Formby after 6#

On Friday, for the first time in several months, we returned to Formby Point, a favourite place for a walk for both of us – and for our dog.  Because it had been a while since our last visit we were taken aback by the changes along the beach.  The signs of the damage wrought by the storm surge of 5 December were clearly visible.

Dr Phil Smith described the event on the website of Formby Civic Society as:

The biggest storm-surge since 1953.  On the 5th, a 9.8m tide combined with a severe westerly gale and low atmospheric pressure gave rise to high-water at least a metre above its nominal height. Large waves attacked the dune frontage all along the coast, causing severe damage especially at Formby Point where the dunes have been eroding for a century. Over the next few days I visited several parts of the Sefton Coast to make observations and take photographs. The National Trust frontage at Formby Point had retreated by 10-12m, leaving spectacular sand-cliffs and strange sculptured dune fragments reminiscent of a scene from the Wild West. Equally spectacular were the great blocks of tobacco waste washed out of the dunes and scattered across the beach, while hundreds of tonnes of rubble from the former car park had collapsed onto the shore off Victoria Road. The disabled-access boardwalk near Lifeboat Road was damaged but not terminally, according to Coast & Countryside staff.

Formby beach storm damage to boardwalk. Photo by Colin Lane, Liverpool Echo

Formby beach: storm damage to the boardwalk. Photo by Colin Lane, Liverpool Echo

Phil Smith also described how the gale swept in huge flocks of gulls – a spectacular roost of over 15,000, mostly Herring Gulls, was observed on the Ainsdale stretch of the shore, accompanied by 650 Cormorants and impressive flocks of Oystercatchers.

Herring Gulls  8 12 13 Formby Civic Society

Herring Gulls on Ainsdale shore,  8.12.13 (Formby Civic Society)

There have been sand dunes along the Sefton Coast since the end of the last Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago – scoured from the bed of the Irish Sea and dumped there by retreating glaciers.  The last 100 years has been a period of dune retreat at Formby Point, with the sea working often dramatic changes to the littoral landscape at times when high spring tides coincide with strong to gale force onshore winds.

Formby Point erosion Formby Civic Society

Formby Point erosion after 5 December 2013 (Formby Civic Society)

This gently shelving coast experiences the second highest tidal range in Britain of over 9 metres (which is why such a great expanse of sand is exposed at low tide). That vast expanse of drying sand, once a breeze gets up, blows and shifts, beginning the process of dune building.  But when high tides coincide with gales, dunes are washed away and sand cliffs form.  During a storm-surge around 26 February 1990, nearly 14 metres of dunes were washed away at Formby.

Formby after 1

Formby Point this week: new sand cliffs

It was the new sand cliffs and the sense that the sea had sliced perhaps 30 feet or more off the dune line that astonished us.  A finger post pointing to the path back to the car park that once stood at the top of the beach by the dunes now leaned drunkenly at the high tide line.

Formby after 5

‘The sense that the sea had sliced perhaps 30 feet or more off the dune line…’

Formby after 10

A finger post that once stood by the dunes now leaned drunkenly at the high tide line …

Just as dramatic was the evidence of how the waves had sliced away layers of sand that over many decades had submerged the footings of old buildings, pipes and assorted rubbish – all now exposed and littering the beach.

Formby after 4

Formby after 3

The footings of old buildings, pipes and assorted rubbish – all now exposed and littering the beach …

Every passing walker stood and stared at the mess of rubble from an old car park, long since buried under the sand, that had collapsed and now lay spread along a stretch of the shore.  In other parts, the old Christmas trees buried to stabilise the dunes now also lay exposed.

Formby after 2

Old Christmas trees, once buried, now exposed …

The storm had also exposed huge blackened lumps of some indeterminate material that looked like exposed rocks, but was somewhat softer to the touch.  These must have been ‘the great blocks of tobacco waste washed out of the dunes and scattered across the beach’ mentioned by Phil Smith.  But, how did lumps of tobacco waste come to be buried here in the first place?

Formby after 7

Nothing stops the sea

The answer is that tobacco was long one of the local industries, imported through the port of Liverpool and processed at places like the St Bruno pipe tobacco factory in Bootle that began operating in 1896. In 1956, the British Nicotine Company, a division of Imperial Tobacco, began to dump 22,000 tons of wet tobacco waste on fields behind the dunes.  It was spread in layers and left to dry, before being mixed with sand and then buried.  For years, as Jean Sprackland recounts in Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach, her book about the Formby shore, the activity aroused little interest from either local council or the public. The vague assurance was that a sand-tobacco mix would prevent coastal erosion.

But, as the evidence from the recent storm surge shows, the tobacco cliffs have eroded at much the same rate as the rest.

Formby after 6

High tide: detritus still moving down the beach …

Writing in the London Review of Books in October 2011, Jean Sprackland noted that this stretch of shore is hardly

The prettiest or the most unspoilt beach: its sands are not the most golden, and there are no rockpools or hidden coves. It’s not dramatic either: no pounding surf or rugged cliffs. Stand here, on a reasonably bright day, and you can see the offshore wind farm in the Mersey estuary. Turn the other way, and there are the familiar Blackpool landmarks: the tower, the rollercoaster. But in really clear weather you can see the southern fells, the Clwydian hills, the pale but unmistakable shape of Snowdon.

But now, for a while at least, the buried rubbish of decades has been exposed and cast along the shore.

Formby after 9

Buried rubbish of decades exposed and cast along the shore…

I pondered an exposed plastic bottle: how deeply had it been buried, how long had it lain beneath the surface as the windblown sand piled up above?

Formby after 8

Buried beneath the surface as the windblown sand piled up above …

In Strands, Jean Sprackland reminds us that erosion and renewal is a constant process along this shore:

I haul my bike over the high sandbar and cycle to the first wreck, far out near the sea’s edge. It’s a wooden vessel, very well exposed, with a sturdy post which might have been a mast, and curved wooden spurs like the ribcage of some extinct beast, picked clean of its flesh by the sea.

I cycle on to the second, an old favourite. It’s the Star of Hope, a wreck I’ve visited several times on occasions when the sand has yielded it. It’s lying forlornly in muddy water, heavily barnacled, black and rotting in places.

The third, further north and closer to shore, is huge and listing, spilling its cargo of wet sand. It’s a more solid sort of craft, and I’ve never seen it before. The deck is missing, but there is a frame­work of bent spars with iron knees which must once have held it together and now give some idea of its size. There’s a contraption which looks like a windlass for winching freight on board or for raising the anchor.

When I say that this place is changeable, this is one of the things I mean. The tides and currents conspire to move and reshape the sand, and in the intertidal zone a skeletal old ship emerges. The rest of the time it’s buried and invisible; people and dogs walk and run over it with no idea that it’s there. Then, without warning, it rises to the surface. It takes the air for a few weeks, before subsiding into the sand again.

I first experienced this on a spring day five years ago, when a friend called in a state of high excitement and read out an article from the local paper, under the marvellous headline Boat sunk in storm rises again. According to the report, it was the first time in seven years that the Star of Hope had come so completely to the surface. Once wrecked, she was claimed by the sands, which stowed her away underground, working her to the surface only occasionally. No one knew how long she would remain visible, so my friend and I arranged to meet on the beach, along with our teenage sons, and catch a glimpse of this phenomenon while it lasted.

The Star Of Hope German Barque which was shipwrecked in 1883 on Ainsdale beach

Wreckage of The Star Of Hope, shipwrecked in 1883 on Ainsdale beach (Liverpool Echo)

The sight of the rubble and rubbish exposed by the storm surge – signs of human construction (a car park, drainage pipes, bricks and slabs of concrete) and litter absent-mindedly tossed – reminded me of another passage from Strands, in which Sprackland writes:

In their book Edgelands, Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts sing the praises of forgotten and overlooked places outside our towns and cities, spaces which are neither urban nor rural.  I could make a case for the beach as a kind of edgeland.  It’s a literal edge, of course.  It’s liminal but not unspoilt.  There’s litter, there’s joy-riding; it’s still possible to see the historical evidence of what little industrial activity has been possible here – sand extraction, tipping.  But it’s essentially intractable land, unreliable and unproductive, so its heart remains wild.

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8 thoughts on “Aftermath: Formby Point after the storm

  1. We frequently exchange e-mails with Ethel Fenner who lived opposite Margaret in Paradise Lane before moving to Australia. Living locally we have witnessed fairly gradual erosion for the most part but the occasional major occurrence like the recent one brings home the power of the sea and wind and the transient nature of our existance.

  2. As a Formby child in the 50s I was always aware of a sweetish smell in the air when I was near the beach. It smelled a bit like my father’s tins of pipe tobacco. I was told that nicotine was used as insecticide for the pine trees, and I believed it. Until now. Thanks for clearing that up. Dumping waste on that scale was never spoken about at the time, but now would now be regarded as an act of ecological vandalism.

    1. Thanks, Meredith. Coincidentally next Saturday evening at 8.00 on Channel 4 the second in the series Britain at Low Tide that is exploring Britain’s coastal archaeology will feature the tobacco dumps at Formby.

  3. I have just realised there is a section about it in Philip Smith’s The Sands of Time which has been on my bookshelf for some time without my ever reading it properly. There is a map showing where the dump is. I thought I knew the area well but never came across it. Was it fenced off I wonder?

  4. I watched Britain at Low Tide and did not understand what exactly had been dumped at Formby. I have often walked along the sands and was aware of some of the interesting stuff buried by the sand. As I understood it, tobacco leaves are cured and then used directly to make cigars etc so why would there be such huge volumes of wet tobacco waste? I found this website after I googled ‘Bootle nicotine’ and would very much appreciate clarification of what went on at the Nicotine factory – if anybody can help? Thank you.

    1. As I understand it, Ruth, not all the harvested tobacco leaves, and not all parts of the leaf are suitable for the manufacture of cigarettes. In Philip Smith’s The Sands of Time (referred to by the previous comment), he writes ‘The material was a by-product of the extraction of nicotine from waste tobacco leaves and resembled wet sawdust with a pungent odour.’ So it looks like they were squeezing every last drop out of the stuff at the Bootle factory. From the end of WW2 to 1962, the tipping was indiscriminate, then from 1962-1974 was done under planning permission. In 1966 it was estimated that 22,000 tons a year were being tipped on the dunes. Tipping stopped in 1974 when the company closed down, Formby Council having strongly opposed a renewal of planning permission the previous year.

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