The Watford gap is a low point in the limestone ridge that crosses the English Midlands eighty or ninety miles north of London, joining the Cotswolds in the southish west to the Lincolnshire Wolds in the northish east. Although the ridge is not particularly prominent, it is enough of an obstacle that the gap - named for the nearby village of Watford, Northamptonshire, not to be confused (although it often is) with the much larger town of Watford in Hertfordshire (the place that Londoners don't go north of) - has been the preferred path of routes heading north-westwards from London for a couple of millennia - the Romans built Watling Street through it, later to become the A5 trunk road; during the Industrial Revolution it was chosen as the line first for the Grand Union Canal and then for the tracks of the London and North Western Railway's route to Birmingham and the North-West which were to become the West Coast Main Line, and then when the UK finally got around to tarmacking over its countryside in the interests of high-speed road traffic, the country's first completed motorway of any size, the M1, passed through it; all these run within a few hundred yards of each other at this point.

Located just south of the junction with the M45 into Coventry - part of the first project - and a bit further south of the point where the M6 was later to turn off westwards, the gap was chosen as the site for the country's first motorway service area, to be run by a company called Blue Boar; it opened in 1959. At this point an hour and a bit away from London (one of the most dangerous parts of the UK motorway network, being the place of choice for drivers to fall asleep with the sheer tedium of it all) it was a well-chosen place for motorists to take a break. Unfortunately, we are in the Britain of the 1960s, which may have been swinging in some ways but was also the country's culinary nadir, where the growing pile-it-high-and-sell-it-cheap food industry started to take advantage of tastes dulled under years of wartime and post-war rationing. And this, too was the Midlands - once famous for Stilton cheese and Melton Mowbray pork pies, but now a Mecca for devotees of sliced white bread and Watney's Red Barrel. The combination of a captive clientèle, the traditional British absence of a service ethic and dedication to profit margins above all else produced an eating experience which was a weird grubby plastic hybrid of a greasy spoon and Ye Olde Tea Shoppe.

By the end of the sixties Watford Gap had become a byword (that's what we used to call memes back in those days) for the worst in food. This culminated in a celebrated mid-seventies visit and subsequent article by Egon Ronay attacking the whole ethos epitomised by the place as a paradigm for British attitudes to eating, or something like that, and a couple of years later folk rocker Roy Harper decided to set his own opinion down on vinyl, in an eponymously titled ditty on the B-side of - and counterpoint to - his whimsical 1979 or so single One of Those Days in England. This being before the days of customer-oriented business strategies and endless user feedback forms, his comments were surprisingly not wholly welcomed by the Blue Boar Group, and the whole initial pressing had to be withdrawn following legal action, which means its lyrics as reproduced below are probably not just copyright, but also illegal, so if you are in the UK please don't read them1.

Just about a mile from where the motorways all merge
You can view the national edifice, a monumental splurge
It's the lonesome traveler's rotgut or bacteria's revenge
The great plastic spectacular descendant of Stonehenge
And the people come to worship on their death-defying wheels
Fancy-dressed as shovels for their death-defying meals

It's the Watford Gap, Watford Gap
A plate of grease and a load of crap

At one a.m. on Sunday you can hear the boys declare
That the other team were fairies and the ref was Fred Astaire
It's Chopper Ronnie's fan club on their weekly pilgrimage
To stick the hero's boot in all the way from Stamford Bridge
And without a solid concrete-burger no night is complete
Plastic cups of used bathwater wash away defeat

It's the Watford Gap, Watford Gap
A plate of grease and a load of crap

The traffic jam is rattling like a five-mile cornered snake
With fuming pieces falling off and steaming in its wake
The city's like a goolie in a groupie's stagnant womb
Spaghetti Junction's target in the vinegar strokes of doom
The countryside is ravaged like a syphilitic whore
Yodeling up the canyon is the dirty old blue boar

It's the Watford Gap, Watford Gap
A plate of grease and a load of crap

These days things have undoubtedly changed; there are service areas every few miles on the motorways, and outsourced and franchised burgers and fries and espresso and flapjacks have taken the place of soggy chips and toasted teacakes, one of the few places where the introduction of McDonalds2 could almost be seen as an improvement even by a snob like yours truly. The Blue Boar Group and its sites have been taken over by RoadChef, and other routes north have taken some of the traffic, but the name of Watford Gap is still enough to inspire fear and loathing amongst those forced onto the choked dullness of England's roads.


Postscript: travelling northbound, Watford Gap is also an additional nightmare for hitch-hikers, or at least was before fear of strangers killed off hitching as a viable means of transport. The diverging traffic just past it means that many hitchers were dropped there by drivers going the wrong way, so queues of hitchers form on a very short sliproad; avoid it at almost all costs (well, it's better than an illegal all-motorway junction), and make sure you have a sign to indicate whether you are going up the M1, M6 or M45. It is a very cold and unpleasant place to spend the night.

1. However, Watford Gap appears to be included on a 1999 CD re-release of the album Bullinamingvase from which One of Those Days in England was taken, so it looks as though it's legal again. It was not included on the original vinyl release.

2. In fact, following renovation in 2010 Burger King have the franchise.

CST Approved

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