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This Guy Is Selling Sustainable Fish From a Motorway Service Station

Veteran fishmonger Francis Phillips is heading up the UK’s only service station-based fish counter, selling sustainably caught sardines, ling, and pollack.

Motorway service stations are known for many things—fast food outlets, overpriced coffee, coach parties, and queues for the toilets—but a fishmonger? When was the last time you saw one of those on the high street, let alone in a service station?

Pop into the southbound Gloucester Services on the M5 though, and you'll find fishmonger Francis Phillips serving customers with fresh fish at the UK's only service station-based wet fish counter.


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An example of British eccentricity you might say, but Sarah Dunning, Chief Executive of Westmorland—the family business who own and run the services at Gloucester—believes otherwise.

"Good quality, locally produced food shouldn't be the sole [no pun intended] preserve of high end shops. That's why we serve it on the motorway," she says. "We want to bring local food from local producers to a wider, national audience. It's wonderfully democratic."

At a time when there are fewer than one thousand specialist fishmongers in the whole of Britain, plonking one in a busy motorway service station is a pretty clever idea. In fact, Phillips was so keen on being the first motorway fishmonger that, aged 67, he has come out of retirement to set up shop.


Fishmonger Francis Phillips. Photo courtesy Westmorland Ltd.

"I couldn't resist the challenge of this job," he says. "The opportunity came up here, and rather than retiring, I thought it would be good to work with people who have the same values I have: putting the customer first, and selling the best product."

Having driven around Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire selling fresh fish to customers on his round for 26 years, Phillips customers are now driving to see him—some from much further afield.

"We had somebody the other day who'd come down from Scotland on their way to Devon, who picked up some fish to take with them," he recalls. "Another couple made a trip from Birmingham especially."


For an island surrounded by the sea, Britain eats much less than fish than its European counterparts. The French eat around 22 kilos a person every year, and the Spanish and Portuguese eat more than 40 kilos a year, compared with the UK's ten kilos each.

"If you go abroad people will eat fish six days a week," Phillip comments. "Whereas if you have it once here, people will say, I've already had it once this week as if it's a penance to eat it at all."

He believes that this is partly because, along with the loss of fishmongers from our towns and villages, there's been a loss of knowledge of what makes fish good and how to cook it.

"Most people overcook it 'just to be sure' and that's the worst thing you can do because it dries the fish out and makes it cardboard-y," says Phillips. "It's not dangerous to undercook fish, especially if it's fresh. Think of sushi. So you're better off undercooking it."

In supermarkets most of the fish is about 12 days old already. On the counter, it looks nice and colourful and fresh because it's on ice but the minute you take it off ice, it starts to deteriorate before your eyes and you can see it discolour in minutes.

Of course one of the advantages of buying fish from a specialist is that they can advise you on what to do with it, a service Phillips happily offers too: "After all I've cooked enough fish myself over the years!"

But why would people pick up fish from a service station fishmonger when they can buy it at their local supermarket counter? According to Phillips, it's all about knowing you're getting a product that's as well sourced and as fresh as it can be.


"In supermarkets most of the fish is about 12 days old already," he explains. "On the counter, it looks nice and colourful and fresh because it's on ice but the minute you take it off ice, it starts to deteriorate before your eyes and you can see it discolour in minutes."

Gloucester Services gets its fish delivered overnight from sustainable small boats fishing off Newlyn in Cornwall.

"Because it's coming from smaller boats you never know what exactly is going to be landed, but what you do get is very, very fresh fish from British waters," says Phillips.

The counter stocks fish caught without depleting stocks like Cornish sardines, ling, and pollack, as well as favourites like plaice and haddock. Because it comes from small boats, the fish is caught more sustainably and supports a local industry.

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Of course, for fishmongering to stage a real comeback, it will take more than a wet fish counter at a motorway service station. Nevertheless Phillips takes his role as veteran fishmonger seriously, and is training fish counter staff at Gloucester Services to help deal with demand.

"I feel like there's real scope to reinvent the fish counter, as well as re-educating the public on how to enjoy fish from British waters," he says.

That's all well and good but if you're heading home with a box of pollack in your boot and get stuck in traffic, surely that's going to smell a little off-putting?

"Well if you're going to buy fresh fish you need to be fairly organised, because obviously if you just put it in the back of your car it's not going to do it any good." Phillips concedes. "You'll need a cool box, because if you're going to buy a quality product, you want to look after it until you get it home."

With the transport of your fishy cargo sorted, once you're back on the road and loaded up with fish, all that's really left to decide is which plaice next?

This post originally appeared on MUNCHIES in May 2015.