Up The A1: How The Great North Road Became Britain’s Sexiest Motorway

Published in Vice on 24 Aug 2016

Haven’t you ever noticed one of the roadside sex businesses dotted along the A1? There are six in all – four sex shops and two swingers clubs. But why are they there? Who visits them? And what makes the A1 a good place to sell sex? Matt Blake drove from Leeds to London, visiting every one in turn, to find out.

If you’d prefer to read this on Vice, where it originally appeared with pictures, click HERE.

©Vice UK Ltd/Chris Bethell

©Vice UK Ltd/Chris Bethell

When Graham Kidd started converting the A1’s Little Chefs into sex shops, he was sure the local farmers would be the first to complain. It was a few years ago, and Graham, whose firm Pulse and Cocktails owns 21 stores across Britain, had just opened his inaugural shop on the A1 (he now has three along the road). Like any new business, the first few weeks were slow. Cars whizzed by and locals didn’t want to know. Then a tractor pulled into the forecourt.

“The farmer wandered in,” says Graham. “After browsing the magazines and blow-up dolls, he picked up a Fleshlight and asked what it was. When our staff explained that it’s a male masturbation tool disguised as a torch, he was amazed. ‘Wow,’ he said. ‘This’d be great for when I’m working the fields.'”

The farmer bought the device and the staff thought nothing more of it, until the next day. “The following lunchtime, literally five tractors drove in from the A1 and all five farmers each bought a Fleshlight,” Graham says. “They couldn’t get enough! We had to ring central office to ship more down to cope with the demand.”

To this day, he says, that shop is Pulse and Cocktails’ biggest seller of imitation Maglite vaginas. “I won’t tell you which store it is, only that it’s surrounded by fields,” he adds. “I wouldn’t want to scare off our best customers.”

Welcome to the A1 – the mothership of the motorway sex industry.

***

Motorways should not be sexy. Nothing says “it’s not you, it’s me” like a cold, emotionless strip of tarmac. They are portals of frustration, designed for the sole purpose of getting you from a place to another place. It’s about the destination, never the journey. They aren’t fun like high-streets, or picturesque like country lanes. That’s why kids watch TV inside cars – because there’s nothing to see outside them.

Then there is the A1. Haven’t you ever noticed one of the half-dozen roadside sex businesses dotted along the 165-mile stretch between Leeds and London? I did during a drive north a few months ago. On the way back, I counted them – four sex shops and two dedicated swingers clubs. If you’re looking, they’re near-impossible to miss.

Then I looked online. “I drive past these all the time,” wrote “Rubberduck” on one forum I stumbled across. “Anyone been in one? … Surely better to just order stuff online than from one of these seedy places? Would have thought they would have gone out of business years ago but what do I know?”

Rubberduck got me thinking. Are they seedy? Why are they there? Who visits them? And why is the A1 a good place to sell sex? I drove from Leeds to London to find out.

***

PULSE & COCKTAILS, PONTEFRACT

Before the Pontefract branch of Pulse and Cocktails sold sex, it sold breakfast. It was a Little Chef until it underwent the change two years ago, becoming the A1’s first “adult superstore” south of Leeds, tacked onto the forecourt of a Shell garage. Two long-haul lorries are parked outside. One driver is asleep in his cab. The other, it turns out, is buying porn. The hum of traffic here is constant, until you step inside.

The shop itself is like any high-end adult store in Britain. Its bright white walls are festooned with sex aids, from PVC costumes, bondage masks, whips and chains to sex dolls, vibrators, medieval stocks and penis pumps, not to mention the usual staple of smut material. A Mediterranean-looking man in work-boots and a high-vis jacket – his lorry is presumably the empty one outside – is perusing the girl-on-girl section. He buys a stack of DVDs and leaves without a word.

“That’s called the Big Fist,” the store clerk tells me when I ask about a terrifying 13-inch dildo shaped like a punch. “Y’know, I’ve never once sold one to a woman. Only men. In fact, about 50 percent of the fetish costumes are bought by men in this store, too. That’s the A1 for you.”

The A1 is cobbled together from bits of the old North Road. Snaking from Edinburgh to London, it starts slowly, caressing the North East’s coastline, flirting briefly with Newcastle and Sunderland, before penetrating North Yorkshire as it picks up speed. In and out of Leeds and Sheffield, it plunges into Nottinghamshire, through Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire before climaxing in London. It’s Britain’s longest road, and Britain’s oldest road.

Hunter-gatherers used its mud-tracks to find food about 10,000 years ago, before the Romans paved it in parts from around 400AD. It’s taken various forms since then, until the Department of Transport awarded it numbered status in 1921.

It has always, like many A-roads, been a site for illicit sexual activity like dogging. But its sex appeal didn’t go mainstream until the hot summer of ’92. It was after a boozy day at Ascot races that Eastenders star Gillian Taylforth was arrested for giving her husband, Geoff, a blowjob in a Range Rover parked in a lay-by. She was arrested but the charges were dropped. Then The Sun caught wind and ran the story, spawning a libel case which Taylforth lost. It was the beginning of a sexual revolution that would sweep the A1.

A mile south of P&C, Pontefract, there’s a lorry parked in a field. On it are the words: “PREPARE TO MEET YOUR GOD,” and some other Bible bombast. No sign of the farmer who put it up. I wonder if he has a Fleshlight in his tractor.

***

PULSE & COCKTAILS, GRANTHAM

Still, no time to find out. Pulse and Cocktails, Grantham, is next – and it looks exactly like Pulse and Cocktails, Pontefract. The only real difference is that this one was a McDonald’s (though, it was a Little Chef before that). It has the same cornucopia of sex gear as Pontefract, and the staff – a man and a woman – also wear black. Three couples, all in their forties, browse the shelves, whispering earnestly about what to buy.

“We get all kinds of customers here,” says the female staff member. “Couples, singles, old people thinking it’s a coffee shop, young people thinking it’s a strip club…”

Her colleague cuts her short: “Don’t forget the man last year who tried wanking in the DVD section. I had to confiscate his laptop. We get way more customers since they put up speed cameras on the road. Cars don’t just fly by any more. Though, people still do come in asking for bacon and eggs. They think we’re still a Little Chef.”

Pulse and Cocktails owes its success on the A1 largely to Little Chef’s failure. In 2007, the roadside diner went into administration, forcing the closure of 28 branches across Britain. Pulse and Cocktails pounced – converting Grantham in 2008, then Sawtry (40 miles south) two years later, followed by Pontefract in 2012. “The three [Little Chefs] that we’ve converted are ideal sex shop premises,” says Graham Kidd. “They are the perfect size, enabling us to stock a large selection of toys, lingerie, bondage items etc; they have excellent parking and are in great locations.”

But most importantly, it’s about anonymity. “Because we’re British – and you don’t get this on the continent – a lot of people are frightened to death of being seen going into a store,” says Graham. “That is changing, but in converting redundant roadside diners we’ve found a niche, but also a place where people can go and shop discretely and safely.”

In other words, you’re less likely to bump into your mother-in-law in a sex shop on a remote piece of A-road than you are in the one on your local high street.

“The internet has had a massive impact on the adult industry,” Graham adds. “I can’t remember the last time a sex shop opened anywhere. But because we’ve saturated the A1, people see us on their way to work or holiday. It’s basically free advertising.”

A fair point – according to the Department of Transport, between 50,000 and 100,000 vehicles drive the A1 every day. “And we’ve got some incredible products. So people can come in, hold the product in their hands, see how it works. You can’t do that on the internet.”

***

TEASE II

You know what else you can’t do on the internet? Have no-strings sex with strangers. Swingers club Tease II is next, a hotel in a truck stop at Alconbury Services (technically P&C Sawtry is next, as the crow flies, but because it’s on the other side of the road it makes sense to visit Tease II first and go back to Sawtry later).

Tease II is run by a husband and wife called Stu and Nikki Hobbs. Stu, 49, is fixing a water pipe in the ceiling at reception when we arrive. “The jacuzzi’s bloody packed in and taken all the hot water with it,” he growls, standing on a ladder with a spanner. “You want a tour? I’ll give you a tour.”

The first thing you notice is the smell – leather and old smoke, but mostly lavender Febreze. “Smell’s very important in a place like this,” says Stu, winking. “You can imagine why.” There are about five rooms,

including a cinema (currently showing an eye-watering amount of anal-fisting) with a viewing area behind glass under a bed; a jungle room with a sex swing and a fetish room with a bondage cross and a spanking bench. The main bar has a dance-pole and some sofas, as well as a well-stocked bar with a baseball bat mounted on the wall.

“We’ve got 8,500 members, including Premiership footballers, judges, barristers, coppers, firemen, road workers, carpenters… you name it, from every background,” says Stu. “Here you’re all on one level; when you’re all naked, you’re as good as the man standing next to you.”

Tease II opened in 2011, after the Hobbs’ first club, Xscape, was sued for trademark infringement by the indoor adventure park of the same name. Stu insists the lawsuit ended amicably. Now, nights have names like Greedy Girls Gangbang and Wednesday Hump Day Party. Entry costs £20 for couples and £35 for single men (single women, known as “unicorns” in swinging circles because they’re so rare, go free).

There was a time when the UK’s swinging scene was the reserve of bored middle-aged couples putting their car keys in a cowboy hat and riding their luck. But the death of religion, plus sexual liberation and the internet, has fuelled a boom in sex parties among couples of all ages. Stu insists the scene is far from seedy. “People who think that don’t know the business,” he says. “People expect keys in a bowl, naked orgies; they think they’re guaranteed a shag. Women run this scene, let me tell you. I got more sex when I worked on the buses.”

What about the A1? It must bring some surprising customers. “We don’t like passing trade,” says Stu, shaking his head. “We prefer word of mouth. Though, last year we had one of our gang bangs on during the day – 22 men and three women at it in the cinema. I’m out front smoking and this guy of about 55 pulls up. ‘Tease?’ he asks. I sent him upstairs to where the action was. Five minutes later he comes back white as a sheet. ‘I meant do you serve teas, not… that,’ he says. Then he leans in and whispers, ‘But have you got any cards?'”

Business is booming at Tease II. Though it does look a little worn in places, Stu insists that’s all part of its charm. “We’re more a venue for the working man,” he says. “If you want to see the higher end of the market, go see Jules and Scott at the Vanilla Alternative down at Tempsford. Lovely couple. Their cliental are a bit la-di-da.”

***

THE VANILLA ALTERNATIVE

The Vanilla Alternative is 20 minutes south. Jules Davis, the venue’s proprietress, answers the door.

She’s a tall, attractive woman with blonde hair, jeans and a cardigan and fluffy slippers on her feet. She offers us a cup of tea just as her phone rings – her ringtone is “Sex on Fire” by Kings of Leon.

If Tease II is a house of sex, The Vanilla Alternative is a sex Narnia. A converted roadside inn – once a grandiose place called The Anchor Lodge – the VA opened in 2011. It now has 10,500 registered members. Its décor is all lavish purples, burgundies and blacks. It’s got Chesterfield sofas in the bar area, a disco dance-floor and a 15-foot jacuzzi. Two of the communal rooms are wall-to-wall with beds, all ready-made for tonight’s action. “Oh, it’s nothing special tonight,” says Jules, “just our usual Frisky Friday.”

Jules, like Stu, can tell a story. For the next 45 minutes she regales me about the time a woman went into labour at a sex party; how she once threw another stark-naked onto the side of the A1 for starting a fight in an orgy. There was the father who almost walked in on his daughter giving a blowjob in the jacuzzi, were it not for some quick-thinking diversionary tactics from Jules and Scott, and the time a man asked her to sneak him out because his dentist was at the bar and he had an appointment the following Monday. “So I said, just make sure you don’t have pubes between your teeth when you go, in case they’re his wife’s.” She talks, we listen, all to that gentle hum of passing traffic outside.

“Most people either think it’s fat old ugly guys who’ve stepped out of the 60s with hairy armpits and pubic hair down to their knees,” she says. “Or they think you’ve got to be 26, blonde, blue eyes and big boobs. In here, yeah, we get both those sets of people, but it’s mostly normal bods who fancy a bit of excitement.”

The VA, like Tease II, is fully licensed and above board. Sexual health charity The Terrence Higgins Trust even sends a nurse to every event to give STI checks and hand out free condoms. “We always say, there are two classifications of swingers,” Jules continues, “those who want to and those who need to. If you need to be doing this to fix your relationship, it will destroy you. Repair your own relationship before you involve anyone else in it.”

She’s also keen to point out that her’s is one of the few swingers clubs in Britain where drugs are strictly banned. “I’ve seen clubs destroyed by drugs,” she says, “but the police just don’t want to know.”

Why? She gives a knowing glance: “Let’s just say there are a lot of police involved in this scene. So if you report it to the local force, the chances are someone there goes to the club and it tends to get lost in the paperwork.” That’s all she’ll say on the matter. “We take client confidentiality very seriously,” she says. With that, some guests arrive – a good-looking couple in their early thirties. I’m politely asked to hit the road.

***

HAPPY LOVERS A1

There’s nothing confidential about Happy Lovers A1 – the penultimate destination of my journey. The A1’s first ever sex shop, it’s bang on the northbound carriageway outside the village of Sandy, next to the Bedfordshire BBQ Centre and an Esso garage. It was never a Little Chef, but a Happy Eater, then an Indian restaurant. “We’ve been here 14 years,” says shop manager Irene Busby. “I think Pulse and Cocktails only came to the A1 because they saw how well we were doing here. They wanted a seat at the party.”

But there’s one thing Happy Lovers has that Pulse and Cocktails will never have – a hole in the wall where a brick used to be. “Oh, that’s where Jimmy Savile’s brick was,” says Irene, way too flippantly for such a statement.

In 1981, Savile made 100 commemorative bricks, to be auctioned off for his charity. One ended up in the wall when it was a Happy Eater. “When we took over,” says Irene, “this local councillor launched a campaign to have it removed, claiming it was an insult to Savile’s memory. We saw no reason at the time to take it out, so we left it. Then Savile’s crimes came to light, and we realised we had to get rid of it sharpish. No business wants an association like that – especially not a sex shop on the A1.”

Nobody knows how the roadside sex industry has changed better than Irene. “Originally it was just sales reps and lorry drivers who came in,” she says. “The reps had the money and the truckers were on the road alone for long periods of time. But then the internet killed the sales business and the recession killed the truckers’ spare cash.”

Now, local porn stars are key to Happy Lovers’ daily business (apparently there are a lot in ruralBedfordshire) and come in as much for a chat with Irene as to buy a new vibrator. Local fetishists play a part, too. But mostly, she says, it’s “normal people”: couples en route to a dirty weekend, men over 50 who don’t get the internet or single women with an itch to scratch. “We do get people led in on dog leads and a lot of bosses with their secretaries,” she adds. “Last month I had a guy come in because he’d broken his penis pump through over-use and wanted me to fix it.”

Did she? “Nah,” she says. “I sold him another one.”

***

PULSE & COCKTAILS, SAWTRY

My final stop is a little way back up the A1 at Sawtry. It’s also the final Pulse and Cocktails as you drive north to south on the A1. Again, it’s exactly the same as the other two. There are no customers, just an affable blonde attendant behind the counter.

No wonder it’s quiet; this is the shop that almost sent the local village into meltdown when it opened six years ago. There was an outcry, public meetings, a petition; a local councillor promised to “remain vigilant”. One condition of granting the licence was that the shop must not use the village’s name in its title or any advertising literature. “No one wants Sawtry to become synonymous with a sex shop,” said the angry councillor.

“You’ve no idea how difficult it is to get a license for a sex shop,” says Graham. “They can’t be in built up areas, near schools or homes. That’s another reason why a motorway is a good location. Still, at Sawtry we had over 2,000 objections.”

The ire didn’t last. Soon, he says, the shop was employing people from the village. “Now they use the shop all the time,” he says. “It’s become part of the community.”

It’s no real surprise that village communities freak out at the thought of a sex business opening on their doorstep. Every business I speak to faced initial backlashes from the villagentsia: fears that they would attract doggers, paedophiles, rapists and other undesirables. “YOU WOULDNT THINK PEOPLE WERE GETTING RAPED EVERY DAY WOULD YOU (sic),” harrumphed one commenter under a MailOnline story at the time.

“It’s nonsense,” says Graham. “Our customers are no different to those who go to supermarkets or anywhere else.”

***

As I drive back to London, the A1’s orange street lights beginning to fizz and flicker on, I spot the corpse of a badger lying on the hard shoulder, its legs stiff and straight like a Pass the Pig on its side. It reminds me of one very dangerous side effect of a motorway sex shop, about which I learned this morning during breakfast at DD’s roadside café, directly opposite the first Pulse and Cocktails at Pontefract.

“You’d be amazed at how many people park in our carpark and run across the motorway to the sex shop,” said the waitress, also DD’s mum, as she cleared away my plates. “They park up in our car park, wait for a lull in the traffic and dash across the road. Desperate times call for desperate measures, I suppose. The sex toys in there must really be to die for.”

Then, handing me my bill, she added: “You know, we never had this problem when it was a Little Chef.”