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History of Tebay services

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Tebay South 1997.jpg
Tebay southbound in 1997.

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Tebay northbound opens 1972
Tebay Mountain Lodge opens 1978
Tebay southbound opens 1993
Farm shops open 2003

Tebay's remarkable story has led to a business plan which stands out from its rivals, but this hasn't always been a positive thing. In 1979, representatives of the Department of Transport finished a meeting with Mr Dunning with their notes saying "he is a seemingly naive hill farmer".

Development Northbound

Westmorland hotel.
The Westmorland Hotel - not a budget chain motel.

See also: M6 Service Area Planning

When the M6 was built through Cumbria, the Department for Transport were working on the principle that placing service stations in places with good views would get more people to stop. For this reason, services were proposed at Tebay northbound and Killington Lake southbound: two smaller services would have been more popular with the struggling operators than one large one.

Before this design was decided upon, the idea of building the services in the middle of the M6, where the carriageways were already designed to be apart to reduce the amount of earthworks required. This idea was quickly ruled out as impractical and destructive, and has never been used in the UK.

As it happened, neither site was a hit with the established operators at the time. At Tebay a second round of bids was opened allowing for a smaller site and the option of a 10 or 21 year lease. Under this arrangement, the successful tenderer would only be responsible for running the filling station and a temporary snack bar, with the restaurant and car park being saved for a future negotiation.

The Dunning family, whose heritage was farming and motor trading in Cumbria, were concerned about the local unemployment rate following the recent closure of Tebay Junction station. They made a successful bid, and built the northbound petrol station and a dining area for a total cost of £100,000, making it one of the cheapest new developments. It opened in 1972 (the documents were signed on 15 June), two years after the M6.

Northbound Operation

Upon opening, its scale and style was described as "personal", which may explain how it escaped the spate of vandalism many other services saw. The building was made of stone, and the interior had a high-pitched beamed roof and a rustic décor which tried to recapture a Scandinavian hunting lodge atmosphere.

Initially Tebay found trading difficult. Staff and resources had to be brought in from far afield, and it claimed it was the only service area which wasn't on a major freight route. They managed to stand out by reducing their prices to compete and issuing meal vouchers with fuel sales.

In 1978, the Tebay Mountain Lodge opened with 32 rooms, on a piece of land technically not part of the services. This alarmed the Department of Transport who weren't able to regulate it. They had the same concerns with the caravan park which opened two years later, but they were won round and supported the idea. The caravan park operated until 2019.

"It is unrealistic to think that two operators could work on the terms originally defined."
Department of Transport MSA Board, 1978

At this time Westmorland became concerned that the Prior Report would see changes in how all services had their rent calculated which would allow rivals to cut their prices, causing Tebay to lose its unique selling point. Instead, they decided to expand Tebay, providing new facilities, new parking spaces along the access road and a new route for traffic. The Department of Transport conceded that the original idea of having a second company bid for the main restaurant wasn't practical.

In 1994, a coffee shop opened at Tebay, the first on the UK motorway network. The hotel was extended and renamed 'Westmorland Hotel' in 1997.

Southbound Services

In 1978, a picnic area was proposed on the southbound side, which would provide catering for 30 people, parking for cars, a shop and toilets but no fuel. Westmorland were keen to take it on.

Changes to the government policy meant the Department of Transport were now willing to negotiate directly with potential service area operators. After being tempted to cancel the Tebay southbound plan, they were eventually convinced to let Westmorland develop it as a full service area. Internally it was still described as "Tebay East Rest Area".

The southbound service area opened on 3 June 1993, although several government documents insist it opened in 1985. It followed the pleasing architectural principles which had made northbound so famous. The company head office was also moved here from Penrith.

In 2008 the southbound service area was refurbished and became the first motorway service station with a butcher's counter.

Survey Results

In 2021, Which? Magazine calculated an 83% satisfaction score for the service area, making it second-best in the country, losing only to its younger sibling at Gloucester. It's quality of facilities, range and cleanliness were commended.

In Spring 2017, Transport Focus calculated a 98% satisfaction score for the services, making it the eighth-best nationwide. In 2018, this rose to 99%, and in 2019 it fell slightly to 97%.

In 2015, VisitEngland gave the services 5 stars.

In July 2015, Tebay Services were awarded with the Samworth Brothers Rural Action Award at the Business in the Community Awards and were praised for being "genuine rural champions".

Tebay Services northbound was seen to be home to the 'most pedestrian-friendly car park in the UK' in a survey carried out in August 2015 by the Road Safety Markings Association.

In May 2012, VisitEngland gave Tebay south their first five star rating, with the northbound side getting four. The southbound gained a second five star rating in May 2013.

In 2011 Tebay northbound was the only motorway service area to enter the Loo of the Year Awards, and it was graded 5 stars.

In August 2011 the southbound services were rated 4 stars by VisitEngland, who said they had the best outside play area and landscaping and said it was best for families. However, also in August, Manchester Confidential suggested that the services suffered from the same pitfalls as many of the others when it comes to staff, food and cleanliness, with the only difference being the family values.

In November 2010 the southbound services won a five star loo award.

In October 2010 Sarah Dunning, the director of Westmorland, topped the Family Business category at the Institute of Directors' Director of the Year awards.

In December 2009 the services won a five star loo award and came top in the motorway services category, but few services took part in this.

In 2009 it won Egon Ronay's British Academy of Gastronomes' Grand Prix award, thought to be the first time a service station has ever won such a thing.

Also in 2009 it won the Northern Foods Rural Action Award in the Businesses in the Community Awards for Excellence. It was also listed in The Telegraph's top 50 farm shops, and The Times listed it as the best service station in the country.

In November 2006 the BBC's 'The Money Programme' loved Tebay's food but hated the prices that came with it.

Holiday Which? also loved Tebay, and in 2006 they chose it as the best service station in Britain.

The services were inspected by The AA on 3 and 4 April 2004 and it turned the general opinion of Tebay on its head. These are their results:

Road safety and parking:Acceptable
Outdoor facilities:Very Poor
Access and indoor facilities:Acceptable
Shop:Very Good
Communications:Very Poor
Pricing:Very Poor
Final Score:Poor

The services were said to offer good food and a good shop, but the toilets, floor and showers were all dirty and it was the only service area in the UK to ever fail the 'quality of access roads' test.

Tebay's farm shop won 'Best Local Retailer 2003' in 'BBC Radio 4's Food and Farming Awards'.

In 1991, a Which? survey rated the services as "average".

A 1978 government review described the services as "too small and a bit tatty".

In 1977, Egon Ronay rated the services as "poor", and he concluded by calling it "sad because there are possibilities here". It was "pleasant" until you received your food. The pastries were good, which he put down to them knowing a good bakery, but the rest of it was poorly-made from cheap ingredients.

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