Bacon, beans and tea to go

September 26, 2013

Along Britain’s highways

By Stefan Wermuth

In a mug or take away? That’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 – all different names for food vendors scattered around the main roads that wind across Britain.

Your first answer might be “excuse me?” because you can’t hear the question over the sound of the food van’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, “in a mug” 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 “A-routes” – 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 don’t offer a panoramic view – or let’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 “carriers.” 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 – 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 – 70 miles (112 kilometers) per hour – 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 it’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: “Why do you think people stop at snack vans rather than going to a commercial service station?” the reply was the same in every part of the country. It’s cheap, parking is easy, there’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 couldn’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 – in a mug.

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