Formby Point

Went up to Formby Point with dog and camera this afternoon. The dunes were splashed with warm sun; out to sea and over the Welsh mountains crouched on the skyline to the southwest there were banks of clouds with the sun’s rays breaking through, glistening silver on the water.

I approached the beach down Lighthouse Lane, and wondered: where’s the lighthouse? There was one once, but it was abandoned in 1856 and stood until 1941. The light was demolished because as a very prominent landmark, it was too useful to German bombers who crossed the North Sea and North of England with the intention of bombing Liverpool, 12 miles to the south of the lighthouse. Once the lighthouse was below, they simply turned south, followed the coasline and then were over their target. Here’s an old postcard of the lighthouse:

The tideline today was strewn with mussel and razor shells and whelk shells of various sizes. Saltwater-bleached driftwood had been cast ashore. Out to sea, the ranks of wind turbines shimmered like a mirage, while the mountains of North Wales,across Liverpool Bay, hovered in a haze.

Beach Glass by Amy Clampitt

While you walk the water’s edge,
turning over concepts
I can’t envision, the honking buoy
serves notice that at any time
the wind may change,
the reef-bell clatters
its treble monotone, deaf as Cassandra
to any note but warning. The ocean,
cumbered by no business more urgent
than keeping open old accounts
that never balanced,
goes on shuffling its millenniums
of quartz, granite, and basalt.
It behaves
toward the permutations of novelty—
driftwood and shipwreck, last night’s
beer cans, spilt oil, the coughed-up
residue of plastic—with random
impartiality, playing catch or tag
or touch-last like a terrier,
turning the same thing over and over,
over and over. For the ocean, nothing
is beneath consideration.
The houses
of so many mussels and periwinkles
have been abandoned here, it’s hopeless
to know which to salvage. Instead
I keep a lookout for beach glass—
amber of Budweiser, chrysoprase
of Almadén and Gallo, lapis
by way of (no getting around it,
I’m afraid) Phillips’
Milk of Magnesia, with now and then a rare
translucent turquoise or blurred amethyst
of no known origin.
The process
goes on forever: they came from sand,
they go back to gravel,
along with treasuries
of Murano, the buttressed
astonishments of Chartres,
which even now are readying
for being turned over and over as gravely
and gradually as an intellect
engaged in the hazardous
redefinition of structures
no one has yet looked at.

The Formby coastline, with its sand-dunes and pine woodland, is famed for its natural beauty and diversity of wild nature. A little further up the coast from Formby Point is the National Trust property, where a shrinking colony of red squirrels clings on in the hundred-year old pinewoods. The sand dune complex at Formby and Ravenmeols is amongst the largest in England, now mostly protected as both a Local and a National Nature Reserve and a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) due to their geological significance. The dunes, overlooking the Irish Sea, provide great views extending as far as the fells of South Cumbria and the Lake District, or even Blackpool Tower, depending on visibility and which direction you look in.

‘It is possible to feel a wonderful sense of solitude on these wild sea margins…Here is a place where grains of sand saltate and shift inland until falling to rest against a part-buried piece of wrack or a blade of Marram Grass; a place where storm tides can rip thousands of tonnes of sand from the front of the dunes only to deposit it on a gentler beach some miles to the north; a place where stunted pine trees hold fast on the sand margins, their crowns straining inland away from the westerly storms.’
Andrew Brockbank, introduction to Sea Margins: Images of the Formby Coast

Formby beach has long been considered an important archaeological site, with tides and erosion revealing ancient footprints from 7,500 years ago baked into the mud underneath the sand. Dunes have been here for some 4,500 years, with the coastline constantly shifting forward and back.  Since the late 19th century, the coastline has been in retreat at the rate of about 4 metres a year, with wildlife habitats being squeezed. Rising sea levels and fiercer storms as a result of global warming pose an even greater threat.

As a result of erosion, the present coastline around Formby Point coincides with the shoreline during the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age. The environment would have been completely different, with  no high dunes or pinewoods. Where the township of Formby now stands there was fenland with hazel, oak, alder and birch trees. A shoreline of low, grass-clad dunes was perforated by tidal creeks and the Alt entered the sea just to the south of Lifeboat Road and not at Hightown as it does now. The point itself was fringed with salt marshes. The present dune system probably began to form about 800-900AD in a period of rising sea-levels. High, mobile dune systems are often a reflection of erosion pushing the sand into high mounds.

Perhaps the first settlers here were the Scandinavians from 850AD onwards. Formby, Ainsdale, Birkdale and Ravenmeols are all of Scandinavian origin. The common place-name ending -by is from the Scandinavian byr meaning  ‘village’ or ‘homestead’.  The village of Formby was originally spelt Fornebei and means ‘village belonging to Forni’,  a common Norse family name. Forni might have been the leader an invading expedition which took possession of this coast.

In 1667 Henry Blundell of Ince Blundell and Richard Formby signed an agreement to divide the ‘hawes, sandie hills, and coney warrens’ of Formby, with the Blundells taking three-quarters of the land. At this time, the shore would have been a busy place where a series of rights were established. In 1671 Henry Blundell was given a 300 year lease of wreck-of-the-sea at Formby, Birkdale and Ainsdale and the outcome of shipwrecks was often hotly disputed. There was a thriving smuggling trade : in 1523 the Isle of Man had declared its independence and soon became a major route for smuggling. The shore was also used for launching boats, for setting nets, collecting driftwood, shellfish, bait digging and collecting seaweed. The beach would also have been a convenient highway and probably the quickest way to travel between Ainsdale and Formby.

One thing that inspired me to return to Formby Point with the camera was seeing photographs on his blog by Andrew Conroy, taken last year at Formby Point during a dramatic storm.

Another photographic celebration of the Formby coastline is Alan McKernan’s exquisite collection of  images in Sea Margins, published in aid of the National Trust.

As a photographer, I’ve long been fascinated by, and experimented with, the ever-changing quality of light as it plays upon the landscape, sculpting and re-defining it. The challenge I set myself…was to celebrate those ephemeral qualities of light, by utilising traditional photographic materials…traditional black and white silver-based negative film to record my…images’.
Alan McKernan

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