Quiet please!

John Boggiano on what’s wrong with motorway services

The great British motorway services used to be a microcosm of everything that could be called ‘poor’ with respect to facilities and customer service. Like most Brits, I’m not really given to making direct complaints, instead preferring to grumble myself up into secretive incandescence without actually speaking out, yet even I have on occasion been moved to take back an inedible piece of mummified chicken for replacement with a slightly less prehistoric specimen. They used to be truly, irredeemably dire; dirty toilets, tepid drinks, long queues, expensive prices and small portions of badly-cooked food. Sites were government-owned and the operators’ rents were astronomical; they really had little choice but to rip customers off to stay afloat, capitalising on their captive audience.

Nowadays, much has changed. Generally, there’s no longer that uncomfortable feeling of being ripped off; just a vague awareness that you’re going to be milked a little. Mind you, if you will insist on buying a plaster model of a hunting dog, an acrylic jumper and a ceramic pot pourri halfway down the M6 then you’re asking for it. At least the basics – cleanliness, food, facilities – are up to scratch these days. But notwithstanding all that unarguable progress, somebody needs to point out that there is still much to be done. So I’ll do it.

Problem number one is noise. Now admittedly this is a pet hate of mine, but surely I can’t be alone. When you arrive at a service area, unless you happen to have been wafted there in the back of your Bentley, you’ll be stepping from what has been a fairly noisy environment into… a very noisy environment. What’s that about? More often than not, I’m stepping from a 911, and an air-cooled one at that. It’s a lovely sound to be sure, but after an hour or so of thrumming along around the legal limit, it would be nice to be entering a relaxing, quiet ambience rather than the cacophony that I know waits behind the randomly-uncooperative automatic doors.

All those acres of tiled floors, hard-surfaced walls and high ceilings make walking into one of these places an ear-splitting experience. Add in the irritating amusement machines, the cosmopolitan hordes of roving humankind, lots of unruly, bored children, ubiquitous maniacally-screaming babies and (my personal bête-noire) an orchestra of hand driers whose husky wails permeate far beyond the bounds of the toilet areas and it’s a recipe for a miserable time for sanctuary seekers.

Then they cap it all by playing loud music at you all the time. For heaven’s sake – we’ve nearly all got music on tap and of our own choosing in the cars we’ve just left behind in the car park (with its too-narrow spaces as I’ve mentioned previously). Why on earth would anyone want to be assailed with more in an already too-noisy ‘rest’ area? Quite often, this is at its worst in the toilets, where I accept there may sometimes be good reason for some disguising noises , but believe you me, those blooming hand driers are more than up to that task all on their own as they go about their efficient business of spreading  E. coli to the passing populus.

Let’s leave the toilets for a moment (I’m afraid they merit a further visit shortly) and head for the self-service food area. More noise – clanking crockery, plinking tills, squooshing coffee machines, too-loud hubbub. Then there’s the fact that nothing is where it ought to be. When you’re battling with a tray that’s brimming with stuff that isn’t really what you wanted but was easier to pick up than having to wait while what you did want was created,  easing it along the supporting tray-rail towards the doughnuts, why are the drinks way over there behind you on the other side of the room? And when you’ve finally struggled across there, why does the Coke machine puke out frothy brown water with four inches of head on it? If you want a hot drink instead, they’re back over there where you just came from, but now there’s a queue; a queue composed of all the people who were behind you a minute ago.

There’s really not much point getting a hot drink anyway, because by the time you’ve got past sauces, Ben & Jerry’s and the shrink-wrapped biscuits on your way to the sporadically unmanned till, it will have gone cold. And if it hasn’t it will have done by the time you find a table, unload everything from your worryingly wet tray, sit down and realise you haven’t picked up any cutlery. And where is the cutlery anyway?

Back in the toilets – if you’ve ever had the dubious pleasure of using a disabled one, you’ll know that you have to share space with bins of rotting nappies, assorted bits of intrusive equipment by PHS, two dining chairs with broken legs that they couldn’t think what to do with, a hand drier, a wash basin, a soap-dispenser, a toilet roll holder  and a mirror all mounted in the same square foot of wall space, two adverts for online poker and a pair of grab handles one of which nobody can reach without a ladder and the other which falls off when you touch it. Then there’s the Magrini baby-changing unit with the picture of someone strangling (or is it shooting?) their offspring and which always has one strap hanging out, tantalising those of us with overactive ‘tidy’ genes to open it up, only to regret it for days afterwards. At least that helped identify the smell.

These places are just not the pleasant havens for the wearied traveller that they ought to be. Please try harder.

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