‘It’s brought out a different side in people’: in a garage in the fuel crisis

The view from a village petrol station of the shortages – and panic – that have hit parts of the UK

Last modified on Fri 1 Oct 2021 12.40 EDT

Blasons Garage, a family-run petrol station and car garage in west Northamptonshire, has survived some turbulent times in its 100-year history, but the past seven days have been some of the most challenging the business has ever faced.

“This is just completely unprecedented,” said owner Sam Blason, whose great-grandfather founded the firm in 1920. “I can remember the fuel protests in 2000 when I’d just started here, but that wasn’t on the scale of what we’ve had this week. Everyone is drained.”

Blason, 41, said that after a perfectly normal Thursday, they were suddenly hit by a flurry of panic-buying last Friday and quickly ran out of fuel. Luckily, they had already booked a delivery for later that day but it lasted only until Tuesday – usually they would order a fuel delivery every 10 days.

“Monday was the worst day without a doubt, it was absolutely horrendous. I was here 45 minutes before we open at 8am and the queue was already halfway down the road,” Blason said. “All day the queue stretched the whole length of the village, it must have been about 50-60 cars. It got to a point where we just said we need a break so we had to shut up shop for a bit.”

Blason said he had imposed a £30 spending limit to ensure supplies lasted as long as possible, but that while he had noticed some people “buying just for the sake of it” many customers were in dire need: “We’ve had people who are genuinely in the red and need to get somewhere and they’re absolutely desperate. We have had people in tears, because they’re just so glad to get something.”

The petrol station serves a large rural community after the closure of many nearby petrol stations over the past few years. “Once upon a time, every village around here had a little petrol station but they’ve all gone, we are the only ones who have remained doing it,” said Blason. “There’s not a lot of profit in fuel, this is the problem. So we just call it a service to the village. If they want it, it’s there.

“And that’s how we’ve been going until this week, when suddenly everybody in every town nearby wanted us.”

Office manager Teresa Marriott, 55, has lived in the village for 21 years, so she recognises many of the garage’s customers. “You get to know people and you ask after their families. It’s like a proper little village hub here,” she said. “But this week, we’ve noticed lots of people who we haven’t seen before, or people who haven’t been in here for about five years.”

She’s been helping to answer the phone, which has been ringing off the hook with people from across the county, and as far afield as Leicester, asking after fuel. “It’s when people aren’t very nice on the phones, asking if you’ve got fuel and complaining about the £30 limit,” she said.

“There’s never a time that I don’t want to come to work but on Tuesday I said I don’t want to be here, because I knew I was going to get it from everybody. People were going to be stressed out.”

“It’s fuel anxiety,” said Blason. “When that needle creeps down to the red or anywhere near then it’s panic stations. Where are we going to get it, who’s got it? It’s brought out a different side in people in all honesty.”

From her office, Marriott can see the constant stream of cars pulling on to the forecourt, which even on Friday morning – a week on from the start of the crisis – shows no sign of abating.

Out on the shop front, 54-year-old Karen Read has been dealing with the constant stream of customers paying for fuel. She handled 347 card payments on Monday; she would normally receive 130 on a typical busy day. “It’s been very hectic, making sure everybody is served quickly as possible to keep the queue moving. It’s been manic, I haven’t stopped,” she said.

“One customer told me to mind my own business, and said if he wanted more fuel he was going to have it. I had to say it doesn’t work like that.”

As a small rural station, Blasons doesn’t have the capacity to take a full tanker of fuel, so at the moment they’re just taking whatever they can get – meaning they’re never quite sure when the next load is coming, or how much it will be. “We’re hoping for more on Wednesday, but it depends what happens over the weekend. We’re taking it day by day.”

But in among all the stress and uncertainty, there have been some moments of joy. “One customer brought us some biscuits to say thank you for letting her have some fuel, because she had been waiting for us to open,” said Marriott. “So that was lovely. It’s nice to be appreciated.”

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