Can You Have a Perfectly Nice Weekend Break at a Motorway Service Station?
I’ve always liked the M40 Services at Beaconsfield. It just seems better than all the others. It’s bigger, cleaner and it’s home to Britain’s first motorway service station pub. Here’s the official blurb that affirms my opinion.
It was all of the things above that made me turn to my current life partner Julie (@JulesOliverCom) and say, “You know, I reckon you could have a perfectly nice weekend Break at Beaconsfield Motorway Services.”
So between Saturday 28th and Monday the 30th November 2015 that’s what we did. Booking into the on-site hotel for two days, we set ourselves only two rules. No internet (unless we were in our hotel room) and no leaving the service station grounds for the duration of our visit. This is how we got on.
Saturday 28th November
Our journey from Brighton got us to the on-site Ibis Budget Hotel at 2.15pm . The hotel seemed clean with a nice big reception area. What struck me was the 24-hour availability of snacks (including Pot Noodles - £2) and a door that led straight from the hotel to the Wetherspoon's next door.
Once the receptionist had finished his fag outside we got our key and headed for our room. It wasn’t a bad room at all. It had a double bed, a little green stool with a desk and nice view from the window that took in the service station patio area and the exterior of Nando’s.
What I particularly liked was that above our bed was a bunk bed.
Personally I wasn’t keen on the green colour scheme of the room as I thought it looked a bit like an IKEA vision of A Clockwork Orange, but Julie said she liked it and thought it was contemporary.
Being a budget hotel we weren’t provided with any shower gel or shampoo, but they did give us a small bar of soap.
Once we’d had a freshen up with the soap the first thing we did was go into the main service station area to get our bearings. It’s an impressive place. It’s what space stations will look like once space stations for space tourists exist.
Mention here must be made of the toilets. They were not only spotless but had recently won a platinum award for being ace.
Once acclimatised, we headed straight for Patisserie Valerie where I had a big apple cake and a diet Coca Cola. Julie had some small chocolates and a pot of tea.
We sat by the external patio area. On the other side of the patio area are the windows to some of the hotel rooms. If you look closely, and if you’re lucky, you may see a naked man looking assuredly out from one of those windows. We did.
After that we dashed over to 'Top Gift' which is situated by the toilets. Top Gift mainly hawks mobile phone accessories, but it does have a small corner section that sells a couple of pairs of sunglasses, some scarfs and a single remote controlled car.
Then it was a quick dash over to the WH Smiths to buy a couple of magazines. I bought a copy of Rail Express and Julie bought WeightWatchers Monthly. We decided to go back to our room and read them.
I should point out here that we've stayed in an Ibis Budget Hotel before and you'd retain more body heat by sleeping under a wafer than you would by using the duvets they provide. That's why we brought our own duvet and that's why the duvet cover I'm underneath here has a horse on it.
After a read and a nap we were ready to go out for dinner. The choices at Beaconsfield are plenty because it's a whole world of food next to a motorway in Buckinghamshire. Of the seven continents, only three were not represented by the service's restaurants. If you include the food available at the on-site M&S then those three continents go down to just one (Antarctica).
We chose to eat at The Hope & Champion, Britain's first ever motorway service station pub. What a place! Wetherspoon's had pulled out all the stops with this two-floored beauty; lovely lighting, TVs showing Strictly Come Dancing and masses of local information on the walls, including an original letter written by Enid Blyton. I had the scampi & chips and Julie had something healthy with noodles. If you look closely at one of the photographs below you'll see Bruno Tonioli effusing on a screen.
It's an odd feeling sitting in a pub at a service station, but we revelled in the smugness of not having to get back into a car. We felt like we were halfway through a 2-week holiday and everyone around us had come to the end of theirs and were about to head home.
After dinner we decided to get a coffee and share some chocolate in the Starbucks next door. It's a lovely Starbucks because it's on two levels. This gave me an opportuinity to get a photo of the service station from above. You can see that photo below along with another photo of the chocolate we shared.
As soon as we left the Starbucks we noticed the children's play area.
The sign you can see is telling children over 11 that they are not allowed on the tree-shaped table with the multi-coloured ball puzzle.
It wasn't long until we were ready to turn in for the night, but just before we did Julie noticed some lame amusements by the toilets. I put a quid in the grabber machine to see if I could win a cuddly Minion because I wanted to burn it. I didn't win one.
A quid down and a little put-out we went back to the hotel room and bed. We weren't able to have hot watter bottles because you don't get a kettle in your room at an Ibis Budget. Instead we turned on the laptop and caught up with The Apprentice. It put us in the right frame of mind to drift off.
Sunday 29th November
I'm an early riser and Julie isn't. That's why she was still in bed at 5.36am and I was sitting in Starbucks. It was good to see the service station quiet. Here's a photo of it and the empty Starbucks (although it was open).
With my coffee I was able to sit and make a note of what time some of the shops opened. At 6am WH Smiths, Greggs and Patisserie Valerie came on board. M&S followed an hour later at 7am.
At 7am it was still dark, but I knew it wasn't long before sunrise, so I finished my coffee and took a walk over to the coach-park to pop myself on one the outside benches and wait. Sunrise came at 7.09am. It would have been nice to have shared this moment with Julie, but it was 7.09am on a Sunday and the lazy cow was still in bed.
I then went back to the bed Julie hadn't got up from.
Later that morning when we left the hotel room we went straight back to the Wetherspoon's for breakfast. It had proven itself at dinner so won our trade again. This time we decided to sit upstairs. On the way up we noticed an oil painting of lorries on a motorway. Julie liked it.
It was now time to get outside and experience the lake and the landscaped gardens. Although not in the same league as Kew or Heligan, it was a pleasant stroll. We actually did the walk twice. Once leisurely and then again quickly to see how far it was. Here’s a PC screengrab from my GPS watch to show the distance, speed we walked and route.
The non GPS-tracked walk allowed us to focus more and take photos. There was a water feature in the lake.
The lake also had fish in it. This poor photo below proves it.
We saw a wide variety of birds on the walk. There were ducks, moorhens and wagtails. The highlight for me though was seeing a red kite closer than I've ever seen one before. I also found a burnt out firework on the grass.
The cherry on the cake for me was a gorse bush. I love a gorse bush, they are my favourite of all the bushes and always have been.
In terms of more traditional pleasures, Julie liked the children's playground and spent ten minutes climbing and sliding. I did the David Bailey.
The walking bug was now well and truly inside us so we decided to stroll over to the adjoining petrol station, have a look around and pick up the Sunday papers. It was a pleasant 3-minute semi-woodland meander and we saw crows, woodpigeons and a white lorry on the way.
It wasn't long before we got there. It immediately became apparent to me that the forecourt was one of the biggest I’d seen. I know a bit about forecourts because a couple of years ago I’d been to the petrol station at Cobham Services on the M25 and counted the nozzles. They have 158 at Cobham (the largest petrol station in Europe). I could sense that Beaconsfield wasn’t far off, so I set about counting.
The result was impressive. Beaconsfield has 156 nozzles, only 2 off Cobham. They are laid out as follows:
6 rows of 24
3 rows of 4
TOTAL – 156
Here’s a photo of me nozzle counting.
Once we'd bought the papers we dedided to walk back, taking in the HGV park, the coach park and the emergency service vehicle parking area.
Then we went straight to Wetherspoon’s and sat there catching up on the news with non-alcoholic drinks. I read The Sunday Times. I figured buying the Observer was pointless because every article from The Observer gets shared on Facebook anyway, so why waste the money?
Refreshed and educated, we went straight back into the main service station area and headed for the massage chairs. You know the massage chairs? They're the big black leather things you always see outside service station toilets. The only people who ever use them are not actually using them, but sitting on them waiting for their partner to come out of one of the lavatories.
We decided that we would use them and see what all the fuss wasn't about. But the Beaconsfield massage chairs were not by the toilets. They were placed next to a noodle stall just in from the main entrance. This meant that every person entering and leaving the service station walked past you. I've got to say, the chairs really were rather good. Well worth the £1 a go.
Feeling zen we decided to have lunch. Julie got something healthy in a box from M&S, but because it was Sunday I decided to keep it traditional and hunt down a roast. I found one at Carvery Express. And the best thing about it was that the whole thing came in a bap. Being nearly December, I went for roast turkey and then sat in front of the big screen TV eating it.
It was time to go back to our room and write out our postcards. Disappointingly you can't get any Beaconsfield Services postcards or, in fact, any postcards on site. Fortunately, what the hotel lacked in shower gel it made up for in free branded postacrds, so we used those. As there was no post box on site, we actually had to post these when we got home to Brighton, but it's the thought that counts.
After a little nap we went to the amusement arcade. There were none of those games where you drop 2p in a slot and then it falls on to a step and then another step, but we still had fun. I have no idea how to play a fruit machine, but I found one with a photo of Noel Edmonds on it.
Before we knew it, it was time for our final evening dinner of the weekend. We went to the on-site Nando's, but the queue was huge. We joined the queue though because we were in no rush.
It didn't take us long to get in because the staff were very effifcient and nice. Although we ordered different meals, we both had corn on the cob.
After dinner we thought it would be a lovely idea to have a moonlit walk around the lake. We only walked around once though because the pathway had some puddles that we couldn't always see.
It was time to turn in, so we went to bed and watched the first Harry Potter film.
Monday 30th November
Beaconsfield on a Monday is very different to Beaconsfield at the weekend. The moment we came into the main arena we could see the difference. More suits, more speed, more business in the air. We were still on holiday though, so we had a lengthy breakfast in Wetherspoon's.
But all that business rubbed off on us. Immediately after breakfast we went straight up to Regus Business Suite and hired a meeting room for an hour. The room had all you could need and a flipchart. We got straight down to it and planned our weekly shopping, relationship goals and the pros and cons of having children.
And that was it. Once our hour was up it was time to leave. We checked out of the hotel at noon and were immediately on our way. We didn't get our lunch at the service station before we went because we were, by then, pretty sick of the place.
Can You Have a Perfectly Nice Weekend Break at a Motorway Service Station? Well, kind of. I think if we had done this in summer it would have given us a little more scope. We could have utilised the outdoors more with reading, sunbathing and metal detecting. That said, there was still plenty to do; maybe not for two days, but I've no doubt that anyone could spend a full day at Beaconsfield and be quite happy.
And Extra Services are better than all the others, so that helps. If you'd tried to do what we did but in a Moto Service Station, you'd have come away wishing you'd checked in to Guantanamo Bay instead. At Extra all of the staff were lovely and not recruited from Mordor, as has historically been the case with these sorts of places. It got a bit embarrassing when a couple of members of staff started recognising us and we had to pretend that we were on our way back from the place we had been on our way to when we first saw them, but I think we managed to style it out.
We did find the main arena a bit too hot pretty much all of the time and after a while the bright lights kind of get to you and you crave mood lighting. Maybe that’s why we enjoyed the Wetherpsoon’s so much. It would be a lie to say that there wasn’t a certain degree of cabin fever by Sunday evening, but you can’t really have proper cabin fever if you’ve got access to a Nando’s.
So, in conclusion, if you were thinking of a weekend break at a motorway service station, Beaconsfield is probably the best one to choose. At the very least you’ll come away with a new appreciation of Wetherspoon’s. I think we had a nice weekend away, but I'm not convinced it was 'perfectly' nice. For that you probably need a picture-postcard seaside village or a town with a nuclear bunker.