If you arrive at Formby by train, you may wonder if you are in the right place. But while the local station, Freshfield, feels urban, a mile or so due west lies one of the country’s most exhilarating coastal landscapes.
Formby is a spectacular expanse of beach, sand dunes and pines on the edge of a metropolis. Many National Trust coasts are remote, but Formby, forming part of Liverpool Bay, is an easy day out from Liverpool. It is important for waders and provides a woodland home for the red squirrel. The well-drained, sandy soil is ideal for asparagus growing and the Trust has a tenant farmer who continues to cultivate it (see points nine and 10 of this walk).
Barn owls and tawny owls thrive on the voles and mice here, while the landscape is also a habitat for rabbits, stoats and weasels. The rare natterjack toad lives on the edge of the dune system.
Formby enjoys something of a micro-climate and can be bathed in sunlight when there is rain elsewhere along the coast. From the highest points of the dunes, you can see Snowdonia, Anglesey, the wind turbines of the Liverpool Bay, Blackpool Tower and, on a clear day, Black Coombe in the Lake District.
The red squirrels, devastated by squirrel pox virus in 2008, are recovering well. But disease and greys are not the only challenge they, and Formby face. Formby Point is eroding at a rapid rate and the dunes are receding by as much as four metres a year, making this one of the fastest eroding coastlines in the UK. In places, with a high tide and high wind, up to 10m of dune can be lost in one go.
At the southern end of this walk you’ll come across the tobacco cliffs, named for the waste tobacco leaf that was dumped in the dunes from 1956 to 1974. As the dunes recede, the tobacco becomes more conspicuous.
What is striking is that while Formby feels huge, this is a very small area, and it pushes hard up against residential streets. Liverpool is close by and Formby is the nearest sandy beach for cities as far away as Leeds. “We’re suffering from a coastal squeeze,” said Kate Martin, area ranger for Formby. “We’re on top of an urban area. The houses of Formby are not going anywhere, and the coast is shrinking.”
A gaze into the crystal ball suggests an uncertain future, though the advance of the sea may not continue - records show that throughout history Formby Point has seen both accretion and erosion. Until 1905 the point was actually getting bigger, before erosion took hold once more.
In the meantime, some car park spaces are already being lost, and a realignment project is looking at just how to relocate the visitor centre. “There’s no point in putting up more hard sea defences,” said Kate. “We don’t want to stop erosion happening because the ecology here relies on a mobile dune system.”
Perhaps the most magical element of Formby can only be seen at low tide, and then only to a lucky handful of visitors. When the waves pull back, they can reveal a Mesolithic landscape, footprints of men, women and children, roe and red deer, which are 5,000 years old.
You may also spot the prints of aurochs, the long extinct species of cattle. These casts from a previous landscape and culture are not fossils, they are preserved imprints on the clay. The footprints were left by hunters and prey at a time when the area was a saltmarsh, ripe with hunting opportunities for our distant ancestors.
It can be easy to look at erosion as negative, but “coastal change is often about loss, but it can also reveal things of new significance,” said Phil Dyke, the National Trust’s coast and marine adviser. “It’s a question of something being lost, something being revealed. There’s no permanence.”
Distance: Three miles (4.8 km)
Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
OS Map: Explorer 285 Southport & Chorley (Not all paths are marked on OS map)
By foot: Sefton Coastal Path passes through National Trust Formby
By train: Freshfield Station, on Merseyrail Northern Line, 1 mile (1.6 km) walk to National Trust Formby
By car: 2 miles (3.2km) off A565. Follow brown tourist signs from roundabout at the north end of Formby bypass (by BP garage). Park at the National Trust car park at Victoria Road, Formby - car park charges apply for non National Trust members.
Start: The main notice board opposite the toilets at National Trust Formby, grid ref: SD280082
1. Cross the road and take the path (marked Cornerstone path) to the left of the toilets, heading down a ramp into the woodland. Continue to follow this clear, broad path with its white and purple marker posts through the woodland until you meet another path at a T-junction with a set of large wooden chimes on your left hand side.
Point of interest
The pine woodlands were planted from the late 1800s by the Weld Blundell family, whose estate covered this area. Before the trees were planted this area would have been fixed sand dunes covered in grassland and if you look closely you can still make out the shape of the dunes underneath the trees. Over the years these trees have been a valuable windbreak for the fields used for asparagus cultivation and the neighbouring residential area. Of course now they are most renowned as the home of the rare native red squirrel.
2. Turn right at this junction and follow the wide stone path. As you come out into an open glade look through the trees on your left hand side to catch a glimpse of Freshfield Caravan Park. Continue along this path following waymarkers for the Sefton Coastal Path (yellow arrows on a white and grey background).
3. Following the Sefton coastal path you will eventually leave the woodland and head out in to the open dunes. Continue along this path as it passes through a small cut in the dunes and passes an old natterjack toad pool on the right. At this point the path bends to the left and at a path junction by a bench you will leave the Sefton Coastal path and take the path straight ahead, over the dunes and on to the beach.
4. Turn left and, keeping the dunes on your left, continue along the beach. You will notice as you walk along that there are marker posts along the beach denoting the main paths over the dunes.
Point of interest
When looking at the sand dunes you may notice something that at first appears to be out of place: lines and lines of Christmas trees. Some areas of the dunes have become vulnerable due to the loss of Marram grass, the natural dune stabiliser, caused mainly by trampling. This leaves the dunes bare which means that the wind can blow the sand off them leading to flattening of the dunes and the blown sand covering the road, paths and car park. The trees are part of a restoration project to help to reduce the sand movement and stabilise the dunes.
5. Continue along the beach.
Point of interest
The woodland known as Nicotine Wood takes its name from the area seaward of the trees where, during the 1950s and 1960s, thousands of tonnes of tobacco leaf waste were dumped by the British Nicotine Company. The waste was dumped on old asparagus fields that were no longer in production. This wood has an interesting natural, as well as industrial, history. The gnarled broadleaf trees that can be seen here are native black poplar and it is thought that this is one of the most northerly places where this species can be found in the UK
6. After you have walked approximately three-quarters of a mile (1.2km) along the beach you will reach the Blundell Path marker. Turn left and leave the beach via the path over the dunes.
Point of interest
Formby is famous for its asparagus and the cultivation of this crop has left its mark on the landscape. Most of the areas of flat land and fields that you see throughout this walk are not natural but are areas where the land has been levelled in the past for asparagus cultivation. To help to continue the asparagus growing tradition of Formby, the National Trust has leased out a field at Sandfield Farm to the Brooks family who continue to grow asparagus on this site.
7. As you come over the dune you will see a clear path going off to the left through a thickly vegetated area. Take this path and follow it as it passes along the landward base of the sand dunes.
8. Continue along the path as it makes a sharp right bend before going up a slope. When the path descends take the clear path on the right heading into a woodland of gnarled black poplar trees.
Point of interest
National Trust Formby is part of the Sefton stronghold for the native red squirrel, one of 17 strongholds in the north of England. Autumn and spring are when the squirrels are most active but they can be seen out and about in these woodlands all year round. Have a look out for the feeders in the trees as this is often a good place to catch a glimpse of these shy creatures.
9. At a path fork, take the right path which leads out onto a T-junction with a wide stone path. Turn right at this junction. After a short distance the path curves round to the right and at this point take the sandy path to the left which leads between two fenced fields.
10. Continue on and follow the fence on your left until the end of the field. At this point turn left along a grass/sand path until it meets a sandy path at a T-junction. Turn right at the junction and pass through a small area of woodland before coming out onto a grassy field. Continue straight ahead.
11. At the end of the field take the sandy path on the left that ascends a short steep slope into the pine woodland. Continue along this path until you reach a fenced path at a crossroad with a bench on your right. Go straight ahead at this junction and follow the fenced path as it makes a left hand bend. Shortly after the bend there is a path going off to the right. Take this path to return to the walk start.
End: The main notice board opposite the toilets at National Trust Formby, grid ref: SD280082