norton canes: a little corner that will forever be england

Sounds like a character from Dallas or Dynasty; a cattle baron or oil magnate. Maybe a hint of Englishness about the name – perhaps he’s the central character in a Jefferey Archer thriller – the guy who seems awfully decent and well-connected but actually turns out to be a sleeze-bag liar and philanderer. Ooops sorry, that’s Jeffrey’s character. Actually it’s the name of a small town in Staffordshire which has lent its name to one of the UK’s newest motorway service areas, the only one on the 27 mile stretch of M6 toll motorway linking the M42 and M6 around J11. The great mystery about this MSA is that the place is always, always packed and yet the motorway is virtually empty. Why is that?

The M6 toll road was built amid huge controversy to relieve the traffic loadings especially on the M6 through Birmingham. I’m not entirely sure whether the main objections were mostly on environmental grounds or maybe over the tolling aspect but anybody who used to have to travel along that urban stretch of motorway through Birmingham cannot be anything but relieved about having such an alternative. I’m pretty sure I recall the road haulage lobby having major objections to the toll levy and 4 years on from its opening, the motorway remains remarkably clear of heavy lorries and coaches. Hoorah.

I’ve been looking through some traffic stats and it appears that the M6 toll road draws around 50k vehicles per day mid week. That compares with nearly 200k pd on the M6 through Birmingham. So it seems that the toll has made the road unpopular to travel along. Maybe people feel that at £4 for a car and £8 for heavy vehicle (daytime), the charge is disproportionately high for a relatively short stretch of clear road. It seems reasonable value to me in terms of time saved and in comparison with say the Severn Bridge toll (which is ridiculously tariffed at £5.10 so that virtually every transaction requires the need for considerable change), and motorway charges on the continent.

I’ve written before about the ups and downs of motorway driving in France and Italy in particular (see posting ‘motorway driving arrgh’) and I can tell you that the M6 toll road is about the nearest you get to the quality and quietness of the motorways though rural France. It’s just such a short-lived pleasure compared with the stressful, heavy traffic experienced virtually everywhere else on the main M-way network in the UK.

We are doing quite a lot of journies at the moment to and from the NW because C’s mum is in hospital. Norton Canes services are roughly half-way so we tend to pop in there for a coffee/snack/comfort break. It’s relatively new as I said previously and set in pleasant landscaping. It’s clean and pretty decent compared with some of the awful MSAs in the UK. There’s a Travel Inn adjacent to it though it’s a long way from anywhere other than the Roadchef MSA facilities themselves, which I understand are open 24/7. Apparently there are spaces for 350 cars and 6 caravans and I’m absolutely sure the things have almost 100% occupancy. The place is never empty yet you can count the number of cars you pass on the road. The facilities and fayre on offer are OK. The coffee’s good at Costa Coffee but you wait for ever as the coffee-making facilities are limited (they always are in these places). The girls seem incredibly friendly and chatty but I guess they have become expert at chatting to fill time awaiting the arrival of the expressos. Frustrated at the queuing, I’ve tried the coffee-making facilities at the Wild Bean cafe in the nearby BP service station on several occasions but they are usually out of order. That drives me nuts.

So what is it that drives people into Norton Canes MSA? I think it’s like a motoring association club thing; a self-satisfied feeling that M6 Toll drivers alone have. They belong to a privileged group who have paid for a bit of relaxed motorway driving and they use the service area to reaffirm their bond with their fellow club members. They (I suppose that also means we too sadly) feel slightly superior and like to mix with their own sort. It must be what belonging to the local Conservative club feels like, with the Rotary on every 4th Wednesday.

If I was an astute marketing man I’d create a membership opportunity at NC and start lobbying for a system to keep the number of road users limited. Perhaps new entrants would have to apply for the right to use the road and be proposed and seconded. They could have an initiation process for new ‘brothers’. They’d definitely want to keep those riff-raff lorry drivers and coach hordes away from their little patch of little England. There’d have to be a golf-club of course. It’s something of a pipe-dream but one day perhaps there might also be an Assembly for the people of Norton Canes MSA distinct from Parliament to allow its members to run many of their own affairs, levy taxes (tolls), possibly to set up customs and border controls. The Republic of Norton Canes sounds marvellous. They could invite Baroness Thatcher to be honorary Head of State….

But I think I lack the imagination.

Ah at last our coffee’s are ready C and…. they’re only luke warm. I haven’t the heart or the patience to queue up again and ask them for fresh ones. That’s the problem with these private members clubs; they don’t give me anything I want but are great at the things I don’t need. Ah well back to the M6.



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