One of the great joys of driving up the M6 – apart from not being crushed and burnt to death by drunk footballers – is that for long stretches the motorway runs parallel to the West Coast Main Line, the bendy version of the East Coast Main Line.
When you’re at the wheels of an aging VW Golf that is just days away from failing its MOT, the simple act of effortlessly overtaking a multi-million pound Virgin Pendolino train stuffed with hapless passengers who’ve paid £500 for a one-way ticket to ‘The North’ lends a whole new meaning to the word ‘smug’.
That this can happen after the Government somehow blew £56 trillion quid on ‘upgrading’ the railway with five metres of new cable (since stolen and sold for scrap) and a new light bulb at Carnforth station (since stolen and sold on the black market) serves merely to amplify the sense of schadenfreude .
The other joy of driving the M6 towards an inevitable FA Cup trouncing at the hands of some obscure Cumbrian pub team is Westmorland’s Tebay services, a facility of such supreme brilliance that you would happily travel to Workington just to sample the macaroni cheese (regionally sourced, hand-reared, locally-slaughtered cheese, naturally).
Of course, billing the services as a ‘Farm Shop’ on motorway signs is probably not the best way to entice ravenous punters. Pulling into the car park and spotting the timber frame of the building, the initial, primordial fear of most drivers is that Tebay will turn out to be modelled on the sort of bizarre services encountered in Continental Europe; services that sell petrol, samurai swords and hardcore pornography – but no food (unless you count the canned cockerel testicles in the gift shop as food, which most normal people – and by normal, we mean not French – don’t).
But such frivolous fears melt away once you enter Tebay’s gloriously subtle timber and stone building – a building that has become a tourist attraction in its own right and serves as an oasis of cosy creature comforts in the wilds of the Cumbrian mountains.
Inside, the building is light and airy (although, sadly, it seems that a recent refit has led to the removal of the photos of Cumbrian wrestling). There are no piles of KFC bags heaped in front of the entrance. There’s no arcade. And the toilets aren’t a danger to public health.
Even the staff don’t look like your typical service centre drone. No spotty teenagers with skin flaking into the baked beans here. Instead, you’ll find either homely, avuncular oldies, or cheerful, attractive student types basking in the warm fuzzy feeling of simply being alive.
All of which means Tebay has a rather unusual atmosphere for a motorway service station. Some might say unique. Surveying the customers, you’d be forgiven you’d stepped into Stepford. Well-nourished children skip along gaily, their smiles melting even the iciest of hearts.
Young couples walk hand-in-hand or sit supping Fair Trade coffee next to the pond. Old people, fly-tipped at the roadside like obsolete fridges, sit together feeding the ducks, their bellies full of the finest cake found north of central London.
It’s creepy. It’s kooky. Mysterious and spooky. Except it’s not mysterious. Tebay have just decided not to treat their customer like cattle – and the result is a service station of unparalleled quality. Indeed, I’d like to retire here. Is that possible? Can I retire here? Is that… no? No. They said no.
Still, as far as the food – a service station’s core product – is concerned, Tebay is something of an incongruous curiosity in the world of the UK’s roadside nutrition. The Westmorland philosophy is evidently the antithesis of standard service station mission statements insofar as the food isn’t merely edible, it’s also actually rather good.
You’ll find no grim fast food eyelid shavings here. Instead, imagine the cafe at the V&A plonked next to a busy motorway, and you’ll understand immediately what this place is all about: top notch meat from animals shot in the face next door, locally sourced vegetables, fresh fruit – this is like a feast from an Enid Blyton novel, just without the raging misogyny and blatant racism. It actually tastes like food. Sure, it’s not cheap – but who gives a stuff?
In short, this probably isn’t a place truckers should visit, although Tebay does provide an outside burger stall in an attempt to cater for the 75% body-fat market.
It’s glorious. It’s beautiful.
It’s not fucking Workington.
Have you got a particular favourite service station you’d like to see feature on these pages? Then e-mail ToD with ‘YES! I’VE PAID £58.99 FOR A DEEP FILL EGG AND BACON GINSTERS SANDWICH TOO!’ in the subject line, and we’ll either follow it up or ignore you and pretend your e-mail ended up in our spam filter in ‘error’.