Forton Services – M6 Lancaster

Possibly the most famous modern motorway services in the entire land.

Though I’ve never been to see you – I’ve seen your picture reproduced a thousand times or more, particularly your Pennine Tower.

Your even found your way onto a Manchester Modernist’s shirt.

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.

Many thanks to Motorway Services Online

Take a look at you now.

No more postcards home – y’all come back now, set a spell.

Heaton Norris Park – Stockport

Heaton Norris Park’s elevated position gives stunning views of the Stockport town centre skyline and of the Cheshire plain. The central position of the Park means that it is a green retreat for shoppers and local residents. Also it is within easy reach of the Stockport town centre. The land for this park was acquired by public subscription and as a gift from Lord Egerton. Work on laying out the site as a public park began in May 1873, and it was formally opened on June 5th 1875. Since then it has undergone a number of changes. The construction of the M60 has shaved several acres off the park’s size.

The park began life as Drabble Ash Pleasure Gardens – entrance strictly by token only, as commemorated on the BHS Murals in Merseyway.

5 November 1905 – Edward VII declares his eldest daughter The Princess Louise, Duchess of Fife, the Princess Royal.

He also orders that the daughters of Princess Louise, Lady Alexandra Duff and Lady Maud Duff are to be styled as Princesses of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland with the style Highness.

So they built a big bonfire on bonfire night at Heaton Norris Park – sometimes they still do.

Picture courtesy of ©Phil Rowbotham

In 1935 the area seems to be little more than windswept cinders and thin forlorn grass, traversed by broad uneven paths – overlooking the dark industrial mire below.

Into the 1960s and although now there is the provision of a children’s play area, the park is still in need of a little more care and attention, the immediate surroundings a dense dark warren of industrial activity and terraced housing.

In 1968 the construction of two twelve storey Stockport County Borough Council residential blocks begins, alongside the recreation grounds, Heaton and Norris Towers, creating 136 new homes.

The 1970s sees the banked gardens bedded out with summer flowers and a crazy golf course on the edge of the bowling area. Both of these features are now a thing of the past, the future financing, care and maintenance of our parks is always precarious, especially during times of central government funding cuts and enforced austerity.

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The park now has a Friends group to support it, along with I Love Heaton Norris. The area is cared for and used by all ages and interests children’s play, bowls, tennis, conservation area, football, picnic and floral areas – somewhere and something to be very proud of, social spaces for sociable people.

And much beloved of Natalie Bradbury the SS Norris concrete boat.

Take a walk over the concrete bridge or along Love Lane and treat yourself to a day in the park

Archive photographs Stockport Local Image Archive

Motorway Footbridge – Stockport

A Moebius Band of motorway formerly known as the M63 wraps and warps itself around the city, ever so conveniently linking the traffic of Greater Manchester with itself.

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Ever so conveniently it passes through Stockport – only moments from my home.

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Before the white man came.

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The view from Princes Street along Hatton Street – towards Heaton Norris Rec. 

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A boon to the modern day motorist, though happily the modern day pedestrian is also catered for in the form of the Hatton Street Footbridge – linking Great Egerton Street below, with Heaton Norris Recreation ground above.

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Images TS Parkinson –  Stockport Image Archive

For the past two years the footbridge has been inconveniently closed, during the development of the Redrock Leisure Facility, built on the site of the former car park, in the foreground of the image above. Thus prohibiting the passage from the Post Modern world of the big brash entertainment box, to the leafy cobbled street beyond.

The Hatton Street footbridge has two spans of in-situ u-section deck, is at ground level on the north side, but is reached by steps or ramp from Great Egerton Street on the south.

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I’m ever so pleased that access has been reinstated, from me it is both fully functional yet imbued with an elegant concrete sculptural grace, worthy of Niemeyer or Lasdun.

So take a walk on the slightly higher side, either way you win.

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The Mancunian Way

The burnt out carcasses of cars are now hastily improvised cloches, following the annual cataclysmic courgette shortage.

Almost everything is made of Graphene, and a robot has taken your job.

The lucky ones are comfortably ensconced in custom built eco-pods, watching implanted Tarkovsky flicks around the clock and eating tasteless gloop.

Or Ultra-HD projections from the past.

Turn on.

Tune in.

Drop off.

Walk the Mancunian way – history buffs and tech heads can take a look here.

Photographs from the Manchester Image Archive

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Motorways an Introduction

Once upon time there was no such things as motorways, we made our way across country in a haphazard fashion, by way of of a raggle-taggle bunch of muddy, puddle strewn byways, tracks A, B and C roads.

Journey times were long and often unpredictable, it was not unusual for a traveller to never ever reach their intended destination.

But then as if by magic:

On 5 December 1958, the day the 8 mile Preston bypass opened.

Robert Gornall was the AA’s first motorway patrol and he was on duty on the Preston by Pass – now the M6, from day one – he even attended the opening ceremony.

Robert recalls that in those early motorway days, when there was no speed limit or hard shoulder, things were very different when it came to dealing with breakdowns. 

Robert said:

 

“This was entirely new and when we reached a broken down car we simply pushed it, bumper to bumper, out of the way to a place of safety where we could fix it – our vehicles were fitted with special rubber bumpers so as not to cause any damage.

Breakdowns came thick and fast because cars just couldn’t cope with the higher speed – engines just simply blew. The vehicles we used were Ford Escorts and even a soft top Land Rover.”

Having overcome these early teething troubles a whole complex network was developed.

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Opened by the transport minister Ernest Marples and other assorted worthies.

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Speed limits and controls were applied to quell the threat of crashes and blow-outs.

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Welcome to the fact packed modern world of the modern motorway.

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New typography and signage systems were developed by Margaret Calvert and Jock Kinneir.

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Special provision was made for provisions for the motorway motorist in special places, with special names – and their own unique approach to modern cuisine.

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Quite literally food on the move at the motorway services.

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Ever eager to communicate their fondness for the modern motorway, the modern motorist would often send a picture postcard to friends and/or family.

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A whole literary and visual culture built up over time, to celebrate a deep and growing affection for the motorway network.

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The rest is history, so break out the string backed gloves, top-down hit the road!

Jacqueline and/or Jack.