The things we ALL do at motorway service stations / Burnley's award winning concert pianist and teacher Joanna Garcia

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Burnley’s Joanna Garcia, who is director of her own piano school working with students nationally and internationally, gives her slant on the joys, or otherwise, of motorway service stations.

Are you even a human being if you don’t pull into the services on the motorway and spend three minutes pondering a.) if you’ve been to those particular services before, b.) when you were last there, and c.) where exactly you were going?

Actually, I was reflecting on this the other week, as I was heading north one Sunday night, travelling between Cardiff and Burnley.

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Joanna Garcia reflects on how people behave when stopping for 'comfort' breaks at motorway service stationsJoanna Garcia reflects on how people behave when stopping for 'comfort' breaks at motorway service stations
Joanna Garcia reflects on how people behave when stopping for 'comfort' breaks at motorway service stations

Check me out: I made it to Frankley services before stopping, and I hope you know how smug I felt about this. Everyone knows how much it’s a judgement of your personal worth and resilience to prove how far you can go without stopping at the first services you come to. It’s an endurance test (largely linked to your bladder) to see how hardcore you are as a driver. Yes, you may have every intention of stopping at Keele services, but you know darned well that some kind of irrational inner masochist is going to possess your soul and force you to hold out until Charnock Richard.

And THEN you’ll be a man, my son…

It was about 8.30pm when I pulled into Frankley services, and nobody - but nobody - was there. Even the M and S shop assistant appeared to be hiding under the counter in apparent fear of actually having to engage in conversation with weary-faced travellers.

Don’t you feel that time in motorway services becomes a kind of suspended reality, though? It seems that that you start to move in a vaguely slow-motion version of your normal existence, a kind of weird dream state. Services are, to my mind, something of a no-man’s land; a place where even time itself feels as if it’s been recycled. There’s that disengaged feel of the part of an airport just between customs and the arrivals lounge: not belonging to any particular territory, but merely existing as a place to pass through.

I was ravenous, but smug that I hadn’t succumbed to the shady pull of overly priced fast food. Instead, I’d chosen an M and S salad, and I slid triumphantly into the generic one-piece table and chairs which were tacky with the crusted-on food of a hundred bleary-eyed travellers. I looked round to see if anyone approved of my selection. The nearest human life form was a young motorcyclist whose very expression spoke of life regrets and an adolescence misspent in Aylesbury. I turned back to my food, disgruntled and tired.

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Munching on my salad with the aid of an all-but-useless wooden fork and knife, and intermittently lambasted with blasts of cold autumnal air from the automatic doors, I began to ponder what it was that made service stations the strange places that they seem to be. Before long, my thoughts started to make me grin, and then a maniacal guffaw threatened to erupt from the core of my being. I think Ashley from Aylesbury decided to move away from me at that point.

You see, there are certain “givens” when it comes to our relationship with service stations. I wonder how many of them can you relate to?

1. It is an utter fact that you will always fail to brake soon enough on the slip road from the motorway to the services, therefore careering almost on two wheels as you desperately try to differentiate between “cars” and “coaches”. On a bad day, you will totally misjudge the situation, and end up sailing straight past the petrol station and straight back onto the M6.

2. On getting out of the car, you will make some kind of “mooing” sound and grumpily wiggle each limb like you’ve been in the same sitting position “since Adam were a lad”, announcing loudly to the world that you couldn’t have gone another 20 miles without visiting the loos.

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3. In the toilets, you will select the cubicle at least two doors away from anyone else’s and will always shake your head at least once as you turn up your nose at the state of said cubicle before choosing another. Once safely ensconced, you will dutifully read everything displayed on the back of the cubicle door.

4. You will wash your hands quickly, appalled at how ancient and exhausted you look in the streaky mirror.

5. You will dry your hands using the hand dryer which coughs out the weirdly damp air and will nonetheless give up after eight seconds of the machine’s wheezing and leave, wiping your hands on your trousers.

6. You will marvel at how culturally fascinating it is that everyone is suddenly speaking with a Midlands accent when you’ve only been on the road for a couple of hours, and then remember that you’re on the outskirts of Glasgow.

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7. Suddenly, all reason will leave you, and you will deem it socially acceptable to spend approximately £11 on a fast-food burger, just in case you get back on the road and there are no more possible sources of sustenance for the next three counties.

8. If you have the great fortune to cross the bridge over the motorway, you will without doubt pass comment on how fast the traffic is moving, shaking your head at the realisation that just 12 minutes ago you were hurtling along at the same speed yourself in your Renault Megane.

Oh yes - and if you ever go to the services on the M6 Toll, you will immediately feel infinitely superior to everyone else in the rest of the UK, and will nod smugly at all the other fortunate clients of these auspicious services, as if you were the member of some élite society.

The sad news is that they couldn’t give a damn. They’re only just passing through, just like you. And they have damp hands, leftovers of an 11 quid burger between their teeth, and most probably a distinctive Midlands accent.

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