Golden in time
Cities under the sand
Power, ideals and beauty
Fading in everyone’s hand

Give me some time
I feel like I’m losing mine
Out here on this horizon line
With the earth spinning
And the sky forever rushing

No one knows
They can never get that close
Guesses at most
Guesses based on what each
Set of time and change is touching
– Joni Mitchell, Sweet Bird

Posting yesterday about the ancient yew tree at Llangernyw, confirmed as being four or five thousand years old, brought to mind the ancient footprints from the same point in time that are occasionally revealed on the sands at Formby.

As a result of erosion, the present coastline around Formby Point  coincides with the shoreline during the late Neolithic and early Bronze  Age.  At that time there  were no high dunes or pinewoods.  This was fenland with hazel, oak, alder and birch trees.  A  shoreline of low, grass-clad dunes was perforated by tidal creeks and fringed with salt  marshes.

adolescent footprint

Nearly 200 footprint  trails have been recorded to date.  They are ephemeral – revealed by one tide and washed away in the next. From the length of the foot and its  shape and by measuring the pace and stride, archaeologists can estimate a person’s  height and gender and the speed at which they were moving across the soft mudflats where they left their traces.  From their association with red and roe deer  tracks, the males would seem sometimes to have been involved with  hunting or some form of animal management.  At other times, where the  footprints led out to or back from the sea, they may have been fishing.   The females, often accompanied by children, would appear to have been  mainly occupied with gathering food, such as shrimps, razor shells and other  seafood.  At one site there was a wild confusion of children’s  footprints, just as though they had been playing.

Inspecting the ancient footprints at Formby National Trust
Inspecting an ancient footprint at Formby (photo: National Trust)

Sometimes there is evidence of  abnormalities and foot deformities: of a man, crippled with arthritis,  or of another who had only four toes on one foot.  One trail was left by an adolescent girl  with congenital bursitis, seemingly pregnant, her feet  arched and toes curled under as she struggled to keep her balance and  grip, slowly making her way across the slippery mud.

This was the time of  Stonehenge, of the Pyramids, Ur and Babylon, Knossos and Minoa, and of the Indus civilisation.  Life among the hunter-gatherers  of Formby Point had not really changed much since the end of the Ice  Age, some five thousand years previously.  But their world was  coming to an end.  Rising sea levels would eventually overwhelm the  offshore sandbar, the mudflats and the fenland.  The coastline would  change and change again.

Now, though, present-day erosion and  rising sea levels allow us one last glimpse of their lost world before it disappears for ever. How my heart aches for those souls, their lives short and hard, traversing their pristine world.

Path Formby beach

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