Safe in the knowledge that no politician would be present (because one visitedthe day before), I visited South Mimms Services yesterday for a 25th anniversary lunch. Remember, when you're a partner-less footloose blogger with minimal weekend commitments, making reckless dining arrangements such as this is perfectly acceptable.
The big blue direction sign on the approach to Junction 23 announces "Starbucks Coffee" "Waitrose" "South Mimms" - a combination of which I'm sure Mrs Thatcher would approve. Long gone are the days when Lord Forte or some other uber-caterer had a motorway dining monopoly, now there are franchised units up for grabs, and the chance to stick your advert on the motorway sign for all to see. The service station is tucked into the northeastern quadrant of the outer roundabout, surrounded by three car parks for cars, coaches and lorries respectively. There are even two eco-friendly electric car charging points out front, painted green with a solar panel above, although I suspect 99.9% of the time they're only for show. To get through the entrance requires walking past a gamut of smokers, keen for a fag break during a long journey but unable to puff inside. Then there's the AA man trying to flog annual subscriptions (he seemed surprised when I said I didn't have a car), and then you're in.
I was expecting worse, but then this isn't the original South Mimms Service Station. That burnt to the ground in 1998 after a frying pan fire at Julie's Pantry, and the replacement building is rather nicer. Bright and airy, almost like an airport terminal, with a long wall of windows and a gently curving roof. Somewhere off to the left, past the obligatory darkroom of fruit machines, the oh-so important toilets. To either side, more than a hundred tables where you can bring your meal or drink once you're ready, plus the odd tree for decoration. And straight ahead, your choice of dining experience.
If you're only after a drink there's that Starbucks the sign promised. If it's fast food you're after there's a Burger King and a KFC, the latter with self-service tills because that's the way retail is going. But the main attraction is the "EAT IN" Welcome Break concession, luring you in with the promise of £5 soup (with a toastie). If that's not to your taste it's also £5 for a baguette, crisps and a muffin (hot drink extra, and the hot drinks are expensive). One couple perusing the sandwich shelf picked one up, then put it down swiftly announcing they'd get something cheaper from Waitrose. I popped into Waitrose later, and I wasn't convinced they would. In fact South Mimms' hot meal counter looked perfectly respectable, with a decent array of meat and fish and salady stuff, and not the congealed trays of slop that motorway dining might once have brought to mind. A steak and kidney pie for £7.25, could be worse, or for £5.99 that well-known British staple pizza with chips. Don't expect award-winning catering, but I was genuinely almost tempted.
Except no, I had a big meal lined up for the evening, so I settled for a £2.15 teabag dunked in hot water and an associated half price bakery product. And then I retired to my chosen table to sip and graze and watch the world go by. At the neighbouring table a family gorged on sandwiches unpacked from plastic lunchboxes they'd brought themselves. A young mother fed her baby daughter on milk warmed in the nearby microwave while dad went off to buy Top Gear magazine. A probable trucker (Caterpillar boots, infeasible quiff) dined alone on a plateful of pastry and gravy. A pair of lowpaid ladies in green tabards hovered around with a damp cloth, clearing away empty crockery and shuffling the highchairs. And Lady Gaga dripped from the loudspeakers, in a low-key and inoffensive way, as we all took a break before continuing our journeys. Hardly silver service, but happy silver anniversary.