In the 1960s and early 1970s, a café on the A30 near Shaftesbury was one of the coolest late-night destinations in our part of the Westcountry. Alfred heard why the famous, and the infamous, stopped at the café on Sherborne Causeway.
Mike Farrow’s family still operates businesses alongside the A30, two miles west of Shaftesbury. But in 2019, a fitness suite and caravans have replaced the frothy coffees and chip-pans. “We moved in during 1966, when the filling station also had a café and a transport café,” Mike recalled.
“We would be open 24 hours on Friday night. Shaftesbury had quite a few rock groups and bands and they would come back and have sausage, egg and chips at three in the morning after a gig. It was probably the only place in those days where you could find anything at that time of night.”
Today if you wander around Shaftesbury after midnight at the weekend, the Kings Arms would be one of the few businesses still trading. But in the 1960s, the A30 road was the major transport link from London to Lands’ End. The M5 wasn’t opened continuously across Somerset until the mid-1970s.
“We were exactly 108 miles from London and 108 miles from Plymouth. That put us in the centre,” explained Mike. “In those days, when people left work, they would travel all night on a Friday night to get to Devon and Cornwall. We were the first AA rest point on the main trunk road. There was no A303. It was nose-to-tail through Basingstoke and Salisbury with long queues. It would take approximately five hours to get from London to Shaftesbury in those days. You were ready for a rest break, so we were the first.” Bank Holidays and Fridays – holiday changeover day – were particularly busy.
Mike’s family bought the business and moved down from the Southeast because they believed that the café would be demolished as the A30 was turned into the equivalent of today’s A303.
“We were told that a dual carriageway was going to go through when we came down here and that’s one of the reasons we could afford to buy the business. It was going to be knocked down. We thought we could make sufficient money in that time to make it worthwhile.” The family thought they would gain compulsory purchase money.
“Luckily, they decided not to do that, and they upgraded the A303. We were lucky that didn’t come through. It’s nice that Shaftesbury has been by-passed in many ways and still keeps its backwater feeling,” said Mike.
I asked Mike what I would have found if I’d stopped off at the Sherborne Causeway Café late at night, fifty years ago. “We still have the filling station. Behind was a series of wooden buildings, not much more than sheds, all cobbled together, but it made an interesting café,” he said. “The actual entrances were roughly the same but everything else is changed in that time. The kiosk in the centre has been rebuilt but we use the original glass bricks that were there in the 1950s.”
The food would be nothing like a modern motorway service station. There would be no packaged sandwiches, for example. “Everything had to be individually made,” said Mike. “One of my jobs was peeling a sack of potatoes and chipping them. I’d use up to three or four sacks a day. I was good at that. All the pastries were handmade. You would have sausage, egg and chips and meatballs and gravy.”
He recalls that ham, egg and chips was popular. “I had coachloads of Germans come in at 2am. They call ham ‘bacon’. They were all ordering ham, egg and chips. That was difficult with eighty Germans who don’t speak any English. It was good basic fare. The lorry drivers in those days expected good food. There was no Big Macs or KFCs. In those days they pretty much got home cooking.”
Mike says the working schedule was pretty gruelling. “Every second week you had a Friday night thrown in, so there were a lot of hours. We would start at seven in the morning and work until three in the afternoon. Then, another shift would come in at three and work until eleven. There was no stopping during the summer.”
As the A30 was the M5 equivalent in those days, celebrities used to call in. “One of the more infamous names was Jimmy Savile. He arrived in his Capri. Adam Faith came in, he used to like the bread pudding that was on the menu. Paul McCartney came in once and also Leo Sayer. He put his song on the jukebox so we would know who was,” said Mike.
A local band would also come for food following their gigs. Mike says many locals will remember Trevor Hopkins’ band. “His group was called Orange. There was another group called Graveyard and a band called Mach One,” said Mike. “There was an explosion of rock and roll groups in the Shaftesbury area. It was quite fun. It was a cool place to hang out. Friday nights were the time that would attract young people from Shaftesbury, Gillingham and Tisbury – people who were mobile with motorbikes and scooters.”
In places where groups from rival towns congregate, there can be trouble. Mike recalls that his mother used to keep order and prevent animosity between Mods and Rockers getting out of hand. “My mother was in charge and she’d go out with a big wooden spoon and tell them to take it outside. They soon got the idea that we wouldn’t tolerate problems. We used to say that if any of them was creating a problem they would all be banned. They would take the person causing the trouble outside for a good hiding and he wouldn’t come back,” said Mike.
Thoughts of the musical soundtrack to the café bring back memories for Mike. “There were so many songs and it was my job to change the records. They used to come in a pack which we didn’t order. We were sent three records a week, something to do with the top 10. I remember my mum and dad always liked Roy Orbison.”
Another important part of the business was the filling station. Cars during this period often achieved less than 12 miles-per-gallon of petrol and there were no supermarket petrol stations. “There were lots of small filling stations around,” said Mike. “There were three on Shaftesbury High Street and one in every village. And there were three along Sherborne Causeway.”
The fuel crisis in the 1970’s also caused problems for the business. “We were just about to sign up with Mobil for redevelopment and Mobil said they could no longer go through with the development, but they did agree to supply us with the same amount of fuel that we had in the previous year as a goodwill gesture,” explained Mike. It meant that the family’s filling station had some fuel coming in.
“We negotiated with another company, Anglo, who said they could supply us with the same amount that we had last year so we had doubled the amount of fuel and managed to serve our customers and many new friends who decided they wanted fuel from us. We were known as the filling station to have fuel, even during one of the most difficult petrol crises in memory.”
With so many filling stations attempting to attract business, many resorted to stunts and promotions to drum up business. “In those days, Green Shield stamps were available. A lot of the filling stations were giving away glasses or ‘tiger tails’,” said Mike, as he remembered the fake tails that the Esso company were giving people to decorate their fuel caps with.
“People no longer required those sort of things, so my father had the idea of giving away eggs with petrol. That took off. We had hundreds of eggs going out. ‘The country garage giving away eggs as an incentive’ got mentioned in the Times.” And it possibly encouraged people to drive home very carefully!
Michaels remembers the Esso World Cup coin promotion. “When I went to Christy’s School, we were an Esso garage at the time. I used to get orders for the World Cup coins. I could go through the kinds that people wanted and have a little deal, so that was my first financial trading,” said Mike.
And he gained something much better than wine glasses or gadgets following the garage signing up with cheap petrol provider Pace. “We were the first station in this area to discount the price of petrol. It was a big thing. People were driving quite a long way for a few pence,” he explained, before adding, “That’s when my future wife started coming to the garage. We’ve been married now for over forty years. I am not sure I expected that with cheap petrol, but it’s one of the plus things,” he smiled.