As you flash towards Alves on the trunk road to Inverness, a rustic pavillion set back from the roadside may catch your eye. You come upon it by chance, which is often the best way to find things, and Horace Walpole had a word for that – serendipity.
If you pull up to investigate, you’ll discover an oversized timber cabin which is currently being used as a kitchen showroom. When I first came across it, the boarded-up and decaying timber hulk had lost its original purpose, and sat forlornly awaiting a new role.
The Oakwood, just west of Elgin, is laced with pathways and clearings. It was laid out in the early 1800s by Alexander Duff, and latterly bought for the benefit of the town’s citizens by the joint county council of Moray and Nairn. The woods lie just far enough beyond the edge of Elgin to make you feel you’ve left the town and are in the countryside proper. A century later, the Oakwood Motel grew under the eaves of the giant beech trees which ironically populate this part of the oak woods.
When I stopped to have a look in 2005, the motel was reminiscent of an abandoned folly: its timber blackened, windows boarded up, the bark scaling away from its tree trunks. The mossy greens of mildew and leaf mould lent it an air of melancholy. Yet it is unique, the very first motel in Britain, and probably the first in Europe.
The Oakwood Rustic Motel was created by Douglas and Andrew Duncan, proprietors of the City Motor Works in Elgin, who saw an opportunity in the rise of private motoring.
Douglas Duncan rented some ground from the council in 1932 to display caravans on – but thought better of that and built a roadhouse and motel instead. It consisted of a tea room and restaurant on the ground floor, with a ballroom immediately above it, complete with peaked dormers and stained glass windows. Out front was a rank of petrol pumps which were camouflaged to represent tree trunks, and behind lay coloured floodlights buried in the foliage to create the effect of burning bushes. The motel proper lay to the east: a row of thoroughly-modern chalets with electric lighting and central heating throughout.
The first thing which struck you as you drove along the Aberdeen–Inverness road was the Oakwood’s filling station. Until the 1930s, petrol was dispensed from a cluster of hand-cranked pumps at the roadside, whilst a smiddy or workshop behind carried out repairs on cars. Safety concerns gradually saw filling stations develop into forecourts, where you pulled in off the road, and the other facilities gradually improved too. The roadhouse was born, to feed and water the motorist.
Roadhouses were built alongside the new arterial roads during the 1930s, at the start of the era of mass car ownership, when the roads were relatively empty and motoring wasn’t a chore. For a brief period, between the Great Depression and the outbreak of Hitler’s War, there was joy to be had from bowling along the road in a carefree manner, like Mr Toad. By contrast, today’s traffic-strangled A96 is by turns frustrating and fatiguing to drive along.
Motels emerged around the same time as roadhouses, and the first in the world was built at St Luis Obispo in America: a roadhouse with rooms for rent. It was a hotel for motorists, in the same way that the coaching inn was an overnight stop for folk travelling on the horse-drawn mail coach. A later example of the motel breed was the Dee Motel, which was built at the end of the 1950s and sat beside Brig o’ Dee in Aberdeen for four decades. It was presented as the latest thing, perhaps unaware that Elgin had got there 25 years earlier.
The Oakwood Café and Auto Service Station opened in March 1933, and had an interesting inspiration. The story goes that Douglas Duncan was on holiday in Canada and spotted an attractive hotel, designed along the lines of a giant log cabin. Timber buildings are synonymous with holidays, and rather like the earlier Strathpeffer Spa further north, the rustic timberwork lightens the tone and emphasises that we’re no longer in the city, with its hard-edged stone buildings.
For somewhere with Canadian roots, Oakwood Motel is strangely reminiscent of the Schwarzwald in Germany. Its split and unsplit log walls, a roof of cedar shingles, raw bark decoration, and zig-zag patterns of branches all have hints of Hansel and Gretel about them. It has also been suggested that the design was influenced by popular Hollywood films of that era with their folksy sentiments – and of course the tree trunk fuel pumps and burning bushes added a dash of theatricality. The Oakwood was unique, and that was its selling point: the motel became a destination in itself, as well as a handy place to break your journey.
During WW2, the Oakwood was requistioned, and while the ballroom was used to house soldiers, the chalets housed the officers. In 1947, the motel was handed back by the military, and a local distiller called George Grant joined the Duncans in partnership, and the name was changed to the Oakwood Motel and Petrol Station. Post-war Britain was locked in austerity for six years, with petrol only coming off ration in 1950. Inevitably, this led to a very slow re-emergence of Sunday jaunts and drives into the country for pleasure, so it took a few years for the Oakwood to recover its pre-war custom.
Yet by the early Fifties, you can imagine them returning after a day’s recreation in Nairn, taking the sea air out on the Links – then stopping at the Oakwood to stretch their legs and take a bar meal – he in tweed sports jacket, she in lilac twinset. The filling station no doubt helped to even out the seasonal trade of the motel.
With the passing of a couple of decades, motoring styles evolved. The Fifties fell in love with Transatlantic culture: long, low diners with neon signage, lots of glass along the front showing off a brightly-lit interior. They were equipped to provide a simple, low-cost service to passing trade, with a minimum of hassle. Modern architecture was more suitable to reflect the streamlined cars of the era: the pre-motorway services at Stracathro on the A90, and Crawford on the A74 were sleek, white and flat roofed in a Moderne style.
It has been said that motoring defines our culture better than anything else. Clothing, language and religion are perhaps the more usual signifiers of nationality, but the motor car has always reflected the people who created it. Seeing a 1950s Buick Roadmaster parked next to a Morris Minor of similar age says more about the U.S. and U.K. respectively than any tract on sociology could.
The roadside building has an interesting relationship with the road. While the business draws trade from passing trade – think of the various country shop and tea room complexes on the A96 – it also provides some visual relief from the unrelenting tarmac.
In Oakwood’s case, it looked towards a Canadian tradition of log buildings and the imported idea worked well thanks to its woodland context. The American diner’s contrasting design, with frosted pastel colours, Formica tables and tubular chrome stools, was a welcome contrast to the dull palette of wartime – but the Oakwood’s character was utterly different. As a result, it had to evolve to avoid looking dated, through a series of revamps which eroded its character. Layers of modern additions and petrol company signage appeared, to catch the passing motorist’s attention.
In some respects the Oakwood’s story parallels that of the Landmark Centre at Carrbridge, which borrowed another American idea, the visitor centre – in 1969 it became the first of its type in Europe. The integrity of its original design, by John L. Paterson, has since been eroded by refurbishments which mask what it once was.
The Oakwood Motel was purchased by Shell and BP Scotland in 1963, after which it was run principally as a filling station – during that era, petrol sales still turned a decent profit. Today, margins are so squeezed that each of the few remaining filling stations in the North-East has become a mini-supermarket, with an almost incidental set of petrol pumps out front. They appear to be a loss leader, to attract folk into the shop.
Oakwood passed back to private ownership in 1982 when Gilda Jann bought it, and planned to build a 32-room accommodation block to the east, along with self-catering chalets. This was only partly completed when she sold it to Joseph and Victor Miele, local ice cream barons. In 1990, they passed the building to John Masson, who demolished the partly-built extension, and refurbished the original building. According to newspaper reports, Masson’s venture was declared bankrupt in 1994 – but he had at least secured the building’s condition and ensured it was watertight.
After that, the Oakwood passed through the hands of several banks until it was sold again in 2001. During this later period, the building sat empty more often than occupied, and several tenants tried to run businesses there, ranging from coffee shops and antique centres to an Indian restaurant. It seems that none found the magic formula to attract custom: perhaps the initial novelty value of the Oakwood Motel was hard to replicate in the 21st century. As a result, the Oakwood sat empty for several years, boarded up and looking increasingly glum.
You could say that it was left alone to be found by Riverside Kitchens, who refurbished it as a showroom and put it to use in a sympathetic way in 2007. Perhaps its period of abandonment prevented a fate worse than death, since it avoided fast food counters, and the breweries’ love affair with themed pubs. Many other roadhouses became something else entirely, such as a tyre depot or plumber’s showroom. Others were stranded, like ox-bow lakes when a river changes course, as motorways by-passed them.
The Oakwood is different, thanks to its sympathetic restoration, and remains the best ‘discovery’ on the road to Inverness.
Mark Chalmers trained as an architect, but now turns his hand to writing, drawing and photography, as well as designing buildings. His current diversion is finding out about the city that never was – Aberdeen’s unbuilt architecture.Tweet
This is an article from the September 2012 edition of Leopard Magazine. To read much more like this every month, subscribe to Leopard Magazine.