When it opened, the footbridge, which spans five carriageways, was the longest in the UK. The northbound side had an escalator taking people up into the "futuristic and robotic" southbound facilities. This escalator was later replaced by a soulless staircase.

In the main amenity building, visitors from the northbound side arrived on a raised walkway, offering a view over the serving area. This walkway still survives, but the excitement has been lost. The land slopes towards the south, allowing for a below-ground floor which overlooks the HGV parking area - this was used as a transport café. This was also useful for hiding a deliveries bay, and ensured the amenity building wasn't too obtrusive in this suburban environment.

The southbound amenity building has an entrance at either end. Walking into the building from the HGV parking area involves a winding, concrete pedestrian walkway. This was originally supposed to be temporary but was later accepted as being permanent.

Failure

"It is a wretched state."
MSA Board, 1973.

The failure of the automated catering trial at Washington was very-much the cause of the failure of Taverna. It was too unreliable and wasn't very popular with the public. Washington tried to solider on with a mishmash of half-automated half-waitress service catering. It was described as "grossly underused" and "a very poor service".

When Taverna were looking for a buyer in 1973, eventual owners Granada would have done anything to avoid getting Washington as part the deal. Taverna were so desperate to lose it that there were real fears it could be abandoned. Granada wanted Taverna's other services, and eventually agreed to take on Washington as part of the deal.

A 1977 assessment of service areas concluded Washington was one of the quietest in England, because it is "simply in the wrong place". The theory about building close to a city had been totally wrong.

After Taverna

Washington services.
The northbound amenity building (right) and old bridge access (left).

Under Granada, the service area moved to their usual low-cost model, which tried to make the most out of the trade available. The northbound facilities were expanded to cater for people who weren't prepared to cross the bridge.

Bizarrely, of all their services across the UK, Granada wanted to trial running their own tourist information centre here, in Tyne and Wear.

The truckers' café was closed in the late 1990s, and in the late 2000s the free-flow restaurant was reduced to offering a Burger King and Costa only - one of the first to head this way.

In 1995 the Highways Agency sold the freehold for this service area, but Granada were outbid and instead a private investor picked it up. It's not clear whether this has since been rectified.

The Highways Agency carried out a road safety scheme in late 2008. This involved providing mesh fencing between the service area and the motorway, and re-marking the harrowing southbound exit to make it look slightly more conventional.

Despite the café closure, Washington was still included in the Highways Agency's 2010 truckstop guide.

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