Opened on the same day as the M1 itself, Watford Gap is the first and oldest MSA in the UK.
Despite the name, Watford Gap is nowhere near Watford, or at least the Watford in Hertfordshire that most people think of when they hear the name. The name of the MSA comes from the nearby village of Watford, Northamptonshire, while Watford Gap itself is a long-standing name for the gap in the surrounding hills through which not only the M1, but also the A5, the West Coast Main Line railway and the Grand Union canal all pass. So within a a few hundred yards, four different eras of long-distance transport construction are represented.
As well as being the first, Watford Gap is also a slight anomaly in the history of British MSAs in more ways than one. The majority of other MSAs built along with the new motorways were owned by large, national catering and hotel chains, such as Forte, who built the second-oldest MSA, Newport Pagnell (just down the road from Watford Gap) and Granada, one of their main early rivals. Watford Gap, though, was offered to a local firm who had previously run a filling station at a roundabout on the A5, not far from the location of the new MSA. The company was named Blue Boar, after a pub at the same roundabout. Blue Boar’s existing business was likely to be severely affected by the opening of the M1, so as compensation they were offered the opportunity to run one of the two service areas to be constructed on the new motorway. Originally, it was planned that Watford Gap would only serve trucks, while Newport Pagnell would serve cars. But, since Newport Pagnell wasn’t ready for the opening of the M1, Watford Gap found itself having to serve all traffic, and by the time Newport Pagnell was ready the idea of a split had been abandoned.
A side effect of this was that Watford Gap never had much money spent on it. Down the road, Forte spent large amounts on the design and architecture of Newport Pagnell, partly as a statement of intent and partly because in those days, operators weren’t allowed to have their name on the signs so the only way they could advertise themselves was to have a distinctive building which was visible from the motorway itself (something which later made Forton into an MSA icon). But, since Blue Boar didn’t have the money for that sort of thing, and they were only expecting to be serving truckers anyway, their design specifications consisted of what was essentially two canteens, one either side of the motorway. Even so, it wasn't actually ready for opening day so, for the first few weeks, travellers were served from temporary facilities inside a farmyard barn!
Despite its humble beginnings, Watford Gap’s location made it the more popular of the early M1 sites. And it wasn’t just truckers, commercial travellers and holidaymakers who used it. By the end of the 60s, Watford Gap had acquired a reputation for playing host to the top bands and musicians of the day. Gerry Marsden, of Gerry and the Pacemakers, is widely quoted as saying that it was “an oasis in the desert of roads” for travelling musicians on their way back to London after gigs in the Midlands or North, while Jimi Hendrix is reputed to have been under the false impression that the “Blue Boar Cafe” was some trendy nightclub, because his British contemporaries mentioned it so often. By the late 70s, though, the romance of motorways had started to wear off and the travelling public were beginning to vent their frustration with poor quality and overpriced food at MSAs, a feeling summed up by Roy Harper through the song, “Watford Gap”, in which he bemoaned the “death defying meals” served up by “the lonesome traveller’s rotgut or bacteria’s revenge”. Unfortunately for Roy at the time, a board member of his record company was also a director of Blue Boar, so the song was removed from later pressings of the album. Recent CD re-releases have it restored to the running order.
Blue Boar finally sold Watford Gap to RoadChef in 1999, and since then the buildngs have been completely reconstructed with only the basic layout remaining from the early days.
As part of Watford Gap's 50th Anniversary celebrations in 2009, BBC Radio Northampton created "Watford Gap: The Musical". You can watch it right here on MotorwayServices.Info, courtesy of YouTube:
Watford Gap Services M1 is a 3 burger rated service area.