It seems unimaginable today but for roughly the first 25 years of driving in Britain, you couldn’t just drive onto a forecourt, fill your car with fuel and then fill a basket with treats from M&S Simply Food. Petrol stations didn’t exist.
In the decades after the horse and cart made way for the motor and chassis, motorists could only buy petrol from chemists, hardware shops and hotels, as well as from garages. According to Historic England, the earliest petrol station, or filling station as they were known, was opened in November 1919 at Aldermaston, Berkshire by the Automobile Association (AA).
They were ideally placed to serve local communities. What seemed novel then seems quaint today. Local filling stations are vanishing from our roadsides, while global energy companies dominate the landscape.
While many are gone, they are not forgotten. Meanwhile, communities fight to save remaining historic structures while hobbyists – myself included – enjoy uncovering those that remain and sharing them with the wider world. So much so, I decided to write a book about it. Several, in fact. Super: Old, odd, interesting, obscure and abandoned filling stations takes readers on a trip down memory lane and reveals Britain’s vanishing local petrol stations, region by region.
Here are some of my favourites. If you have suggestions for others, please share them in the comments, below.
Compton Garage, Long Compton, Warwickshire
Queen Victoria was crowned, the first section of the Great Western Railway was opened, Dickens published Oliver Twist and, in the same year, 1837, this garage, in Long Compton, south Warwickshire, was built. The building looks to have been built as stabling, perhaps serving the 13th century church opposite. It’s a popular spot to take a picture. Traffic to London now uses the M40 and, thankfully, this place has retained its character. The pumps and signage are all original; one peeling sticker shows that two-star petrol was served here. Two-star was 92 octane and last sold around 1989. This garage still operates as a repair shop.
Catterlen Hall, Newton Reigny, Cumbria
This might be one of the oldest buildings used as a filling station, anywhere in the world. In Newton Reigny, in Cumbria, is Catterlen Hall. This was built in 1460 by William de Vaulx, replacing an earlier tower on the same site. The main tower of the hall has walls up to 1.2 m thick, as it was built as a defensive house during medieval times of civil unrest. The wider site has a large, busy dairy farm and these beautiful old barns with a Shell-branded petrol pump. The main building is Grade I listed. It has been many years since this single pump served fuel but it is in remarkably good shape.
Shipps Garage, Upton on Severn, Worcester
Tucked away on New Street, where the flood waters often encroach from waters feeding the river in Upton-upon-Severn, is Shipps Garage. In 1891, Upton’s Wesleyan Methodists clubbed together and spent £30 on a bit of land here and another £400 or so to construct this building, designed to seat 150. The Methodists never really took hold here and some financial shenanigans and in 1904, a legal spat between a Minnie Smith who “had misconducted herself with Mr Thomas Brown, a grocer of Upton-on-Severn, who is a trustee of the Wesleyan Connexion” didn’t help their cause. The building fell into disuse.
After the Great War, the forerunner of the British Legion tried to rent it, but decided against it when the owner declared that “gambling and intoxicating drinks should not be allowed in the building”. Spoilsports. It was occasionally used as a cinema, though. Eventually, a Herbert Boughton, engineer and motorcycle man, bought it and the building started to come to life as a garage. In 1926, he sold it to Robert (Bob) Shipp, who had been a doctor’s chauffeur in Hereford, and the garage retains his name almost a century later.
Merlin Motors, Caerwys, north Wales
This is (or was, it’s quite hard to tell) the business of Merlin Motors in Caerwys, North Wales, specialists in the Hillman Imp. At one time, there were over a dozen of these remarkable little cars on the forecourt here, next to this set of petrol pumps. The Imp was, in part, designed by F1 driver Mike Parkes, and was a successful machine in touring car racing and international rallying. Rivalling the Mini, it was a rear-engined, light-weight, low-cost car and had a number of design innovations. Built at the Linwood factory in Scotland, where workers were more accustomed to welding ships together, not assembling little cars, they were riddled with quality problems. Today, you’d be surprised to see one, let alone this lot, none of which have been on the road for at least 15 years.
St Mawes, Roseland, Cornwall
This building on the seafront in St Mawes, Cornwall, has a long and interesting history. The pumps were installed in the 1940s and were switched off in the ‘70s, when the fuel tanks started to leak. In 2008, a group of locals started to restore them and got a donation from Shell to help complete their work. In the pre-war days, the operators here also had a bus, and the back of the business was home to two Rolls-Royces (grand things for a humble fishing-port garage) and a Pontiac, sometimes used as taxis for local schoolchildren.
The building was also a carpenter’s workshop but has had many other uses over the years; it was a shed for processing pilchards, caught by the local fishermen, and a reading room for the American Red Cross. By 1970, it came into the hands of Brenda Pye, who owned the building, which was configured as a workshop where she made stained-glass artwork, and the middle floor became a music venue. When Brenda passed away, she left the building to the local community, who, I am sure, will find further interesting uses for this beautiful place.
Dartmoor Garage, Steeple Ashton, Wiltshire
The Dartmoor Garage in Steeple Ashton was, for many years, a National Benzole station and took its name from the field upon which it was built. The garage was built and owned by George Moore, who seems to have been a very resourceful man. The earliest petrol pump is believed to have been installed in 1930. To run the workshop and petrol pumps, George installed his own 50-volt supply with a generator and batteries. The generator was a 4.5-litre Lister engine driving a dynamo and the batteries were glass accumulators retrieved from the Odeon cinema in Trowbridge. If the lights dimmed or the pumps slowed, someone would go to start the Lister.
Water was supplied from a well supplemented with rainwater collected and stored in tanks. A local story tells of the water board repeatedly trying to make him switch to mains water. They asked for a sample of water and left a bottle. The sample was collected and tested and the water was condemned as unsafe. George told them that he had sent a lad across the road to one of the houses for some tap water and was delighted to tell them they had condemned their own water. During the Second World War, he ran three pre-war Austins as taxis, one of which was still running in the mid-seventies. A man of many talents, George took an interest in maintaining and repairing the Victorian heating systems in several local churches, and his pastime was bell-ringing. Although some people find the pumps unsightly, others think they act as a memorial to George Moore, a remarkable man.
Brighstone, Isle of Wight
Only the modern dialling code on the pump gives the game away because, otherwise, this could easily be anytime in the 1970s. (Thank you Martin Chamberlain, who took his old Maxi to Brighstone on the Isle of Wight and shared this nostalgic picture.) National Fuels had a loyalty scheme whereby customers could eventually get a Smurf figurine, often shown on display under a clear plastic dome in the shop. There was a hoo-ha in ’78 around some of them potentially being toxic after the marketing people at National ordered some from Hong Kong on the cheap. I tested one on my annoying little sister at the time. Production of the Maxi ended in the early ‘80s, the National brand met its demise in the early ‘90s but my little sister is still alive and well and working as an accountant.
Bensteads Cottage, Horsell, Surrey
Bensteads Cottage was built in Horsell, Surrey, in 1831. It operated as a cycle repair shop for many years before being taken over in the 1920s by Archie Benstead, who was then a mechanic and later made the place into a garage for cars. Benstead became a local councillor in later years, resigning when it was decided that a new road being built in the town would not be named after him, but he was a good egg, sponsoring hill climbs and cycling events. Earlier, he served as mechanic to land speed record holder John Cobb “The Fastest Man Alive”, who still holds the record for the fastest speed at Brooklands; 143 mph. Cobb then went to Bonneville salt flats and broke the world land speed record, before coming a cropper attempting records on water at Loch Ness. Archie Benstead went back to cycling. In the dark year of 1943, Archie Benstead reminisced; “memories of past happy days mean much when we can refresh our minds with such thoughts as the incident at Romsey when we had beer and sausage rolls with the village Policeman on an all-night ride.” There’s still a garage operating next door to Bensteads Cottage today.
Redford Garage, Midhurst, West Sussex
Redford Garage fights a cyclical battle with the growth of ferns, brackens and blackberry bushes, which ebb and flow with the seasons, endlessly swallowing and revealing sheds and cars and stuff to be fixed. There are pumps, one still dispensing red diesel, and a large sign almost lost to the trees. And cars; a Saab clad in moss, a Discovery with UKIPpy stickers, a Rover 75 and others in various states of decay. I got chatting with the owner, who explained that the pearlescent white XR2 was awaiting a reshell. It looked lost to me, MOT-less for a decade, and then we chatted about the Mitsubishi Evo squeezed behind the pumps. It belongs to the owner, who had just parked it there after an MOT fail. It needs springs and brakes, apparently. It looked like it had been there for many, many seasons. It dawned on me that this place is timeless. The Evo failed its MOT five years ago, according to the MOT checker online. Night and day and weeks and years must merge in this peaceful spot. The chap was in no rush to get rich, no queue of pushy customers demanding a courtesy car and a valet, just a slow, steady stream of interesting things to fix… sometime.
John’s Motors, Fosters Booth, Northamptonshire
John’s Motors, on the A5 in Foster’s Booth is embracing the growing love of motorsport and cars from an era where every journey was an adventure. You won’t get your EV topped up here. A third-generation business, they prep cars for historic motorsport events and sell cars your Dad longed for new but could (probably) never afford. I’d have the Mk X Jaguar and the Triumph Spitfire outside. The A5 may no longer be the main north–south road around here, thanks to the M1, but traffic is busy and this place has transformed from a general garage to one that enjoys a healthy helping of nostalgia.
Are there hidden filling station gems you know of? Share with the community, in the comments, below.