Business

On the roads discovering Britain's eccentric lay-by businesses

Brian Partridge
Image caption Brian Partridge sells fresh produce beside the A10

A swallow sweeps in to land on its nest above the door of an old farm shop, no longer disturbed by incoming customers. The shop closed for business two years ago.

Trade had plunged by 50% within a week of a Tesco superstore opening in the nearby town, explains owner Brian Partridge, so he shut up shop after 13 years.

Now he just sells fresh asparagus, eggs and new potatoes on trestle tables beside the A10, alongside a rather unexpected sideline.

"Tesco doesn't sell live chickens," he says, leading the way to a smallholding with up to 400 roaming chickens who peck happily at some feed as they await a new home.

He sells them for £15 each. Most are bought as pets, he says.

Image caption Brian Partridge sells chickens for £15 each

"I had a good business," he says. "Now this makes enough for me to live."

Cars - carrying potential but infrequent customers - shoot past on the A10 travelling between Cambridge and King's Lynn.

On this 40-mile stretch of road there is a series of lay-by businesses, selling everything from bantams to burgers, and tomato plants to topsoil.

It is a tiny cross-section of Britain's unheralded and eccentric drive-by economy; a magnet for loyal customers and an outlet for ambitions to own a small business.

'I am Les Dennis'

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Media captionAudrey Prentice and Steve Webb discuss life in a lay-by fast food van

At the road's halfway point, motorists can stop and buy a cuppa from Audrey Prentice, a jovial 75-year-old with a twinkle of mischief in her smile, a friendly word for the regulars, and a stock of anecdotes.

"A fella stopped here and I said: 'You look just like Les Dennis,' and he said: 'I am Les Dennis!'

"We've had a few stars - the darts player, Bobby George, and David Attenborough. He was a genuinely lovely man."

The Queen's staff have stopped for a tea on their way to Sandringham. Even one of the Royal corgis has taken a break here.

Image caption Roadside signs aim to tempt passing trade
Image caption Audrey Prentice has served teas here for more than 30 years

Mrs Prentice has worked on this spot for more than 30 years, first with her husband and, following his death, with the catering van's new owner Steve Webb.

The van is here at the lay-by and picnic spot beside the River Great Ouse every weekday between 07:00 and 14:00. It is a traditional hot food van serving bacon and egg baps to farmers and truckers, with holidaymakers tempted by the homemade cakes.

But business is a struggle, says Mr Webb. The road is quieter than it was, and lorry drivers are monitored so much that many dare not stop.

Significantly, Mrs Prentice says, the lay-by's public toilets have been removed. "It's ok for the men, but where do the women go? It means they just drive on," she says.

Moneymaker

Image caption Roderick Everitt has greenhouses full of tomato plants
Image caption Shoppers can buy a crop and still get change from £1

A micro-business with an even longer history can be found just a few miles on. Roderick Everitt was 11 years old when he moved here with his family. He is now 61.

For most of those 50 years, the family have sold tomato plants from greenhouses on this roadside spot.

Mr Everitt says he has customers who come back every year. They have a variety of plants from which to choose. Each costs 20p. The Moneymaker tomato plant is, he admits, just a fruit grower's wishful thinking.

Many of those running these roadside businesses say their work is rewarding, but far from lucrative. One owner, who did not want to talk at length, says he is giving up after 10 years - too many catering vans, not enough custom.

One advantage though is the flexibility of the trade.

The road straddles the border of Cambridgeshire and Norfolk. Both county councils say they are happy for businesses to operate on the lay-bys, without any rental charge, so long as they do not cause an obstruction.

Other rules, according to a spokeswoman for Norfolk County Council, include ensuring there is no nuisance caused to adjoining landowners, that traders do not stay overnight, and that the highway verge is not damaged. Food vans must follow hygiene rules, policed by district councils.

Across the country, councils can set their own rules, there are no specific regulations set by central government, the Department for Communities and Local Government says.

50p for a tea

Image caption Local workers are encouraged to buy local produce
Image caption Haulier Dale Grange is a regular customer

This is a rural area, yet there is a lay-by business every five miles or so. So, how do they manage to make money?

Tracey Lyn Carman runs TLC, a catering van that promotes local produce. The 42-year-old says people working in nearby offices ring in with their orders for the local butcher's burgers, then despatch one of their colleagues to collect them.

Still, somewhat stereotypically, it is truckers who make up the bulk of the businesses' trade. One describes these lay-by caterers as "a necessary part of everyday life for people on the road".

Dale Grange, of Burgess and Walker Transport, has parked up his lorry with its load of 23 tonnes of concrete.

Buying a cup of tea at Pitstop, a roadside trailer about 15 miles along the A10 from Cambridge, he says that transport cafes are dying out, leaving these vans as the surviving option.

His cuppa costs 50p. Service stations on Britain's motorways can charge up to five times as much, drivers say.

Image caption Lina Lytvyn at Pitstop serves drinks and snacks six days a week
Image caption The most expensive burger offers an honest assessment of its nutritional value

Thirty-two-year-old Lina Lytvyn serves the food and drink at Pitstop. The biggest seller on the menu, she says, is the bacon and egg roll.

The menu is dominated by fried food. The priciest burger is a £5 "Gut Buster".

Yet even here, in rural eastern England, the image of the artery-clogging truckers' diet is being challenged.

At the other end of the A10, close to King's Lynn, is Jacks. It is a typical looking catering van, but one of its most popular dishes is the £3.10 chicken salad box.

Image caption David and Laura Gandy have changed their menu on demand
Image copyright Laura Gandy
Image caption Now salads are firmly on the menu

"About 80% of our custom is from lorry drivers," says owner David Gandy, a 35-year-old ex-engineer.

"They were often saying that they were starting to develop diabetes."

So in came the healthy dishes, and they proved to be popular. On their days off, some of the truckers now bring their wives along to eat, he says.

Mr Gandy and his wife Laura have witnessed one medical emergency. A few years ago, an elderly man, disorientated and with blue lips, pulled up in the lay-by in his caravan. The couple spotted the problem, called an ambulance, and saved him from an uncertain and perilous fate.

The pensioner returns each year to tell them he is still fit and well.

The future

Image caption Customer Geoff Spinks buys some asparagus from Brian Partridge (left)

This is just a short stretch of Britain's road network of 245,000 miles. This is just a handful of the hundreds of lay-by businesses operating across the country.

For most of the owners, this is a way of life they have chosen, although it can be a struggle to make ends meet.

"I love it. I've met some wonderful people," says Audrey Prentice who, in her 70s, still gets up early to go to work serving teas and breakfasts.

And for many of their loyal customers, a visit is a show of support for local trade.

"You've got to support small business," customer Geoff Spinks says of chicken-selling, asparagus-growing Brian Partridge.

"It is nice to know the produce is so fresh. It is nice to know he is here."

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