I set off along the Sefton Coastal Path – a combined walking and cycle-way. It’s a shame I can’t continue walking along the beach, but warning signs tell me the sands are treacherous.
The path is flat and easy walking, but rather boring. I leave it as soon as I can find a rougher footpath and thread my way through grasses along the edge of the shore. For some reason the shoreline here is covered in smashed bricks.
The River Alt forms a lazy channel across the sands and I come to a point where there is a boat house and a mini marina.
This is Hightown Beach. Hightown? It sounds familiar Ah yes, this was the place that was shelled – by mistake – from Fort Perch Rock on the Wirral Peninsula during the Napoleonic wars.
An information board explains that the remains of a submerged forest can be seen on Hightown beach at low tide. I’m alone – and so there’s nobody to ask – but I do find some wooden stumps. Whether they’re the remains of an ancient forest, or just a decaying wharf, is hard to say.
The board also tells me an ancient Neolithic walkway was excavated on the beach, perhaps used by pre-historic man to access fishing traps. When I look around for signs of the prehistoric walkway, I’m fooled by some apparent paving slabs, but they turn out to be only solidified pats of mud.
Onwards. I’m walking through a vegetated dune system and the Sefton Coastal Path is poorly marked. In fact, I think I might have lost my way, when I suddenly come across a footpath signpost. Good. But the red flag, on the knoll ahead, looks ominous. It’s Altcar Rifle Range and it looks as though there is shooting on the range today.
The cycling route deviated off to the right some time ago, to pass through the streets of Hightown. Maybe most walkers go that way too? Because I don’t think many people come along this footpath, which is horribly overgrown. Only the sight of an occasional white-tipped post reassures me that I’m still on track – and gives me something to aim for among the waving grasses.
There are cracks and bangs coming from the rifle range. Not heavy artillery. Sounds like… like rifles! I wonder if I’m going to have to turn back, but the footpath passes behind the knoll with the red flag and, eventually, joins a track.
The sign posts are interesting. ‘Formby Station’ is 3 miles ahead. The wording makes me smile. ‘Station’. It sounds continental, like a sign you see in a ski resort. ‘Station Méribel ‘ or ‘Station Arc 2000’.
It takes me some time to realise that here the word ‘station’ means literally a station – as in a railway station!
The track runs along the bank of the River Alt, which now separates me from the rifle range. I can still hear bangs and cracks. Ahead is a bridge which would take you into the military zone, but I must turn off to the right.
I rejoin the cycle track and follow a 2 mile deviation around the edge of the range. It’s not very interesting, to be honest. There’s a tall sharp-pointed fence to my right, with the railway line beyond.
And to my left a lesser fence, but with forbidding signs: ‘Military Firing Range. Keep Out.’ Strikes me it’s easier to climb into the military zone – and potentially get shot at, then it is to climb onto the railway track and risk being hit by a train. (Not that I intend to do either.)
I meet various cyclists – all ages and shapes – and then meet an elderly man walking his dog. He sees me consulting my map and asks if I’m lost. I’m looking for a pub. He gives me complicated instructions on how to find one, which ‘you can’t possibly miss’. I thank him.
After he’s walked away, I decide not to head for the pub as instructed, which seems to be some distance off the path and which I almost certainly will be unable to find. Instead, I carry on with my walk. And so I follow the path around the corner of the rifle range and down the other side.
This is better. Fields to my right. Less claustrophobic than walking beside the railway fence. And a proper path underfoot, not tarmac anymore.
I reach a dune area. ‘Cabin Hill Nature Reserve’ says the sign. Can’t see much of a hill, but maybe that’s the cabin? The one flying the red flag. And being guarded in a casual manner by two very young-looking women, one of whom has a pair of binoculars, the other a megaphone.
A megaphone? To shout at walkers who threaten to stray onto the range? Possibly.
I follow the path down onto the beach. And what a beach it is! Acres and acres of empty sand, with the wind blowing sheets of the stuff across a broad expanse of nothingness. It’s like a desert. The sea is a thin line of white crests in the distance.
This is beach walking at it’s best. I’m tempted to head for the distant water, but it looks a mile away, maybe more. How fast does the tide come in? And the wind is a problem, blowing flurries of sand into my face and making my teeth whistle.
I feel suddenly tired and hungry, and I climb up into the dunes to try to find shelter among the grass. It’s tall and coarse around me – but acts as a perfect wind shield. Time for lunch. I’ve brought a box of snacks with me.
Refuelled, I continue along the beach. Other walkers are specks in the distance. After about a mile, I come to the first serious congregation of people and know that somewhere inland there must be a car park. This is Ravenmeols Hills Nature Reserve.
I see a Land Rover coming towards me, and expect it to be the coastguard. A shock, therefore, to see it’s a police vehicle. Wonder what it’s doing and why it’s driving down to the most deserted part of the sands? Maybe the girls in the red-flag lookout cabin have reported a strange woman skulking around in the dune system?
Onwards. The sea is closer now. I pass families out for a stroll and dog walkers.
And I feel a little sad. I was planning to walk this beach with my daughter and her lovely springer spaniel. ‘When will you get there, mummy? It’s my favourite beach.’ We’d both been looking forward to it for months, but my daughter is unwell at the moment and couldn’t join me.
I walk closer to the waves. And reach another section where people have congregated by the dunes. They look like brightly coloured ants. Must be another car park nearby.
The dunes here are high, but show evidence of erosion. A piece of fencing lies dangling. I’m reminded that the shoreline is always changing, constantly on the move. You can never walk the same stretch twice.
A little further along and I check my Garmin. (When walking on a beach it can be hard to know where you are exactly, and I don’t want to miss my rendezvous with my husband.) Ah, this must be the place. I can see a definite walkway over the dunes.
I trudge up through the soft sand – so much harder to walk through then the firm sand of the beach – and emerge in a car park. So many cars! Always a shock after miles of emptiness.
Unfortunately here are no benches in the car park, so I perch on a tussock of sand and text my husband. ‘I’m here. Next to the ice cream van.’ He takes a long time to arrive, going first to the wrong car park and then to the wrong ice cream van.
It takes all my willpower to sit still and watch everyone else buying ice creams. Yes, I’m on another diet!
This walk = 11 miles
Total distance = 2,637 miles