I have been around for quite a long time now and have clocked up a fair few miles working various jobs in all of the six counties of Northern Ireland. During this time I have become somewhat of a Petrol Station connoisseur or Diva if you will. An appreciation of petrol stations is in my blood. When I was younger my dad would take me to the local Monkstown garage to be educated in what to look for in a quality service station. Are the front pages of the Newspapers there to greet you at the entrance? Are there freshly made Donuts at the bakery or just some 4 day old tray bakes? Do they even have a bakery section? Does the petrol pump have a good flow or does it do that annoying clicking thing?
After expert training from my father and a wealth of experience in many of the garages around Ulster, I now feel ready to deliver a review of some of the more notable garages around the province. I can’t really give these garages marks out of ten because they are all very different and it would be wrong to compare them. It would be like comparing McDonalds to the Wine Bar in Portrush. Both are great but at different times.
As I said, this is the place where I cut my teeth as a petrol station reviewer (or Fueler to those on the inside). I have a genuine emotional connection to this garage. It is the one I walked to as a child. Later, during my rebellious teenage phase, it became the place where me and some friends hung out beside the wall asking old people to go in and get us 20 Mayfair while I stood there scared. It is also the place of one of the most epic water fights I have been part of between us and the garage staff back in 99. The clinical move came when the staff locked us in the car wash and turned it on.
As for the garage itself the petrol pumps used to click but now they don’t and they were one of the first shops in the country to supply Tim Horton’s coffee, which makes me feel really Canadian when I drink it.
Recently they supplied Bob Marley’s Frozen coffee but as I was the only one purchasing it they took it away. Overall I believe this garage is a decent mid range garage. It is what it is, a garage with some subtle perks thrown in and friendly staff… Now anyway… Not like those guys who chucked me in the car wash!
This Franchise has arrived north and it clearly aims to dominate the petrol station market in Ulster. After the commercial success of the Templepatrick Applegreen it now has plans to invade Coleraine and beyond. Applegreen was always a highlight of a road trip to Dublin but despite the early success and hype I believe Applegreen Templepatrick has a few issues.
For a start it isn’t in Templepatrick, that is about 8 kilometers up the road. It should be called Roughfort Applegreen or something else because currently it is very confusing to simple minded people like myself. Another issue I have is that there is far too much coffee on sale. Take your pick from the official Applegreen Coffee, the Greggs Coffee, the Subway Coffee, the Bakewell Coffee,the Burger King Coffee and the Lavazza Coffee Coffee. Sometimes too much choice hurts your head. When I walk in there I feel like all the franchises are competing for my fiver. When you walk into the lobby there is palpable tension between the staff at Bakewell and the staff at Greggs. You feel like you are in the middle of a Wild West Battle to see who can sell you a semi stale pastry first. I also feel when I go to Applegreen they have a wide variety of items but not quite what I want. Overall Applegreen has decent stuff everywhere but great stuff nowhere.
Applegreen also claim to be a 24 hr service station, but try telling that to the grumpy person who serves you from behind a pane of glass when the main doors close after 11pm.
I have never been made to feel so guilty about having a craving for a late night bowl of Frosties. I just wish they would have a smile on their face as they are trying to shove a giant cereal box though a tiny metal hole below the window. I then usually have to break the news to the shop tenant that I also want 2 litres of milk and an electricity top up card. You can literally see the life disappearing from their eyes.
Applegreen launched with a lot of hype and expectation. Like a lot of people around Newtownabbey I expected more. Applegreen could possibly learn from smaller garages who focus on quality not quantity. On the positive side it is in a nice location and has great seating areas and decent wireless, when it works. It’s also a great place for a first date as there are plenty of escape routes. A few small tweaks to Applegreen and it still could be the haven for tired,hungry,lonely people I thought it would be.
Tobermore Service Station/Jamesie’s
If I am on one of my many trips to StrokeCity/Londonderry/Derry I am faced with the dilemma of do I choose Applegreen or save my pennies for that old favorite, Tobermore Service Station. This garage arrives at just the perfect time on your journey north and of all the garages I’ve been to this is in the most picturesque setting. Located at the bottom of the Glenshane pass you feel as if you are in a vast open space. If you are struggling to motivate yourself on your drive to the Maiden City a quick stop here can refuel you mentally as well as motorly.
Inside the shop there is a bakery which makes great fresh Donuts. There is also a wide variety of items to cater for all emergencies. Are you a forty something dad who forgot it was your kids 7th birthday and it’s too late to get them something from Toys R Us? Well there are plenty of lucky bags for both genders aged 5-8. Going to a friend’s dinner party,forgot to bring something and worried you will look like a cheap skate? There is plenty of 99p Schloer and and Nestle Milk Tray to save your bacon. They also have bacon too!!! Also it is the only service station on this list which has a celebrity endorsement, from the living legend that is Bruno Mars. Maybe if he bought that girl some flowers from Tobermore Service station she now wouldn’t be dancing with another man.
My one qualm with this service station is that the toilets are situated out back in a freezing shed and sometimes there is no loo roll or soap or running water. I think this is a ploy by the smart mid-ulster folk to make more people go into the shop and buy loo roll and soap. Overall this is a very good service station which I could spend a lot of time in.
Carrick-Keel (Near Omagh)
If you spend anytime in Omagh you will realise that Daniel O’Donnell must have been lying. Because if there were any lovely girls from Omagh they have all moved elsewhere, or he scared them off. Having worked there for long night shifts for six months the only thing that kept me sane was the thought that on the drive back to civilization(Belfast) there is a great service station near a place called Carrick-Keel. Arriving here I feel like I have gone back in time, in a good way. With no phone signal I feel distraction free as I join a bunch of weary truckers in the adjoined bakery to read one of their many newspapers. As well as the Impartial Reporter, they also have those old favorites such as the Belfast Telegraph and the Daily Mirror. Here, I have plenty of time to read how Milk Prices are too high as well as catch up on the wonderful sound advice dished out on Dr Miriam’s problem page.
The aforementioned Bakery also doubles up as a diner which serves a great Ulster fry with an Orange Juice (or Tea if you are weird). They even have squirty ketchup bottles which is a million times better than those stupid sachets. Sitting in that garage makes you feel like a working class king. If you ever find yourself in that part of the country definitely drop in, get a paper and a fry and sit down for a few peaceful hours.
This garage is located on the road between Derry and Limavady and makes this list for one reason. Their Danishes. I have never tasted a pastry with just the right amount of cinnamon seasoning along with a combination of crispness and fluffiness. The guy or girl who made this pastry should be given a medal and should definitely audition for the great British bake off. Though they might need some elocution lessons first so the rest of the UK isn’t confused by a thick North West dialect. Seriously though, put it on your bucket list to try that Danish at least once in your life.
Random Scary Sheds
As kids we didn’t watch many horror films, we didn’t have to. Most of us had a real life horror story a few yards down the road in the form of garages that evolve out of dusty sheds in the middle of abandoned parts of town and on random roads. Who knows what exactly qualifies as diesel in these places?
The items in their shop consist of second hand toys from the 50s, chocolate bars that are older than you and pirate DVDs (no knowledge of the internet here). These garages are tended by a man who symbolises ‘One Hour Photo’, ‘Hills Have Eyes’ and ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ all in one.
Lately I haven’t have had many excuses to visit Carryduff or Newcastle but one of the first things I think of on the journey south east is that I can stop in the legendary garage that is Brackenvale. This is the final garage listed here as it sets an example to those listed above. It’s Danishes are up to standard. It makes one brand of Coffee. It has an ample supply of papers and magazines. It has Flushing Toilets with Soap. It has a Deli bar which makes great sandwiches. The staff are like taxi drivers, they will chat if you want or they will leave you alone and serve you with a career smile if you don’t want to chat. If this garage can’t fulfill all your needs the KFC and McDonalds located near by can help.
This service station possibly isn’t what it used to be 10 years ago due to a few items they used to have which are no longer stocked and the last time I was there I didn’t see a table or seating area.
Overall Brackenvale is the standard bearer for all other garages to look up to. They seem to have cracked the service station code which is keep things simple, have toilets that flush and have a decent bakery. If this blog achieves anything I hope the message gets out to all service stations that you are the backbone of this province. I hope you realize you are more than just a place to get petrol and chewing gum. You are a source of warmth and comfort for weary travelers. You are a beacon of hope in a potentially otherwise grim journey. Core memories are laid down in the aisles of your glorified sheds and barns which supply our most basic needs. Whatever happens to Ulster in the future I hope the essence of humble petrol station will remain the way it is. Apart from clicky petrol pumps…get rid of them.
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