South Mimms has several claims to fame. It used to be the northernmost village in Middlesex - notionally part of London - until transferred to Hertfordshire in 1965. It used to be more important than neighbouring Potters Bar, until Potters Bar got a station and enlarged beyond expectation. It's also the village where Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands had a home in exile during World War Two, and narrowly missed death during a German air attack. But everyone knows it best now as the site of an M25 service station. Bit of a comedown, that.
Being on a major coaching route north, South Mimms has always had a service station of sorts. Back in Dick Turpin's day there were a dozen or more inns up the main street, with beds for overnight and stabling for horses, conveniently located two hours from central London. The WhiteHart doesn't really fulfil that role these days, although the village is still full of horseboxes and budding Thelwells of a more local nature. When the A1 became the A1(M) in the mid 1960s a truckstop grew up on the periphery of the village, safely distant so residents thought, but not distant enough. The very first section of the M25 connected here in 1975, to be joined by the final section precisely 25 years ago. And the truckstop grew, and the vehicle recovery centre mushroomed, and hey presto the South Mimms services were born.
There are clues in the landscape to how things used to be when all this was fields. The St Albans Road runs diagonally past the village, crossing first the A1(M) then down to the entrance of the Welcome Break car park. At Bignell's Corner, past a giant petrol station and a backyard packed with red buses, all through traffic is diverted off to use the three-level junction nearby. And then the St Albans Road stops dead, at an entirely unnecessary roundabout, used only as an exit from the car park and for access to a Herts council depot. The upstart M25 has severed the ancient roadway, which continues in a straight line on the opposite side of the cutting as if nothing untoward had happened.
The area around South Mimms Services is no pedestrian-friendly playground. Pavement provision is minimal, so getting around on foot involves a lot of road crossing and negotiating some fairly narrow grass verges. Even if you want to get from the Premier Inn to Waitrose in the main building, a distance of no more than a quarter of a mile, everything about the layout urges you to drive. And yet, unlike say Scratchwood, the complex is actually quite easy to walk to. You can stroll in from South Mimms village, no problem, with its regular bus service down to Barnet. Or else there are a series of public footpaths, dating back to when all this was farmland and not six-lane superhighways. I wandered in from Potters Bar - down an autumnal lane, then along the edge of a winter-salad field, then over an old stone bridge across a forded stream, before emerging into the rumbling articulated heart of South Mimms services. As contrasts go, this was less than welcome.
The last time I went to South Mimms, I drove. I pulled off the M25 to use the service station, but after a couple of circuits - always in the wrong lane at the crucial turning - I gave up. That's an excellent example to explain why I sold my car and took to public transport instead. So imagine my surprise to discover that there is a dead easy way to circumnavigate the South Mimms roundabout, and it's on foot. For some inexplicable, yet brilliant, reason, Hertfordshire County Council have laid a proper pavement all the way round the kilometre-long circumference. I think it's because this isn't a proper motorway junction (south of the M25 the A1(M) is merely the A1), and also because ramblers on those public footpaths need some route round from one side to the other. Whatever, I took my life in my hands and began the circumnavigation.
It was a scary walk, even though there are traffic lights at every entrance to the roundabout, because this is a place where the driver expects to be king. Vehicles waited impatiently on red, lined up three lanes across, waiting to be permitted access to the swirling gyratory ahead. What the hell is that idiot pedestrian doing, they must have thought, while the idiot pedestrian kept his fingers crossed that the lights didn't suddenly switch back while he was halfway across. As for the exit lanes, there are no traffic signals there, so all I could do was nip across when the torrent of approaching vehicles ebbed away. On Saturday afternoon it was quite doable, whereas in Monday's evening rush hour I'd have been dicing with death. For my daring I got to see the roundabout up very-close, including a fine view from the A1 bridge into the cutting below [photo] and some fiery autumn foliage [photo]. Ticked off my list, beaten, conquered - but it's a circuit I'm not rushing to repeat.
And, on leaving, I had cause to use the number84 bus for the first time in my life. It's the London bus that reaches out as far as St Albans, and one of those exceptionally rare buses where Oyster is only acceptable partway. I boarded in South Mimms village, four stops from the TfL border in Potters Bar, so had to pay the driver £1.60 and then swipe my card to complete the journey. That mile-long prelude cost me more than any Pay As You Go bus trip within the Greater London area, which just goes to show what good value TfL fares are compared to how Home Counties travellers get fleeced.