IT TOOK five different trains — two of which involved an underground station on a Northern Line in completely different cities — but I fled the spring sunshine in which London was bathing, in favour of what the weather forecast led to me believe would be the greyly clouded north.
It was wrong of course.
Unconcerned by Chromaticity
I was not at all dismayed by the blueness of the sky or the brightness of the sun; for all that the latter suggested a risk of unnecessary pinkness later.
The unexpected warmth allowed me to stow my coat away in my bag before I headed out of Formby and back towards the beach. I bought a cold drink on what should have been the way but was, on account of the station’s and shop’s relative positions, more of a there-and-back detour.
Red Squirrels & Dogs
A short trek down a residential street conveyed to the edge of some pinewoods in which, signs said, red squirrels could still be seen. But not by me. I did see a lot of dogs being walked — I swear the dog density was about one every ten yards — and if there were any squirrels about they had more sense than to make themselves visible.
The woods ended surprisingly quickly, spitting me out into a swathe of low dunes. In their midst, I found my first waymark and directional sign of the day and, from this point onwards, the Sefton Coastal Path couldn’t have been more different from last time.
Sefton Coastal Path
After my last walk, I declared this the worst-waymarked path I had traversed. Well, either it’s very much a path of two halves, or the signpost-fairy had been busy because, north of Formby, the signage on the route could not be faulted.
If the trees are home to invisibly red squirrels, the dunes — or rather the boggy spaces between them — are home to the natterjack toad, which is rare in Britain. It too is more-or-less invisible being basically the colour of sand.
Alternate stretches of pine trees and dunes would very much be the theme for the next couple of miles but I never did spot a squirrel or a toad.
The sea remained largely hidden from sight, far off beyond the dunes. Meanwhile, on their landward side lay a small farm, the fields of which were quite level; this is because they were asparagus beds.
Asparagus, which is one of my favourite foods, is an ideal coastal crop as it thrives on a level of salinity that would kill most other food plants. The prime asparagus season starts at the end of April, so I was a little too early to see anything other than bare fields. When it sprouts, there is quite a narrow window in which to harvest it (traditionally a special, chisel-like knife is used) as it soon turns unpalatably woody.
The Asparagus King
The above image is actually a carving of Jimmy Lowe, a prominent Formby asparagus farmer in the 1920s and ’30s, who won himself the local nickname of ‘the Asparagus King’ having repeatedly won prizes for the quality of his crop.
Another local landowner and farmer, though some years earlier, was Thomas Fresh who, in 1853, managed to persuade the Liverpool, Crosby & Southport Railway that his model farm and its immediate neighbours really needed their very own station.
It was built the following year and, having somehow survived the Beeching Axe, Freshfield Station remains open today as the northernmost of Formby’s two stations.
Fresh by Name…
In addition to giving his name to a suburb of Formby, Thomas Fresh was Liverpool’s first ever Public Health Officer and a pioneer in the field of environmental health, which is as nice an instance of nominative determinism as one might hope for.
In his capacity as Liverpool’s PHO he oversaw the removal of that city’s ‘night soil’, which he had conveyed to the asparagus beds of Formby. Which is why, though Freshfield might not have been as fresh as all that, what with its fields smeared with human poo, it did grow some monster asaparagus.
Victoria Road & the Squirrel Path
I was about level with Freshfield Station when the path arced its way through the pinewoods and met up with a road. Here a looping side path promised to be a ‘squirrel path’ but as it was full of excited children on some sort of trip, the red squirrels were still playing hard-to-get.
The road soon exited the woods, carrying me back into the northern reaches of Formby and on towards Freshfield Station, which I reached just in time for the barriers to come down as a train hurtled across the level crossing. I imagine Thomas Fresh would have been most impressed by the automatic barriers.
A Trackside Trail
From Freshfield, a side-street ran beside the railway line although this quickly ended and became a footpath. This, in turn, crossed back over the railway line and resumed the character of a stroll through the squirrel-less pinewoods. Actually, for much of its length, this path ran along the edge of the pinewoods, flanked on its eastern side by the railway line I’d just crossed.
Beyond the railway line lay RAF Woodvale, a small airfield that opened in 1941, slightly too late for (but in response to) the peak of the Liverpool Blitz. Much later, in 1957, the last ever operational flight of an RAF spitfire took off from there. Since 1971 it has been a training station.
North of the airfield lay the village of Ainsdale, which merged into Southport at its northern end. Ainsdale’s name is Norse in origin (Einulfsdalr, Einulf’s valley) and was rendered in the Domesday Book of 1086 as ‘Einulvesdel’.
From the 1600s to the mid 1900s, the village and surrounding land belonged to the Blundell family, who were powerful regional landowners. The railway arrived in 1848 and failed to bring with it any particular measure of additional prosperity in the forms of industry or tourism; today it is a fairly typical middle class suburb, serving as a dormitory village to both Southport and Liverpool.
What it lacks in civic excitement, Ainsdale more than makes up for in its possession of sand dunes. These ‘Ainsdale Hills’ stretch for some distance and form part of a designated National Nature Reserve.
It will be no surprise, then, that near the southern edge of Ainsdale, the footpath emerged from the pinewoods and entered the dunes. At this point, it was technically two footpaths sharing the same route, for not only was I walking the Sefton Coastal Path, but I was now also traversing the western end of the Trans-Pennine Trail.
This latter path was also of dual nature, comprising as it did a narrow but easy-going cycle path that ran beside a busy road and a slightly more adventurous footpath that meandered through the dunes alongside the road but not directly adjacent to it.
The Trans-Pennine Trail headed directly west at first, which would have soon ended in waves and wading had it not then curved around to the north towards a roundabout. There, it crossed the road to a holiday centre — one of six still owned by the former holiday camp empire of Pontins.
To my surprise, an aircraft appeared to be taking off from the middle of the roundabout, leaving a tiny New York skyline behind.
Transatlantic Flight Memorial
The sculpture represents the transatlantic flight of Henry ‘Dick’ Merrill, an American aviator who, in 1937, completed a round trip from New York to England and back flying a Lockheed Electra.
This wasn’t by any means the first transatlantic flight (that was John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown in 1919), it wasn’t even the first there-and-back round trip — Dick Merrill had just about achieved that the previous year. But, on his 1936, attempt his co-pilot and sponsor, Harry Richman, had panicked in bad weather on the return flight and dumped 500 gallons of fuel, leaving them with only just enough to reach the North American coast. 1937 was thus the first time anyone had actually made it all the way from New York to London and back again as one extended trip.
London to New York via Ainsdale?
So why, you may be wondering, is there a monument to this at Ainsdale, a place that didn’t even gain a nearby airfield (RAF Woodvale) until four years after the fact? The answer is that while Ainsdale lacked an airfield it did have a long, flat sandy beach, one that was perfectly positioned for a plane to fly up to from London, be refuelled and then set off back across the Atlantic; Merrill used Ainsdale Beach in this way both times.
The sculpture was erected in 2010.
Doing More Dunes
From the aircraft sculpture to Southport was about three more miles of sand dunes and the Trans-Pennine Trail. The dunes to my right were quite low and rolling, while those to the left, between me and the sea, were quite tall. The road continued to snake along at their feet but I largely ignored it; I was quite happy ambling along the trail.
Eventually the trail joined the road anyway, as we reached the outskirts of Southport. A short walk further on was Weld Road Roundabout, which was graced by a sculpted horse and shrimping cart. A second cart stood nearby.
Southport is primarily a seaside resort and has been since the nineteenth century when it developed a reputation as being more refined than Blackpool (which was not a strenuous challenge), while also being handily connected to first the canal system and then the railway.
Prior to its involvement with tourism and subsequent development, it was a series of strung-out hamlets and villages almost entirely surrounded by water. It is hard to imagine now but most of the fields inland of Southport were underwater until 1692, when the first serious attempts to drain Martin Mere began.
Over the next two centuries or so Martin Mere — which is now basically a big pond some four or five miles east of Southport — decreased to its present size from its previous status as England’s largest freshwater lake.
From almost nothing, Southport developed quickly during the nineteenth century, cementing its fame as a resort in 1860 with the opening of a pier, the second longest in Great Britain (after Southend).
The pier is over a kilometre long at 1112 m and has a tram line running down the centre of it. The pier has seen various types of tram over the decades but as of 2005 the tram is a thoroughly modern articulated vehicle. The pavilion at the pier head contains a café.
Southport Marine Lake
About half the length of the pier is actually over the land, which strikes me as cheating. This half was still open to the public so I availed myself of what was essentially a bridge in order to cross Southport’s marine lake (opened in 1887) and reach the town proper.
Having reached the centre of Southport I could now set about finding my hotel, which stood on the town’s main thoroughfare of Lord Street. The street is a tree-lined boulevard that played host for two years to the French exile Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, before he returned to Paris to become Napoleon III.
If I shared Lord Street with any Imperial pretenders to the French throne, I didn’t know about it. I located firstly my hotel, then food, a hot bath and bed in that order. Some or all of those things may have been punctuated with gin and tonic.
Retiring for the Night
I went to bed earlier than normal, following the old saying early to bed, early to rise. While being healthy, wealthy and wise would hardly go amiss, that wasn’t my objective. The following day I planned to walk the 25½ miles to Preston and, it being only March, that meant I would need every minute of daylight that I could get…
This time: 9½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 1,927½ miles