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The Pennine Tower

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Forton postcard.jpg
The northbound service area shortly after opening.

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Tower opened 1965
Tower closed 1989
Tower becomes listed 2012

You can't ignore the 65-foot (20m) tower now surrounded by the northbound amenity building at Lancaster services, described in one of its many opening leaflets as being "a luxury observation platform".

Its official title is The Pennine Tower, and it is arguably the most famous example of motorway architecture in the country.


See also: History:Lancaster

The Pennine Tower was designed to make the service area (originally called 'Forton services') clearly visible. The ban on advertising had always been an issue for operators, and the previous technique of having a restaurant on a bridge, like down the road at Charnock Richard, was proving expensive and impractical.

Rank commissioned architects T P Bennett & Sons to capitalise on the benefits of exciting design while trialling something different. The tower resembles that used by air traffic control, evoking the ambition of the '60s.

The central shaft consists of two lifts, which until 2017 had most of their original fittings, making them big favourites among lift fans. They operated at each end of a pulley system. The lift cars were of a pentagon shape to ensure the two lift cars would fit within half of the tower structure; this required the lift car replacements to be of a bespoke design.

The new lifts are still in use to access the first floor, but with the buttons to higher floors disabled. There are then three service lifts, and one spiral staircase - satisfying basic legacy health and safety regulations. Customers were supposed to stick to the lifts - the staircase consists of exposed metal and concrete, and is cold and noisy, although the public end was wooden.

At the top of the tower stood a fine-dining waitress service restaurant, with seating that offered views over the road below and across Lancashire. Above the restaurant the lift extended to roof-level, to allow the roof to serve as a sun terrace - although Rank admitted they weren't sure what this could actually be used for, suggesting serving tea or eventually building another level. The partitions can all be moved around, and the structure was designed to take a second storey.

The sun terrace has an additional balcony-like section running around it, with its own metal fence, which was only intended to be used to maintain the glass panels.

Although the tower is unique to this service area, the concept of large high-level floors can be seen in many Rank services of the era, the idea of each one being to have a visible landmark and a good view of the surrounding area, such as at Hilton Park. The lower-level restaurant at Forton sticks out over the first floor, and partially in to the road, to give an optimum view. The main toilets and offices were in the ground floor buildings below, though some toilets were available in the tower.

Initially the tower was painted white with blue panels. It was painted brown in the 1980s, and white again in the 1990s. This faded badly, so in 2006 it was painted Moto's turquoise. It was never supposed to revolve.

In Popular Culture

Moto are adamant the tower qualifies Lancaster as the country's most famous service station, and that The Beatles were one of its first customers. Indie-rock band Half Man Half Biscuit filmed the music video for 'Dickie Davies Eyes' there in 1986.

A 2008 exhibition in Lancaster celebrating 50 years of the M6 included a replica of the restaurant inside the Pennine Tower as it would be if it were still trading today. At the same time Top Gear Magazine used the tower to create a mocked-up image of the car park in the 1960s.


Pennine Tower servery 2.jpg
Inside the tower in 2013. Although in a poor state, the restaurant counter can still be made out.

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Social changes and cost-cutting limited the desirability of a sit-down meal, and this coupled with high maintenance costs made the tower fall out of favour. Many Rank restaurants didn't turn a profit in their first 10 years, and this was likely to have been one of them.

The 'fine dining' restaurant became the trucking lounge that had been on the first floor, before closing to the public in 1989. It then soldiered on for another 15 years, partially re-fitted, as a head office, then staff training and storage, but even this became too impractical, and the tower is now not used at all.

The tower had space to hold more than 120 diners. It is true that fire regulations wouldn't allow 120 people to congregate in the tower, so it wouldn't be able to operate at full capacity and would have to count how many people came up. However the reality is that by the 1980s, the tower would have struggled to attract 120 diners at any one time, and patronage was usually in the single figures.

When it closed, a partition by the entrance prevented access to the staircase, except via a new door to the side of the lifts. Access to the stairway is now prohibited as the structure is lined with blue asbestos. The lift manufacturer ensured that the buttons to reach the top floors would only work if a lift key was presented, although this was the company's standard lift key.

Future Of The Tower

There have always been rumours about the condition of the tower. Like any building which hasn't been used for 30 years it would take a lot of investment to get it open again, but that investment would certainly be made if there was a business case for it. The fire regulations are a bit of a red herring because the building could have been modified (before it was listed), or more likely a limit could be placed on how many people used it: the lifts can only carry three people at a time anyway. Disabled access would be a much more difficult hurdle to overcome.

"It is time to recognise and appreciate the positive contribution [motorways] have made to England's heritage."
English Heritage, 2012

With roadside restaurants across the country closing due to a lack of trade, it is unlikely that a case will be made for reopening The Pennine Tower as a restaurant. There is some evidence that it could prove popular as a viewing platform - not so much because the view is breathtaking, but purely because it's unusual - but again tidying it up and removing 30 years of detritus would be expensive and no business would do that without receiving any return.

While there has been some momentum behind the idea of doing something with the tower, that momentum comes mostly from enthusiasts and curious passers-by; it doesn't necessarily mean that customers would turn up in their droves. In 2015, Moto stated that "the building has no viable use".

The Pennine Tower was marked as a Grade II listed building in October 2012, though many people assumed it had been listed already. Moto have supported historians by sharing their records of the building, and decorated the restaurant at Lancaster with photos of the tower. Moto's internal records include the unofficial history website, which is maintained by a former employee.

When the tower was listed, its colour was recorded as 'green'. In Spring 2016, Moto asked for this to be corrected, and they repainted the building in 'light ivory'. At the time, it was rare for an operator to make a decision which goes against their corporate styling.

Contrary to a rumour that a few individuals are keen to spread in discussion groups, there is no proposal to demolish The Pennine Tower. At least one estimate was made to establish the cost of converting the building to a coffee franchise, but it was prohibitively expensive.

All our photos from inside the tower were taken with permission. Many people ask how they can gain access to the tower. As of 2021 our understanding is that Moto aren't able to allow any visitors, but if you really want to know, you'd have to ask them.

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