Applegreen M1 gridlock as new service station opens in Northern Ireland
Ivan Little visited Applegreen to see just what drove locals to jam one of NI’s main routes
It could only happen in our wee country.
Where else but Northern Ireland would the opening of a new motorway service station - which was designed as a respite from the rigours of the road - actually add to the traffic jams.
Not only has the Applegreen facility on the M1 out of Belfast been blamed for making the already snail-paced tailbacks on the motorway even worse, but it has also clearly become a must-see tourist destination since it opened on Thursday afternoon.
That resulted in chaos on both sides of the M1 yesterday morning during the inaptly named rush hour as hundreds of motorists slowed down even more than usual - if that were possible - to catch a glimpse of the service station, which was causing a bigger than normal bottleneck between Lisburn and Blacks Road.
It got so bad that the Good Morning Ulster radio programme broadcast appeals from its travel department for drivers to stop rubbernecking.
The motorists' curiosity sparked incredulity on social media, where one bemused poster tweeted: "Commuters slow down to look at NI's new service station. Some people clearly don't get out much."
Another said: "It's only a petrol station."
In truth, Applegreen is more than that. It is, in fact, more like a giant food emporium with a veritable feast of outlets including Burger King, Bakewell, Subway, Lavazza, Chopstix and what is one of its main attractions, Greggs.
Yesterday it appeared that hundreds of people wanted to take a bite out of Applegreen for themselves.
The huge car park was packed throughout the day, but instead of fanfaring its first full day of trading the Applegreen company, which is based in the Republic, managed to shoot itself in the foot with something of a PR disaster.
At first the local management said it would welcome a visit from the Belfast Telegraph, but a video journalist was turned away - apparently on orders from south of the border.
A PR for Applegreen in Dublin refused to put up a spokesman to talk about the astonishing response to the M1 initiative, citing the fact that the company's financial results were due for release on Monday.
She said that in the "closed period" until then no one from Applegreen could basically talk about anything. The spokeswoman also said that any previous coverage about the Applegreen opening on the M1 shouldn't have happened, which only whetted your intrepid reporter's appetite for a trip to the service station to see what all the fuss was about.
Driving down the M1 from Lisburn didn't provide much of an eye-opener about what lay inside the complex.
A high wooden fence makes it impossible to see anything of any note and makes it even more of a mystery why drivers took their foot off the gas to see what they could see yesterday morning.
Approaching Applegreen from the Belfast direction, it was immediately obvious that the Northern Irish mania for anything remotely new had accelerated into top gear, causing great mirth on the telephone for a relative in England, who couldn't believe that people here were so excited by the opening of a new service station.
"We've got thousands of them," she said.
"Yes, but this is only our second one on a motorway," I countered unconvincingly, adding that the opening of the M1 itself in 1962 didn't create anything remotely close to the same excitement as Applegreen.
Only a handful of spaces were available in the massive car park and inside the place was packed, with queues at all the food counters.
The businesses were all cleaning up, and all around them the new-fangled staff were busy cleaning up too, meanwhile taking anxious looks over their shoulders at a gaggle of sharp-suited Applegreen executives, who were checking the place out for any teething problems. "What do you think?" one of the bosses asked me as I snatched a nosey at a 'quiet lounge' upstairs, which had a library of books ranging from Jane Austen to travel guides.
Staff were handing out free samples of hot drinks to visitors, and downstairs actor Michael Lavery - who was travelling home to Banbridge from Belfast - gave the new Applegreen production a rave review.
"I think a service station on the M1 is long overdue.
"I had an excellent Chinese meal and it was all freshly cooked," said Michael, who knows his grub, having recently led the popular Belfast Bred tours around the city's food stores and eateries.
Michael's father Colin had no complaints either: "It's like a breath of fresh air, really.
"It's well laid out and it has everything you could want."
Niall Gribben from Hilltown, Co Down, was relaxing on his way home from a mart in Ballymena.
He said: "I know a lot of people from Belfast question the wisdom of having a service station like this, because they'd no sooner be on the M1 than they'd be turning off it again to come here, but for me it's a perfect stopping-off point."
Not everyone had pulled into the Applegreen service station just for a break.
"I'm here for a recce to see what is on offer," said Peter Beattie from east Belfast.
"I'm a big fan of Greggs' pies, after having lived in England for a long time, and the one I've just had was every bit as good as across the water."
Outside the enormous building, long queues were also building up yesterday at the petrol and diesel pumps.
But a children's play area was unsurprisingly empty in the rain.
Applegreen executives know that the novelty value of the service station near Lisburn may wane somewhat, but they're still confident that the M1 venture - and one which is planned for the other side of the carriageway - will repeat the success of its first £6m northern service station on the M2 between Glengormley and Templepatrick.
An identical development will open on the opposite southbound section of the M2 by the end of this year.
Another smaller Applegreen unit opened recently on the A26 Crankill dual carriageway on the former site of the Fort Royal Inn, between Ballymena and Coleraine.
The company now has more than 175 service stations in the UK and the Republic.