My husband drives me to Formby beach. He has to use his best negotiating skills to get into the National Trust car park without paying in order to drop me off. From there, I head for the sands, following a track a little inland of the dune system.
Here I find a drowned pine forest. Drowned by sand.
It reminds me of all the Christmas trees we plant outdoors in January, hoping they might grow, and being perennially surprised by the fact they don’t. A Christmas tree graveyard.
I climb over the dunes and down to the beach. Looking back, southwards, I can see the section of beach nearest to the car park, where everyone has congregated. And, in the distance, across the bay, is a line of blue hills. Can’t be the Wirral. Must be… Wales!
Onwards. The beach stretches ahead. Empty apart from the occasional insect-like figure in the distance, and the tracks of car tyres. Shame the day is dull and not good for photography.
I really am the slowest walker in the universe, and am overtaken by various people, including this family group (below). But few people walk as far as I do. Most stop and settle down for a day on the beach, or turn round and head back the way they’ve come.
I walk close to the water’s edge and, after some time, I realise I’ve been cut off from the top of the beach by a stream of water. Later I splash across it – getting my feet wet.
Now I’m alone. Except for a mass of seabirds. A cormorant shows off its wings, while the gulls look unimpressed. In the distance, far out to sea, is a rig. An oil rig?
[Later I learn there are good reserves of both oil and gas under the sea in this area.]
After walking along 3 miles of empty sand, I come to Ainsdale on Sea, where there is a holiday park. And a car park on the beach.
Car parks mean people. Down by the water’s edge are swimming flags, an RNLI vehicle, and families with children.
I splash across another stream and continue onwards, frightening oyster catchers and gulls, and sending clouds of smaller birds (ringed plovers?) skittering over the waves. In the distance is a tower. Another rig? No. This one is on land. It must be Blackpool.
I’m alone now. The few other walkers stick close to the dunes. I wonder whether there’s a clear way back to the shore, or will I have to wade through more pools and streams? And what about sinking sands?
With my camera on full zoom I search the shoreline for signs of Southport. That must be it. I can see the struts of a bridge and a fun-fair wheel. Gosh, there’s a wide stretch of sand to cross to get there.
But I don’t want to turn inland yet. I keep walking along the water’s edge, startling the sea birds. They mark my progress with a flurry of wings, piping their distress calls.
Ahead are a couple of bird watchers, the first walkers I’ve come close to for some time. They’re toting enormous binoculars and tripods on their shoulders. I watch them stagger across a stream, and am both relieved to see them – because there that must mean it’s safe to be out here – and somewhat guilty. I’m disturbing their birds. Perhaps it’s time to turn inland.
The sand beneath my feet is varied in texture. In some places it’s soft and clinging, causing my boots to sink alarmingly. Other areas are firm to walk on, with surfaces patterned by regular ripples where the imprint of the waves has solidified. And the sand varies in colour too, with brown swathes of sticky mud interspersed with lighter areas of fine granules.
Southport is still a long way away. Perhaps a mile and a half, even further than before, I think. I quicken my pace.
My feet crunch across shells – mainly razor shells, but others too.
These areas give the illusion of tropical ‘islands’ because of their bleached colour, and the fact they are raised above the level of the surrounding, deeper-coloured sands.
I find it amazing that the sea, during its regular ebb and flow, can create so many different textures and surfaces on the same stretch of sands.
It takes me nearly 40 minutes to walk to the top end of the beach, where I stop and sit on a raised and grass-ringed ‘island’ for a rest and a drink.
When I look back towards the sea, it is across an endless desert of sand. The horse riders add to the feeling of being in the wild west. Or, if I squint, I can imagine camels out there, crossing the Sahara.
Time to turn my attention inland. The edge of the beach is fringed with marshes, and the best way to reach dry land is along the bank of a little river. For the first time I encounter some serious mud.
I reach the sea wall, where a road and a cycling track run, but I decide to walk along a sandy track below the wall. It’s not so much a beach now, more like a grassy meadow. I get the feeling the sea is on the retreat here too, just like in so many of the places I’ve seen on the Wirral. Ahead is Southport pier.
I hear a shout above me, and look up to see a cyclist leaping over the wall. It’s my hubby.
We arranged to meet for lunch in Southport, but he saw me walking below and now he keeps me company, cycling very slowly, as we walk towards the pier together.
Just beyond the pier we stop for lunch in a pub overlooking the sea. Unfortunately, it is also on the junction of a couple of noisy roads. Because I’ve been walking below the wall, I hadn’t appreciated just how bustling and traffic-laden Southport is.
[Later, I book into a hotel here, and discover Southport is a very attractive town, but very busy. Thriving. It makes a nice change compared to all the decaying coastal resorts I’ve walked through in the past.]
After lunch I say goodbye to my husband, who is returning to Lincolnshire and back to work. I face northwards. Onwards.
Now I’m walking below the sea wall again, through yet another marshy area. The green plants growing on my left turn out to be samphire. I have a few nibbles. Delicious. Very juicy, slightly sweet, and definitely salty. Well, I hope it’s samphire!
I think it might be possible to walk further out, closer to the sea, along the sands. But I am not sure about the tides and don’t want to find myself cut off on a sandbank and have to retreat back to the pier or – worse still – swim to safety.
Anyway, this track is very attractive and seems to be a popular walking route.
I reach a small car park at place called Marshside, where notice boards inform me I’m on a RSPB nature reserve. There is a walkway across the marsh that leads out towards the sea. Redshank Road, along with dire warnings about making sure you don’t get caught out by the tide. (I guess if you did walk across the sands from the pier, this ‘road’ would bring you safely back to the shore at this point.)
Redshank Road looks tempting – a grassy walkway snaking above the low-lying marsh. But it’s already 4pm, and I have to find my accommodation for tonight. So I don’t have time for diversions.
From here onwards it’s not possibly to walk along the shore, and the official Sefton Coastal Path turns inland, crossing over the coast road and passing through a pleasant RSPB area of lakes and marshes, to run through fields on the far side of the reserve.
Since I want to stick as close to the coast as I can (rule number 2), I must follow the road, the Marine Drive. It has a cycling-walking way running alongside it, but this turns out to be nothing more than a wide pavement. The traffic is continuous and it’s not very pleasant, although the scenery is fine.
After a mile or so, I’m getting bored. The sunshine has waned. I’m approaching an industrial area. Large tanks in the distance. I wonder what is stored there?
It’s a relief to reach the start of another footpath/cycle way and to leave the road behind. A sign says ‘Welcome to the Ribble Estuary’, an official National Nature Reserve.
I walk on a bank along the side of an inlet. To my right are the back gardens of houses. It’s wild marsh on one side, suburbia on the other.
The cycle route ends on Banks Road, Crossens – an area on the outskirts of Southport. My car is parked just around the corner. Time to brave the Southport traffic and find my hotel.
This walk = 12 miles
Total distance = 2,649 miles