Bacon, beans and tea to go
Along Britain’s highways
By Stefan Wermuth
In a mug or take away? Thatâ€™s the decision you have to make when you order a tea through the hatch in the side of a burger van, snack van, mobile kitchen, roadside cafe or tea stop â€“ all different names for food vendors scattered around the main roads that wind across Britain.
Your first answer might be â€śexcuse me?â€ť because you canâ€™t hear the question over the sound of the food vanâ€™s generator buzzing too loudly or a heavy-goods truck passing by, honking his horn five inches away from your ear. When you do manage to answer properly, â€śin a mugâ€ť means you will get your tea in a giant cup, often branded with the logo of a local business, along with a metal spoon shared with other travelers. Otherwise you get the tea in a polystyrene cup to take away.
Snack vans are usually located roadside in areas known locally as “lay-bys” along so-called â€śA-routesâ€ť – main roads not quite as big as motorways, which run all over the country. They can be trailers, little vans, caravans or even converted double-decker buses. They donâ€™t offer a panoramic view – or letâ€™s say that the only possible panoramic view ends at the next hedge – but every van is unique.
Equally unique are their owners, known as â€ścarriers.â€ť They can be men and women aged anything from 21 to 74 years old, including former bankers, truck drivers, nurses, rock musicians or people who were just made redundant â€“ you name it. Some have been working in the same spot for more than 20 years, others just started a couple a weeks ago.
As some of the A-routes have the same speed limit as the motorways â€“ 70 miles (112 kilometers) per hour â€“ it is often necessary to pull off a stunt-driver-style maneuver to actually stop at a roadside snack van, unless you already know exactly where it is. Some are marked with flags or signs ahead of their location on the road.
It doesn’t matter if itâ€™s freezing cold, boiling hot or raining horizontally, they are waiting for passers-by five, six or seven days a week from early morning to late afternoon. Reliability is everything in this business.
The main customers are truck drivers, workers, travelers, self-employed people or, in some places, tourists or strangers like me.
When I asked: â€śWhy do you think people stop at snack vans rather than going to a commercial service station?â€ť the reply was the same in every part of the country. Itâ€™s cheap, parking is easy, thereâ€™s freshly cooked food and people want to socialize. They like having a chat.
I also asked what had changed about these snack vans over the years. I was told that the recession had altered things a lot, with more families with kids coming because they couldnâ€™t afford to go to a restaurant any more. One vendor, Nick the Nosh, said that lately people also want to eat more healthily.
I spent nine days on the road, criss-crossing the country looking for mobile kitchens and their carriers. I had at least one cup of tea at each stop and tried to eat twice a day. Unfortunately, I could not cope with any more than that.
I met lots of funny and friendly people who provide a great service and who always have time for a chat while you sip your breakfast tea or have a special burger. So, the next time you fancy a tea or a bacon-and-egg butty, slam on the breaks and give it a go! You will not regret it.
By the way, the best answer is â€“ in a mug.