I DROVE through the darkness and I drove through the dawn, mist lying thick on golden fields of oilseed rape, and I came at last to Stracathro Services, off the A90 just north of Brechin.
Well, I’m calling it Stracathro, but regular travellers on this stretch of road will know it as Ye May Gang Faur And Fare Waur – the phrase painted in huge black letters right across the front. Meaning “You might go further and do worse”, it is a slogan at once modest, defiant and dryly funny, unusual perhaps for a transport café, though certainly in keeping with the character of the rural north-east.
Stracathro offers 24-hour parking and fuel, food and drink between 6am and 9pm, and thus attracts a devoted clientele of long-distance lorry drivers from across the UK. Over the course of a year, some 24 million litres of fuel, six tons of bacon and 72,000 eggs are consumed. The smells of Stracathro are diesel, dust and the cheerful aroma of proper fry-ups. “Whit’re ye efter?” asks Wee Alan behind the counter. “Kinahgetarollwibaconandtottysconeplease?” the drivers reply, happy in the knowledge that their desired order will arrive soon after and they can get back on the road.
The café is a remarkable building – long, low, flat-roofed and pebbledashed, saltires flying from rusty flagpoles. Daffodils on the grass verge tremble in the slipstream of northbound traffic. Inside is a throwback, unchanged since the 1960s – Formica tables, fold-back leatherette seats, squeezy bottles of brown and red sauce, and silver bowls of sugar. The owner, Pat Melville-Evans, 61, recalls that when she was a teenager the Kinks stopped by en route to some gig somewhere and she gave the group pony rides. Such is the anachronistic nature of Stracathro that it would be little surprise if the young Ray Davies were to walk in even now and order a mug of sugary tea. He might be thrown a little, though, by the plate of rowies bronzing beneath hot lamps.
What you see instead of pop stars is a constant stream of truckers. At a little before 7am, Ian Willis, 63, walks into the café with his damp silver hair slicked back and quiffish, a towel and toilet bag held beneath one beefy arm. He arrived last night from Cumbria and by 8.30am must be at the harbour in Aberdeen with his load of concrete pipes. He has been a driver for 40 years and is away from his home in Dumfries for most of the week. He sleeps, like all drivers, in his cab. “You’re pushing against the clock all day long, unfortunately,” he says. “Gone are the days when you’d go into transport digs and you could have a leisurely stroll up to the wagon in the morning. Noo, you’re oot your bed, straight into the seat and away. That’s just the way of the times, really.”
This elegiac tone is common among long-distance drivers. They pine for a vanishing golden age before precise delivery deadlines and satellite tracking; when they had more freedom to choose their own pace and route without the boss knowing where they were at all times; when it was safe to pick up hitchhikers and everyone used CB. What you also hear from many drivers is an awareness of the personal costs of the job – “I missed my kids growing up.”
There is a strong sense, too, of a looming demographic crisis within the profession. Most of the men stopping at Stracathro are middle-aged or approaching retirement. In almost 12 hours, I meet only one driver in his twenties. “Once our age group finish, there’s no drivers left,” says Geordie, 55, from Peterhead. “There’s no young ones going into it. No incentive for them. It costs three grand for your licence but then nobody’ll take you on without two years’ experience.” This, of course, is potentially a massive problem for the proper functioning of British society as we rely so heavily on food and other goods being transported around the country by road. Geordie gives a despairing grin. “It’s a dying trade,” he says.
Still, there is something undeniably romantic about long-distance driving. The trucks themselves are fantastic beasts, growling into the dusty car park, the stoor clearing to reveal the home towns emblazoned across the fronts – Wick, Forres, Dundee, Keith – as well as the names of wives and children painted delicately in sentimental fonts. Often, too, the vehicles are expressions of patriotism: tartan valances; nodding Westies on the dash; airbrushed thistles and lions rampant and extracts from Amazing Grace. The very flies squashed black and scarlet on the windscreens seem to add something to the psychedelic pomp of the cabs.
The drivers, for all their natural pessimism, have a real appreciation for the aesthetics of the job. One speaks of the beauty of early mornings on quiet roads through the glens; another of his joy at being able to see over the hedges and watch farmers at work; a third recalls how, just the day before, the sun was shining and he had the windows down while listening to Frank Sinatra and Metallica at high volume. He breaks off from this reverie, however, to explain that the reason the pigs are squealing so loudly in his trailer is that, “One’s horny and he’s trying to jump another which isn’t taking kindly to the idea.” Lorry-driving is rich in bathos.
There are few places like Stracathro left, the drivers complain. The old-fashioned truck stop with heaped plates and decent showers and plenty of room for vehicles is a thing of the past. Most modern truck cabs are fitted with microwaves and fridges, and many haulage firms will not pay overnight parking fees. It’s all to do with saving time and money, but it can make for a lonely life of stale sarnies and lay-bys. Stracathro, therefore, is a beacon and sanctuary, the hub of a working community, though not without its dark side. Service areas, perhaps as places of transience and apartness, tend to be favoured spots for suicides; one driver was found hanging in the back of his truck, another from a nearby tree. There are also two or three prostitutes working the parking lot – “We look the other way,” says Pat Melville-Evans. “Just so long as it’s not causing trouble for us or the customers.”
Melville-Evans is an extraordinary woman, a force of nature involved with the running of Stracathro from the age of nine. That was in the days when it was nothing more than a wooden cart selling milk, potatoes and eggs at the side of the A94, which was the main road between Dundee and Aberdeen before the present dual carriageway was built. It was Pat’s grandfather, the owner of Clearbank Farm, who had the initial idea, but it was her late father, Captain Evans, known as Auld Cleary, who seems to have seen the potential and pushed for expansion.
It was he who arranged for Ye May Gang Faur And Fare Waur to be painted on the facade in what seems to have been a typical gesture by a great old character. He wore two monocles, despising spectacles, and hurtled up and down the A94 in a Rolls-Royce which he had fitted with the number plate from Clearbank’s first tractor. He enjoyed wearing plus-fours to posh restaurants and would simply count out banknotes from a bulging wallet if any maître d’ complained. A naval man, he had been a war hero, as had his wife; Pat thought it normal, as a child, that both one’s parents should have won the George Cross.
“He died as he lived,” says Pat. “He was 75 with a 28-year-old mistress in London. He went down one day and attended in full dress uniform the Admiralty dinner in the House of Lords. He stayed overnight then came home, had Sunday dinner with his family, and had a heart attack the next day. You couldn’t beat that as a way to go, could you?”
With her splendid farmhouse and stable of 60 horses, which she breeds for top-level eventing, Pat Melville-Evans could, no doubt, get by fine without a transport café. But she loves the place, which she regards as a real-life soap opera, and considers herself its guardian rather than owner, resisting all calls to make it look more contemporary. Much of the excellent food comes from her Victorian walled garden, home to a 150-year-old fig tree of which she is especially fond. She does occasionally consider such radical changes as adding a bit of lettuce to the sandwiches, but customer feedback – “Can ye no’ get a f***in’ cheese piece here ony mair?” – has taught her to exercise caution.
She remains a hands-on boss, sharing an office with a Jack Russell bitch called Dude whose hatred of tanker drivers can be placated only by chewing on a Nokia mobile, an object she finds enormously soothing. Earlier this year, Pat was joined in the business by her 24-year-old son William, recently returned from four years as a professional polo player in Argentina, and it is hoped that he will continue the family tradition of filling truckers’ tanks and bellies for many years to come.
Stracathro Services is, without doubt, an unsung Scottish landmark, a sort of Forth Bridge or Maeshowe in greasy spoon form. Unesco ought to hurry up and declare it a heritage site. We need colourful, characterful places like this, it seems to me, in order to save us from the bland homogenous corporate culture which is always threatening to engulf our society. “We have a phrase,” says Pat, “‘Only at Stracathro,’ ” – and it’s very easy to see what she means. «
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