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THE SMITH OF THE STAR: M1's services with a smile for 40 years

AFTER a trillion toilet stops, a million burgers and enough baked beans to power the nation's wind farms, Woodall Services is 40 years old.

The first Austin Cambridges and Ford Anglias pulled in to the Trusthouse Forte rest area off the 'new' M1 in 1968 when a cup of tea might have cost a shocking one shilling (5p).

It's a bit different today – more of a town than a toilet break.

And a cup of tea will set you back 1.85.

The outside loos have long gone, the greasy spoon cafes have been replaced by international fast-food chains and the paper shop is a mini-supermarket.

You can shower for free, join the RAC, get money from your bank and buy anything from a lamb shank dinner to a Lonny Donegan album.

But we still love to moan.

"People do like to complain about motorway services, it's a British tradition, but the level of service we offer now is far better than at any time in the past," says Welcome Break site director Karen Hopkinson.

"We still get complaints about over-pricing, caravan owners want their own parking area and people expect so much more these days but I think generally we give it to them.

"People do say nice things as well."

Of course they do.

Motorway services are modelled on every town centre in Britain with fast food and convenience stores.

Where once there was only hardcore British fare, there is now variety.

The help yourself all-day breakfast counter has a Panini Toasting Station next to it and lattes, espressos and all kinds of 'uccinos beat tea sales hands down.

But the characters are still about – some of them longer than they wanted to be.

Like the two novice nuns who lost their coach after it stopped for a break on their way from York to a retreat in London.

When they realised they had missed their calling Woodall staff got a taxi to take them to Sheffield railway station and they spent the long journey home wondering how to explain it all to Mother Superior.

Then there was the rugby team who stripped naked, got off their bus, ran around the car park and got back on the bus – just for a laugh.

A set of false teeth were left in the restaurant and a briefcase on the petrol forecourt was taken by the bomb squad and blown up in a nearby field – just before a man called to ask if he had left his briefcase with important work papers in.

"We have had all sorts of things go on over the years here, but mostly things go smoothly," said 64-year-old former steel worker Alan Waterhouse.

"I'm customer services now, that's posh for pot wash man. I came here nearly 10 years ago after we sold our greengrocers – Denise's on City Road in Sheffield.

I wanted something to do and like it here – I'm not sure I could spend every day with my wife anyway, but don't tell her," laughed Alan.

The bad old days of curling sandwiches and stewed tea are way in the past but a bit of the old Fortes lives on.

The rust-stained concrete footbridge linking north and southbound services trembles as trucks and cars scream past in a relentless torrent of traffic along the nation's jugular.

Also seen from the bridge across the golden stubble of October wheatfields is Harthill Church, tall in the sunshine, a 900-year-old reminder of another England.

The village of Harthill is mentioned in the Domesday book. In 1086 it had 13 freemen and 11 villagers.

Today at Woodall Services there are more than that in the queue for KFC

211 people work at Woodall services now. Lizzy is 19 years old and from Killamarsh and brings a touch of glamour to the WH Smith shop counter.

"It's all right here, but I think I might like a change soon," says Lizzy, full name Elizabeth Brown.

"Most of the people who come in are quite nice but some are rude.

"I had a picture taken with Gareth Gates on my phone when he came in – he was lovely."

But not all celebrities are as charming.

"We had that TV chef James Martin in here," said Eve Lee from Worksop who runs the Burger King franchise on the southbound services. "He ordered a Whoppa meal but he didn't seem very pleased – he must have been having a bad day."

n See Smith Of The Star soon for the second part of our look at the world of magic, The Sorcerer's Apprentices.

What do you think? Add your comments below.

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