Opened in 1972 as an almost belated response to George Buchanan’s 1963 Traffic in Towns which had informed the Liverpool City Centre Plan of 1965.
The report warned of the potential damage caused by the motor car, while offering ways to mitigate it. It gave planners a set of policy blueprints to deal with its effects on the urban environment, including traffic containment and segregation, which could be balanced against urban redevelopment, new corridor and distribution roads and precincts.
These policies shaped the development of the urban landscape in the UK and some other countries for two or three decades. Unusually for a technical policy report, it was so much in demand that Penguin abridged it and republished it as a book in 1964.
The Churchill Way was realised and remained in use until September 2nd 2019 – closed and facing a £10 million demolition programme, following a maintenance report which found them to be unsafe – and presumably beyond economic repair.
And so I took one last look around taking snaps, an epitaph to the end of an era, and the end of an idea that was once once rendered concrete.
I ride a bicycle, which seriously restricts my access to the world of the M – one and six or otherwise. Having a more than somewhat ambivalent outlook on motor cars and their ways I have nevertheless written a short history.
So to satisfy my idle curiosity, and fill the damp wasteland of a Bank Holiday Sunday afternoon, let’s go on a little trip back in time by means of archival images.
What of your history?
Tendering documents were sent out in 1962 describing it as a 17.7 acre site, requiring at least a £250,000 investment, including an eastern corner reserved for a picnic area, and an emphasis that the views to the west must be considered in the design, and facilities must be provided on both sides. Replies were received – from Telefusion Ltd, J Lyons, Banquets Catering Ltd, Granada and Rank
Top Rank’s plan came consistently highly rated by all the experts it was passed between. It showed a restaurant and a self-service café on the west side, the restaurant being at the top of a 96ft (29m) tower. At the top of the tower was a sun terrace – a roof with glass walls, which they had described but hadn’t included any suggestions for how it could be used, adding that maybe it could form an observation platform, serve teas, or be reserved for an additional storey to the restaurant.
Including a transport café on each site, seating was provided for 700 people, with 101 toilets and 403 parking spaces. A kiosk and toilets were provided in the picnic area.
“The winning design looks first class. Congratulations.”
Architects T P Bennett & Sons had been commissioned to design the services, along with the similar Hilton Park. At £885,000, it was the most expensive service station Rank built, and was considerably more than what had been asked of them.They won the contract, but on a condition imposed by the Landscape Advisory Committee that the height of the tower was reduced to something less striking.
Lancaster was opened in 1965 by Rank under the name ‘Forton’. The petrol station opened early in January, with some additional southbound facilities opening that Spring.
The southbound amenity building had a lowered section with a Quick Snacks machine and the toilets. Above it was the transport café which had only an Autosnacks machine, where staff loaded hot meals into the back and customers paid to release them. These were the motorway network’s first catering vending machines, and the Ministry of Transport were won round by the idea, but Rank weren’t – they removed them due to low demand.
In 1977, Egon Ronay rated the services as appalling. The steak and kidney pie was an insult to one’s taste buds while the apple pie was an absolute disgrace. He said everywhere needed maintenance and a coat of paint, the toilets were smelly and dirty, and the food on display was most unattractive.
A 1978 government review described the services as a soulless fairground.
The Forton Services and the typology generally have had a chequered career, rising and falling in public favour and perception. Purveying food and facilities of varying quality, changing style and vendors with depressing regularity – knowing the value of nothing yet, the Costas of everything.
Ironically the prematurely diminished tower has taken on iconic status in the Modernist canon – listed in 2012 yet closed to the public, admired from afar – in a car.
The Pennine Tower was designed to make the services clearly visible – the ban on advertising had always been an issue, 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, summarising the dreams of the ’60s.
The central shaft consists of two lifts, which were originally a pentagonal design until they were replaced in 2017. They’re 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 typical health and safety regulations.
At the top of the tower stood a fine-dining waitress service restaurant, offering 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 be used for, suggesting serving tea or eventually building another level.
In reality 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. 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.
Although the tower is unique to these services, 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. Toilets and offices were in the ground floor buildings below.
There are lots of myths flying around that the tower was forced to close by safety regulations, and that it is about to fall down. Like any building which hasn’t been used for 30 years it would take a lot of investment to get it open again, and with roadside restaurants across the country closing due to a lack of trade, nobody has come up with an convincing plan to justify investing in the Pennine Tower.
Milton Keynes synonymous with something or other, the town where everything is an off centre out of town centre, where anything was new once.
A broad grid of boulevards, sunken super-highways and an extended series of balletic roundabouts swirls the cars around.
Beneath this merry carbon hungry dance, we find the cyclist and pedestrian, the self propelled underclass passing through the underpass.
During my eight hour non-stop walking tour I encountered several – here they are, home to the homeless – others somewhat desolate and deserted, grass between the paving stones, the occasional casual tag and discarded can.
The Strangeways family themselves are certainly recorded in antiquity at the site, although the name appears differently over time; Strongways in 1306, Strangewayes in 1349 and Strangwishe in 1473. In the late 1500s in records at Manchester Cathedral the surname is spelt Strangwaies.
Before panopticon prisons entered the public imagination, and incarceration was the order of the day for the disorderly, it was all fields around here – with the odd house or baronial hall.
Swire’s map of 1824
Strange days, over time the prison is built, the assizes appears and disappears and tight groups of tired houses cluster around the incipient industry. The fiefdom’s of old become tie and tithe to successions of industrial plutocrats.
Broughton Street 1910 – Photograph J Jackson
Kelly’s map of 1920
The area becomes the centre of the city’s rag trade, a large Jewish Community, the largest outside of London, grows up around Strangeways, Cheetwood and Cheetham Hill – houses, mills, wholesale, retail, warehouse, ice palace, beer-house, brewery. The area is home to several of Joe Sunlight’s inter-war industrial developments – his Jewish family were named Schimschlavitch, his father a cotton merchant. The family emigrated to England in 1890 and settled in Manchester.
So much for Joe Soap – the area was also the location for local lads, KarlMarx, and Marks & Spencer.
Derby Street 1901 – 1924
Further developments took place with the building of the Cheetwood Industrial Estate – a postwar group of flat-rooved, blocky brick and concrete utilitarian units.
So let’s take a look at the ever so strange streets of Strangeways, in that period of change during the latter part of the Twentieth Century, when manufacturing, retail, repair and distribution were almost, just about to disappear in a puff of globalisation, economic depression and Thatcherism. Where Jack and Jill the lads and lasses, traded, ducked, dived, wheeler dealed from Cortinas, Transits and low milage, one owner, luxuriously leather-seated and walnut-dashed Jags. A vanishing or vanished world, where however briefly – Manchester went architecturally mod.
Tyneside is self evidently enamoured of elevation – they simply adore bridges, having five and another one as well. Walking driving, running trains across the mighty Tyne Valley, why they even write songs about them.
In the Swinging SixtiesT Dan Smith vowed to create a Brasilia of the North, which as good as his word he did, though sadly lacking the requisite regard for the law of the land.
What remains is a complex interwoven structure of urban motorways, walkways, multi-storey car parks and tower blocks. To explore is to enter a world of the sublime, exhilarating and still yet mildly confusing.