Food on the move

‘Get Your Kicks On Route 66’ Nat King Cole advised America in 1946 – an anthem of freedom and independence that earned iconic status after 1960s cover versions by Chuck Berry and The Rolling Stones. Suffolk photographer Sam Mellish found inspiration somewhat closer to home. Steven Russell heard about it

WHEN Sam Mellish was a teenager, living south of Ipswich at Capel St Mary, he used to do washing-up and silver service table-waiting for Le Talbooth restaurant in nearby Dedham to earn a few bob. If the weather was fine he’d pedal there and back on the cycle-path alongside the A12. A roadside caf� in a layby at Stratford St Mary always caught his eye. “I was fascinated by it,” he recalls. “There was something quirky and magical about it. We used to stop at Little Chefs as a family, but never really at the individual roadside places.”

That sense of awe never left him. A few years ago, studying for a Master of Arts degree in photojournalism at Westminster, he was driving from London to his parents’ home at Capel. He’d been wondering what to do for a major project: a portfolio of work or a kind of dummy book put together over two or three months. A lot of students had been saying “I want to do it in Africa or Asia, to get the punchy images,” but tutors advised them to stick to the UK. If they could find strong scenes here, it proved they had the eye. When he passed Donna’s Caf� at Stratford St Mary for the nth time in his life, Sam had his Eureka moment. “I thought ‘Right! That’s it! I’m doing a project on traditional roadside services!’”

And he did.

Initial thoughts of photographing every roadside caf� from London to Land’s End were soon ruled overly ambitious, so he confined himself to a shorter stretch of the A303 and A30 in the south-west of England. “Lots of teas, bacon sandwiches, fry-ups and welcome homemade cake! At the time I was living in Muswell Hill, London, and did the trip over two journeys. Shooting time took three weeks in total.”

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Even then, with the masters done and dusted in 2008, that spirit of the open road – the intoxicating mixed aroma of fried food and hot engines – hadn’t left his system. Sam hankered after more. He needed backing so he could afford to do it properly, filled in lots of forms, and was overjoyed to learn before Christmas that he’d secured lottery funding through Arts Council England. It enabled him to extend his scope to East Anglia. “I was quite surprised! I knew I had a strong body of work to present to them, but I’m not really a business person.” During the autumn, winter and spring, then, he’s spent about five or six days out with his camera – preserving the atmosphere of nearly 100 varied eateries a world away from the uniform corporate slickness of a Wimpy, Burger King or McDonald’s branch and chatting both to owners and customers who swear by them.

Sam’s found a brilliant quotation that summarises perfectly the tone captured by his lens and the character uniting most of these roadside services. It was written by Rupert Martin in the early 1980s for photographer Paul Graham’s book A1 – The Great North Road, a volume of 40 colour pictures taken along the length of the A1:

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The open road is no-man’s land on the edge of society, and its inhabitants – the staff of cafes or hotels, the lorry drivers, salesmen and others who ply the road – are often imbued with a solitary stoicism, a kind of self sufficient melancholy.

While Donna’s Cafe might have been the muse, Sam gratefully acknowledges that book as an influence on his own reportage. Another was a quirky 1967 photograph by Tony Ray-Jones called Glyndebourne from his book A Day Off. “The image simply pictures a couple picnicking next to a field of cows. To me this really encompasses the whole transient nature of the trade – and certainly those picnicking/eating in seemingly odd places. Robert Franks’s ‘On The Road’-style images in his book The Americans, as well as Stephen Shore’s 1970s photographs of unaffected youth culture across America, have been good sources of reference.

“I could go on, as there have been many photographers, writers and musicians who have ‘helped’ me make the project what it is now – Willie Nelson’s classic song On The Road Again is just one I’ll name . . .”

Sam’s resulting collection/exhibition, Roadside Britain: On The Road, looks at a world rarely given a second thought by most people. It combines the atmosphere of neon-lit American-style diners with more individual cafes boasting a character all their own. “Superficially, one may argue it’s a rough trade with worn edges, yet behind the often-forlorn exterior is a welcoming and embracing smile, fundamentally one which is open to all,” says Ipswich-based Sam. “Having spent the previous eight months visiting many of these roadside establishments scattered throughout East Anglia, clocked countless miles and passed a seemingly unending supply of mainstream petrol stations and restaurants, it’s the individualism and eccentricities of these unique services which sparks the imagination.” He adds: “I don’t mean for it to be depressing in any way; quite the opposite, because I’m trying to embrace the trade and bring out that quirkiness but at the same time that intimacy: moments when it’s quite quiet.”

At only one place was he asked to go away and not take pictures. “I think it was quite busy and that he was having a bad day. I think he was also concerned my car in the layby was taking up space that could be potential business!” Most owners, by comparison, were very interested in the project and proud of what they were doing. What he remembers are the “great characters and really great people” he met, all with tales to tell. “I’ve really enjoyed listening to the stories: quite interesting and often humbling.” One was Shane Walker at the Pit Stop, a former freight container perched on the edge of the A12 near Kelvedon that’s also known colloquially as the “Shabbily Shack”.

Sam says Shane had a wealth of anecdotes, such as singer Jay Kay, front man of jazz-funk band Jamiroquai, pulling up for refreshment. Then there was the summer day two military generals came in for food . . . with two armed-to-the-teeth Gurkhas standing guard outside.

Apparently, Shane used to have his own business monitoring water pollution up and down the country. “He said to me ‘Most people just see me as a guy who flips burgers in a freight container in a field . . .’ Very interesting guy, though; I spent a lot of time chatting to him.

“Then there was a guy from north Suffolk who used to exhibit birds of prey in a big way. He decided to ease himself into retirement; so he has a gleaming burger van and chef-whites. It’s those social histories I like. The more history and depth I can show in the project, and try to tell that through the photography, the better I’ve done.” He found that many people running roadside cafes were former lorry drivers. Perhaps they are loathe to give up that sense of family and the banter of life on the road.

One place lodged in the photographer’s mind is the Anglia Motel complex off the A17 near Holbeach in Lincolnshire. It has bungalows for overnight stays, 16 acres of hard-standing and grassed areas for tents and touring caravans, a 300-seat cafe/restaurant, a garden centre and even a microlight landing strip. (“Call first to ensure runway open!” advises its website.)

Sam understands the business was started years ago by a couple and is now run by their sons. “Apparently she won the pools; then they started selling veg and flowers on stalls, and then got a little tea place. It grew and grew to what it is now. To come from nothing to something quite grand . . . it’s amazing. It’s examples like that that are interesting, because you drive past and don’t much think about these places, but there are stories there.”

Sam called at about four roadside services a day, on average, spending about an hour or 90 minutes at each – sometimes longer. General Election day was a marathon: he spent about four hours at Dunmow picnic area off the A120, documenting services, then headed up the A1 to Stibbington Diner, just outside Peterborough – “a traditional and rather charming 24-hour cafe”. He stayed until about 3.30am.

“Although I did capture some of the activity during the night, I mainly watched the elections roll through. It was very quiet. The night worker, cooking and serving, had worked there for 20 years, was extremely hospitable and provided me with plenty of cups of tea!” Sam usually broke the ice at each stop by ordering a cuppa – “That’s a lot of cups of tea, all in all!” – but tried to limit what he ate, bearing in mind how many places he was visiting. “I really enjoy a bacon sandwich, but I think that if I’d had one every time I might not have enjoyed it as much!”

A number of the people he spoke to on his travels reported trade down 30 or 40% in these troubled times. Some burger vans were pulling down the shutters in the afternoon, when previously they’d have stayed open longer.

Sam believes we’d lose something important if events ever conspired to reduce this legion of individual eateries – not just because they cater for those who can’t afford mainstream prices or prefer not to pay them, but because they add character and bring people together.

“I hope my photographs make people think: to see these places and acknowledge them as a unique part of our heritage. We should embrace it.”

n Sam’s exhibition runs from June 19 until August 1 at Babylon Gallery, Waterside, Ely. Find out more about him and his work via and

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