The novelty of it all takes some time to sink in. But it is not the tranquillity which is most peculiar, nor all the technology, nor the fact that this is the first electric service station in Britain — and very possibly the world.
It is the loos. Low-lit, self-contained, unisex rooms (not cubicles) with tropical plants outside and a pine finish within, they could have been beamed in from some chi-chi restaurant in London‘s West End.
They are certainly not what you would expect to find in a layby on the A131 outside Braintree, Essex.
Power to the people: On the forecourt of Britain’s first electric service station on the A131 outside Braintree, Essex
There are plenty of other oddities, too, such as the soundproof meeting hubs, the floor cushions and the free exercise bikes. There is even a branch of the Post Office, in addition to more familiar fixtures such as WH Smith and Costa.
It all feels more like the foyer of an internet giant or an advertising agency than a motorist’s pit-stop in East Anglia.
Yet what we are witnessing here on the Braintree ringroad is perhaps the start of the biggest cultural shift in Western refuelling habits since petrol pump attendants began to flog chocolate bars and newspapers around 40 years ago — paving the way for Starbucks, Waitrose, Burger King and all the other brand names now bolted on to the humble service station.
No doubt in a few years’ time, as more and more of us convert to electric vehicles, we will think it is all perfectly normal to sit in an armchair sipping a cappuccino as we watch our car refuel itself for a fraction of the cost of a tank of diesel.
For now, though, it is all refreshingly odd. And while the customers are hardly queuing up — I meet only a handful in the course of a few hours — they all seem to be very happy punters.
There are plenty of oddities such as the soundproof meeting hubs, the floor cushions and the free exercise bikes
After all, you simply pull up next to what looks much like a petrol pump, plug in a nozzle, tap a credit card and then leave the car to get on with it while you go inside to send a few emails, do a spot of shopping or take a spin on the exercise bikes (which are wired up to the grid — every little helps).
It may take hours to charge the average electric car at home, but these pumps, or ‘superchargers’, currently load up 50 kilowatts — enough to travel 200 miles — within 20 minutes.
At JUST 24p a kilowatt that equates to 6p per mile, less than half the cost of a petrol vehicle. There is no chance of spilling anything nasty on your shoe, either.
The man behind it all insists that the pace of technological progress leads to two inescapable conclusions: that charging an electric car will only get faster and cheaper.
‘We’re starting with a blank sheet. But we have thought long and hard about what it is people want in a place like this,’ says Toddington Harper, 42, founder and chief executive of Gridserve, the renewable energy company behind this £10 million facility.
‘One of the first questions we asked ourselves was: Do all service-station loos have to be revolting? They certainly don’t.’
This is the first of a chain of 100 similar service stations planned across the UK, with backing from the vehicle leasing giant Hitachi Capital (which will, in due course, provide free electricity for the cars it leases). The Government-funded Innovate UK scheme has also invested £5 million.
It all feels more like the foyer of an internet giant or an advertising agency than a motorist’s pit-stop in East Anglia
Toddington points out that electric car owners don’t let their batteries run down before thinking about filling up. So, in time, he expects people to drop in regularly for a quick top-up — maybe doing some shopping at the same time — rather than a full refuelling.
At which point, I discover yet another quirk about this motoring milestone. It must have been pre-ordained that Toddington would one day open a service station, since it turns out he is actually named after one — Toddington Services on the M1.
‘I know it sounds extraordinary but it’s true,’ he laughs. ‘And my elder brother is called Heston!’
Their mother, Heather, who is honorary president of the company, is here for today’s opening ceremony — ‘I’m the proudest mother in Britain!’ she tells me. But, first, I have to ask her what inspired her to name her sons after service stations.
‘My husband and I were driving home from hospital after I’d had our first,’ she explains, ‘and we were running through every name in the book when we passed Heston Services on the M4. We just liked it there and then. And when our second son came along, we settled on Toddington.’
Heather and her late husband, Brian, were actually pioneers in renewable energy, creating a solar power business back in the 1970s. So Toddington was raised on newer, greener forms of fuel.
After school at Marlborough College and then Manchester University, where he wrote a dissertation on fuel cells, he started one business exploring new forms of hydrogen power and then another, building solar energy farms.
Eight years ago, he bought his first electric car and still remembers the challenge — not to mention the stress — of driving it on holiday across France.
‘It was a bit like flying a plane, because I was constantly worrying about how much power I had left and where on earth I was going to recharge it next,’ he explains.
But it sowed the seed of an idea.
His service station — which he prefers to call an ‘electronic forecourt’ — is supplied by a solar farm 40 miles away, with power stored in a vast battery at the back of the building.
‘It can store enough to power 5,000 cars for a year,’ he says.
He is anything but a preachy eco-zealot, but a pragmatic, entrepreneurial father of four who believes that Britain can hit its climate targets through persuasion rather than coercion.
‘You’re never going to persuade people to switch to new forms of energy unless you make it cheaper and easier for them,’ he tells me. ‘That’s what we’re doing.’
Out by the ‘pumps’, I meet Gridserve’s first customer. Brian Cooke, 53, a housing engineer, lives nearby and tells me he bought his electric MG only a few months ago, having read that this new electric filling station was being built.
‘I’ve always liked the idea of an electric car, but it needs to be convenient,’ he says. ‘So this gave me the confidence to buy one — and I love it. My wife still has a petrol car. We’d probably use that if we were going on a long journey. But it won’t be long before this technology catches up.’
I can’t help wondering why, given that giants such as Shell and BP have been doing this sort of thing for a century, it is down to Toddington Harper to invent the electric service station.
‘I think they have rather a lot of legacy issues to deal with before they can start shutting down their fuel pumps,’ he says. ‘Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about that.’
And so Braintree enjoys new-found fame. The town which once put up road signs saying ‘Welcome To Lovejoy Country’ can henceforth boast that, in 2020, it became the gateway to the future.
What’s more, you don’t have to turn up at the world’s first electric service station in an electric car to use the loos.