That's How The Light Gets In

Books, exhibitions, films, music, places – anything that inspires. Here so I don't forget.

Our first asparagus harvest: worth the wait

Our first asparagus harvest: worth the wait

Two years ago, at the end of what we were told had been the coldest March for fifty years, I cleared a layer of frozen snow on our allotment and planted fifteen asparagus crowns that we had ordered from the Royal Horticultural Society, but which arrived just as a blizzard moved in. After a week, with the crowns in danger of drying out, I took a gamble and, in bitterly cold weather, planted them out.

One of the asparagus crowns before planting in 2013

I worried for a month whether the crowns would survive, but by late April the first shoots had appeared. Then the long wait began. You must absolutely resist temptation and not harvest any spears – neither in the first year, nor even the second. Just admire the delicate fernery you’ve created.

But now it’s the third season, and last week -propelled towards the light by the warm weather – spears have appeared which, at last, we have been able to harvest and enjoy.

At last – allotment asparagus that we can harvest

Asparagus 1

Our first harvest appears to have coincided with a bumper asparagus season, as the Guardian reports here.  The season traditionally begins on St George’s Day – and continues until midsummer’s day, after which spears should no longer be cut, to allow the plant to replenish itself for the next season.

Last year, the Guardian reported that in the last ten years UK demand for asparagus has soared by 540%, with the result that the amount grown by UK farmers has soared from 788 hectares in 2005 to 2,178 hectares this year – a leap of 176%.  What once was a luxury delicacy is now a popular choice in Britain’s supermarkets. But, let me tell you, after eating the first spears off our plot a few hours after cutting them – there is nothing to compare with asparagus fresh from the ground.

Here in Liverpool we live not far from Formby which for a hundred years, from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th, was the source of asparagus served to aristocrats in Covent Garden and first-class passengers on the Titanic. Grown in the sand dunes along the Merseyside coast, the asparagus was sought after for its distinct flavour.

A group of workers from Aindows asparagus farm Formby
A group of workers from Aindow’s asparagus farm Formby, late 19th century

Until the mid-19th century this coastal area was regarded as a ‘sandy waste’, useful only as a rabbit warren. But, following the construction of the Liverpool, Crosby and Southport Railway in 1848 and before the construction of a sewer system in Liverpool, considerable supplies of fertiliser in the form of ‘night-soil’ from Liverpool became available. Local farmers used the stuff to improve the sandy soil and bring into cultivation the area behind the dunes. The resulting sandy but fertile soil proved particularly suitable for asparagus which became an important local product, its quality recognised nationally.

Bunching shed at Pine Tree farm in the mid 19th century
The bunching shed at Pine Tree farm, Formby, in the mid 19th century

A handful of families dominated the Formby asparagus trade: Aindow, Jennings, Lowe and Brooks. But cultivation had largely ceased by the late 1950s. However, the Formby Asparagus Project, run by the National Trust is now seeking to revive the Formby asparagus. The Trust has established the Formby Asparagus Trail to tell the story of how asparagus came to be grown in the dunes and the pioneering families behind the vegetable. Along the trail visitors can currently find three huge asparagus spears that have been sculpted by local carver, Simon Archer, out of 20-foot tall sycamore trees.

Sculptor Simon Archer creating the Asparagus Trail spears at Formby
Simon Archer creating his Asparagus Trail sculpture at Formby

Asparagus has often been designated the perfect food. It has few calories, sublime flavour, proven health benefits (including anti-cancer properties) and, according to ancient tradition, it does wonders for your sex life. The 17th century herbalist Nicolas Culpepper pronounced that asparagus ‘stirred up lust in men and women’.

If Epicurus isn’t the patron saint of allotment diggers he should be. As far as the ancient Greek philosopher was concerned, the good life was one marked by peace and freedom from fear and dedicated to living a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends. The Romans celebrated the hedonism that they found in Epicurus and, whether coincidentally or not, became hooked on asparagus, discovering a way to freeze it so that it could be enjoyed during the Feast of Epicurus. Chariots and runners would speed from the growing grounds near the river Tiber to the Alps where it was kept in snow for six months until the following February.

But then the asparagus disappeared. After 300 AD the asparagus, or at least any reference to its cultivation, was lost for much of the Dark Ages.  It wasn’t until 1100 AD that asparagus showed up again, but now discussed as a herb. In 1565 asparagus or spargel appeared in a catalogue of plants in the pleasure garden of a German Prince, referred to as ‘delightful fare for lovers of food.’

German botanical illustration of asparagus
German botanical illustration of asparagus

Today, China and Peru are apparently the world’s largest producers of asparagus.  But it’s in Germany that the asparagus is known as the königliche Gemüse, the royal vegetable, the asparagus season or Spargelzeit is a massive event, and there’s even a museum dedicated to the asparagus.

Available only to the nobility for many years, by the mid-19th century asparagus had become available to the average German. Today, the Spargelfest is celebrated across Germany, but particularly in small towns around Munich. Almost every restaurant changes its menu to include multiple asparagus dishes; there are asparagus seminars, asparagus tours, asparagus competitions. In Schwetzingen an asparagus king or queen is crowned based on the ‘size of their asparagus stalk’ and there is a statue of the Spargelfrauen, the women of the asparagus fields. The Asparagus Museum in Schrobenhausen extends this asparagus celebration to an all year round event, with three floors dedicated to asparagus, including exhibits on horticulture, conservation, gastronomy, history, and medical aspects – plus an Andy Warhol painting of the vegetable.

Edouard Manet Bunch of Asparagus, 1880
Edouard Manet, Bunch of Asparagus, 1880

But the most celebrated painting of asparagus was made by Edouard Manet. So – what connects this painting with Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past and Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes?

In his best-selling memoir of his family, Edmund de Waal tells of how Charles Ephrussi, a cousin of his great-grandfather and a great patron of the arts, bought Manet’s painting of a bunch of asparagus:

Charles bought a picture of some asparagus from Manet, one of his extraordinary small still lifes, where a lemon or rose is lambent in the dark. It was a bundle of twenty stalks bound in straw. Manet wanted 800 francs for it, a substantial sum, and Charles, thrilled, sent 1,000. A week later Charles received a small canvas signed with a simple M in return. It was a single asparagus stalk laid across a table with an accompanying note: ‘This seems to have slipped from the bundle.’

Edouard Manet, Asparagus, 1880
Edouard Manet, Asparagus, 1880

It was Charles Ephrussi who was the inspiration for Proust’s character Charles Swann, and who acquired the 264 netsuke that are the subject of Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes as a complete and spectacular collection. In his memoir, De Waal makes the third connection:

Proust, who knew Charles’s paintings well from visits to his apartment, retells the story to his credit. In his novel there is an Impressionist painter, Elstir, modelled partly on Whistler and partly on Renoir. The Duke de Guermantes fumes that ‘There was nothing else in the picture. A bundle of asparagus exactly like what you’re eating now. But I must say I declined to swallow Monsieur Elstir’s asparagus. He asked three hundred francs for a bundle of asparagus. A Louis, that’s as much as they’re worth, even if they are out of season. I thought it a bit stiff.’

In Remembrance of Things Past, Proust names over a hundred artists, from Bellini to Whistler, and mentions dozens of works of art, making the novel, according to Eric Karpeles author of Paintings in Proust (Thames & Hudson), ‘one of the most profoundly visual works in Western literature.’ In the novel, de Guermantes comments:

Swann was determined that we should buy ‘A Bundle of Asparagus’. In fact it was in the house for several days. There was nothing else in the picture, a bundle of asparagus exactly like what you’re eating now. But I must say I declined to swallow M. Elstir’s asparagus. He asked three hundred francs for them. Three hundred francs for a bundle of asparagus.

In Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust penned the ultimate love letter to asparagus, offering these reflections as he gazes at a laid dinner table that awaits the guests:

I would stop by the table, where the kitchen maid had just shelled them, to see the peas lined up and tallied like green marbles in a game; but what delighted me were the asparagus, tinged with ultramarine and rosy pink which ran from their heads, finely stippled in mauve and azure, through a series of imperceptible changes to their white feet, still stained a little by the soil of their garden-bed: a rainbow-loveliness that was not of this world. I felt that these celestial hues indicated the presence of exquisite creatures who had been pleased to assume vegetable form, who, through the disguise which covered their firm and edible flesh, allowed me to discern in this radiance of earliest dawn, these hinted rainbows, these blue evening shades, that precious quality which I should recognise again when, all night long after a dinner at which I had partaken of them, they played (lyrical and coarse in their jesting as the fairies in Shakespeare’s Dream) at transforming my humble chamberpot into a bower of aromatic perfume.

Ah yes, the smell of your piss afterwards. For myself, I don’t find it unpleasant, merely flowery.  But others deem it unpleasant, a cruel trick played on our urinary system. Despite several studies on the subject, there seems to be no definitive answer to what creates the post-digestive asparagus smell (go to this BBC web page for a discussion, plus an amazing thermogram of a man urinating into a toilet after eating asparagus).

Finally, we come to the issue of the aphrodisiacal qualities of asparagus. Nicholas Culpeper, the 17th century English herbalist wrote in The English Phystian that asparagus ‘stirreth up bodily lust in Man or Woman’. The vegetable’s phallic appearance may have something to do with its legendary status as an aphrodisiac, but there’s chemistry, too. Asparagus is rich in vitamin B6 and folate, both of which can boost arousal and orgasm. It also boasts vitamin E, which stimulates sex hormones in both men and women.

So let’s end with a couple of poems that draw their inspiration from these qualities. Robin Robertson’s ‘Asparagus’ comes from his 2006 Forward Prize-winning collection Swithering.  It’s dirty, and perhaps smacks a little too much of schoolboy innuendo, but I offer it for the sake of cultural completeness:

Pushing up, hard and fibrous
from the ground, it is said to be
grown for the mouth:
steamed till supple
so the stem is still firm
but with a slight give to gravity.

Each wand has spurs
that swell in bedded layers
to the dark tip – slubbed and imbricate,
tight-set and over-lapping round the bud.
In a slather and slide, butter
floods at the bulb-head.

Closely related, but a little more sophisticated, is this – from Margaret Attwood:

This afternoon a man leans over
the hard rolls and the curled
butter, and tells me everything: two
women love him, he loves them, what
should he do?

The sun
sifts down through the imperceptibly
brownish urban air. I’m going to
suffer for this: turn red, get
blisters or else cancer. I eat
asparagus with my fingers, he
plunges into description.
He’s at his wit’s end, sewed
up in his own frenzy. He has
breadcrumbs in his beard.
I wonder
if I should let my hair go grey
so my advice will be better.
I could wrinkle up my eyelids,
look wise. I could get a pet lizard.
You’re not crazy, I tell him.
Others have done this. Me, too.
Messy love is better than none,
I guess. I’m no authority
on sane living.

Which is all true
and no hep at all, because
this form of love is like the pain
of childbirth: so intense
it’s hard to remember afterwards,
or what kind of screams and grimaces
it pushed you into.

The shrimp arrive on their skewers,
the courtyard trees unroll
their yellow caterpillars,
pollen powders our shoulders.
He wants them both, he relates
tortures, the coffee
arrives and altogether I am amazed
at his stupidities.

I sit looking at him
with a sort of wonder;
or is it envy?
Listen, I say to him,
you’re very lucky.

 See also

Strands: ‘the tide-line is an open book, an account of what the world desires, and then wishes to be rid of.’

Strands: ‘the tide-line is an open book, an account of what the world desires, and then wishes to be rid of.’

Formby 9

Regular readers of these posts will now that one of our favourite places is the coastline north of Liverpool, stretching from Formby Point up to Ainsdale, with many walks along strand and through dunes in a place that feels so wild and so distant, yet within sight of the city skyline.  Jean Sprackland once walked here for twenty years, and in Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach, prompted by an impending move to London, she gathered a series of meditations on the things she encountered along the shore in her last year here.  It’s a book I ought to have read sooner; now I’ve finally got round to it.

Jean Sprackland is best-known as a poet which led me to expect something a little more lyrical than this beach-combing journal, its entries organised around the seasons and each one triggered by her encounter with an item – living or inanimate – washed there by the tide.  In this it shares some similarities with Edgelands byPaul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts or Kathleen Jamie’s Findings and Sightlines. But it doesn’t have the former’s constant referencing of poetic or artistic responses to the habitat, nor Jamie’s personal evidence-gathering and interviews.  Instead, in parts at least, there’s a sense of material gathered in from expeditious googling.

I don’t mean that to be over-critical. Indeed, I enjoyed the way Sprackland might launch off at a tangent, triggered by some flotsam, plant or animal discovered while she walked the tide-line, meanderings that sometimes end up a long way from Ainsdale beach.  One of the best chapters, entitled ‘The Albatross and the Toothbrush’ is of this nature, beginning with an old Marathon wrapper catching the author’s eye one morning. Noting that Cadburys changed the name of the Marathon bar to to Snickers in 1990, Sprackland realises that the Marathon wrapper must be at least 20 years old- and is still in good condition despite being buried in the sand or floating at sea all that time.

Flicking through her old copy of The Arrow Seaside Companion, published in 1956, Sprackland notes that its author’s catalogue of ‘useful finds’ he had made on the beach in the 1940s and 1950s contains nothing made of plastic. In contrast, in merely one hour, Sprackland finds 311 plastic items, ranging from bottles and bin bags to disposable cigarette lighters and cotton bud sticks.

She goes on to discuss the ubiquitousness of waste in the oceans and the phenomenon of the North Pacific Gyre:

The Gyre has become home to something known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a gigantic stew of suspended plastic and other human debris. [… ] Estimates put the garbage patch at a hundred million tons, and it is aid by some observers to cover an area twice the size of Texas.

Seabirds are particularly at risk once sea-borne plastic waste enters the food chain, and this reminds Sprackland of Coleridge’s ‘Ancient Mariner’ which can be read as a prophecy, or warning, of the consequences of interfering with the natural order.  She tells how, in the Pacific, albatrosses have been dying recently in great numbers.  When researchers dissect the corpses and examine the stomach contents they find a shocking variety of plastic objects: toothbrushes, cigarette lighters, Lego bricks and bottle tops.  She writes:

It’s the familiarity – the domesticity – of these small, disposable objects which breaks the heart.

That word ‘disposable’ has, as Sprackland observes, a hollow ring. Since the 1950s it’s estimated that one billion tons of plastic have been discarded – and most of it will take hundreds, even thousands of years to degrade.  We talk, she says, about ‘getting rid’ of things we no longer want, but because plastic is so durable we will never be rid of it. A great deal of it ends up in the sea, and, as anyone who walks a seashore these days will understand, ‘the sea always brings them back’:

It brings them back, and takes them away, and brings them back again.  My most sobering moment on this beach was not one spent picking through trash in the strandline as I did today.  It was a glorious day in March, after the high tides of the spring equinox.  The sea had come in much further than usual, right into the dunes, and washed the beach clean and shining.  The mass of accumulated debris I’d seen there the week before was gone.  The sea had swallowed it again.  I understood then that for the bottle and the laundry basket, the clothes peg and the doll, the petrol can and the chocolate wrapper, this is a journey with no end.

Path Formby beach

This account of a year’s finds on Ainsdale Sands is a kind of extended farewell to a place Sprackland has left behind. Strands was written during 2010, her last full year at Ainsdale, and catalogues the various finds she makes on the beach. In a piece written for the London Review of Books she explained

I’ve been walking on the shore at Ainsdale and Formby, on the north-west coast of England, for 20 years. It’s 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.

Formby 2

‘Strand’ is a word that can carry different meanings. It can be a synonym for the beach, can evoke the idea of stranded things and whole objects reduced to ‘strands’ – mere strings and ribbons – and strands can also be lines of connected thought or enquiry. In an interview with The Scotsman, Jean Sprackland said:

Strands came partly out of a particular sort of paradox. Having lived on that stretch of coast for so long I felt that I knew it extremely well. I was going back there day after day, month after month, and I felt that I knew it intimately, and yet at the same time it was unknowable. Perhaps that’s why I found it such an exciting place – it was something to do with knowing it well and yet knowing that there is an unlimited amount to be learned about it, too. Every time I walked there I would see something I didn’t understand or find something I didn’t recognise or have some kind of new experience. Every single time.

The things that Sprackland finds on the beach – the strandings, on the strand, carrying with them their strands of stories – are enormously varied.  For instance: the remains of the Star of Hope, wrecked on Mad Wharf in 1883 and usually just visible as a few wooden stumps, which appears out of the sand at certain tides.

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.

Sprackland revels in such chance encounters, the ‘cargo of mysteries’ delivered by each tide:

Like so many of our happiest meetings, they are coincidental. You happen to be walking along the right part of the shore, just as something is delivered there by the tide. The two of you are on separate journeys. You come from one direction, it comes from another, and your paths intersect.

Star of Hope on Ainsdale beach

The wreck of the Star of Hope on Ainsdale beach (photo: Liverpool Echo)

The aforementioned human junk – the ubiquitous plastic objects, sweet wrappers and crisp packets – form only part of Sprackland’s catalogue of finds. As the seasons change, so do the items discovered on the shoreline. In spring there are leathery mermaids’ purses (the egg cases of dogfish, ray and skate), sea gooseberries like pearly marbles and the ‘scribble of wormcasts’ along the water’s edge. Summer brings a green flourish of samphire or poor man’s asparagus, grey seals and, occasionally, disconcerting swarms of ladybirds. After autumn storms there is driftwood, starfish are flung to their deaths by high tides, and she finds sea potatoes (the fragile shells of sea urchins). Then winter comes, with squally days and ‘dangerous skies’, and the shocking sight of a dead herring gull spread out like ‘an open book, ‘very much undone … as if someone has unpicked the stitches which held it together’.

Formby evening 18

In the coldest winters (such as, memorably, December 2010), ice along the tide-line.  Here, Sprackland remarks: ‘It’s always a thrill to see ice on the beach’.  But the phenomenon was captured more memorably in her poem ‘Ice on the Beach’:

One single sheet of sprung light.
Touched here with the toe of your boot
it hurts in a distant part.

Dream stuff, with its own internal acoustic.
Striking it with a stick raises
a shocked note, a white bruise under the skin –

the physiology of ice on sand
is strange, we have not mapped it.
The sea can only scorch the edge.

This whole bay is locked
under a lid of referred pain.
At one end, a tanker

nudges out of the rivermouth.
In its wash, the ice shelf
barely shivers.

But thirty miles south,
in another town, it creaks
under the pier, where someone kneels

staring down like a god
through a damaged sky, onto a wilderness
of ridges and blue shadows.

New Years Eve 2010 at Formby Point 14

Ice on Formby beach: New Year’s Eve 2010

Among the finds which Sprackland muses upon are sea coal, a message in a bottle, different kinds of seaweed,  jellyfish and sea squirts, the strange corpse of a sea mouse, a china teacup and a large lump of compressed tobacco waste, the by-product of cigarette manufacturing in Liverpool 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, werre given permission 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. Now the waste is eroded at every high tide.  We found huge blackened lumps of the stuff exposed along Formby beach after the storm surge of 5 December last year.

Sprackland takes to the internet to identify the china cup, washed up whole, and it turns out to be from an old Cunard liner, surprisingly intact after some 50 years at sea.  She visits the Maritime Museum in Liverpool to research the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth from which the cup was thrown or fell. We think of the sea as wild and untamed, muses Sprackland, yet the secrets it contains and reveals are very often of our own making: ‘The tideline is an open book in a babble of different languages: an account of what the world desires, and then wishes to be rid of.’

In another passage 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.

Formby evening 8

If you were wondering about the sea mouse that popped up earlier, it’s not a mammal at all, but a scaleworm that burrows its way beneath the sand, eating carrion, detritus and microscopic animals.  It’s oval, about four inches long and looks furry – hence the name.  In one of the surprisingly few references to poetry in Strands, Sprackland quotes from Amy Clampitt’s poem, ‘Sea Mouse’:

The orphanage of possibility
has had to be expanded to 
admit the sea mouse.  No one
had asked for such a thing,
or prophesied its advent,

sheltering under ruching 
edges of sea lettuce—
a wet thing but pettable
as, seen in the distance,
the tops of copses,

sun-honeyed, needle-pelted
pine trees, bearded barley,
or anything newborn not bald
but furred. No rodent this
scabrous, this unlooked-for

foundling, no catnip plaything
for a cat to worry, not even
an echinoderm, the creature
seems to be a worm. Silk-spiny,
baby-mummy-swaddled, it’s

at home where every corridor
is mop-and-bucket scrubbed
and aired from wall to wall
twice daily by the inde-
fatigable tidal head nurse.

Amy Clampitt, familiar with the shore on the other side of the Atlantic in Maine, also wrote ‘Beach Glass’, a poem that celebrates finds along the shore and which might serve as counterpoint to Sprackland’s journal which also records found objects, whether natural or manufactured:

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.

Formby 6

Elsewhere, Sprackland meditates upon the prehistoric human footprints that are sometimes uncovered along the shore here, the foot marks pressed into the sediment thousands of years ago and briefly revealed before being washed away beneath the waves:

These beach footprints are graphic physical messages from the past.  Where a human being has placed a hand or a foot, and made a mark, there’s a shortcut of recognition, a spark leaping across millenia. What connects us is that we share the same kind of body.

She ends with thoughts on time travel provoked by discovering these footprints:

Like Crusoe, I’ve found proof that I’m not alone. It’s not just space we share, but time too. When I unlace my boots and step barefoot onto the freezing mud, I experience a tangible sense of connection with the past.  There were other lives lived out in this place, and the intertidal zone is the place where their mysteries are kept.

Seven thousand winters have passed since these footprints were laid down, preserved and buried. […] There was no wheel, and no writing yet. Stonehenge was still a couple of thousand years off. But in Mesopotamia, wheat and flax were being farmed. […] For a second I see that five thousand years is not some abstract concept, but simple and actual and not unimaginably long.

And now at last they have come to the surface again: the marks my analogues made, as they gathered shellfish and hunted for food, and those made by their children as they ran about and played in the mud. I can trace a footprint with my fingers, put my own bare foot inside it. It’s the nearest I can get to time travel.

Formby evening 7

All the photos here (apart from the one of the wreck of the Star of Hope) were taken by me at various times on Formby beach, a little to the south of Jean Sprackland’s old stamping ground.

See also

Aftermath: Formby Point after the storm

Aftermath: Formby Point after the storm

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.

See also

It’s Easter, but it feels like winter

It’s Easter, but it feels like winter

Formby 2

It’s Easter, but it feels like winter.  The sun may be shining, but it’s colder here than it was at Christmas.  Weird weather indeed –  the coldest March for 50 years came on the heels of a grey, wet winter and the wettest year ever recorded in England.

But the sun is shining and the days are steadily lengthening.  Yet something doesn’t seem quite right, there’s a feeling of the world being a little out of kilter.  Late afternoon sun speaks of spring – but it’s bitterly cold, especially on the days when a chilling breeze blows straight out of the Arctic.  One day last week large flakes of snow fell as the sun shone brightly.

On Thursday I walked with the dog and my old friend Bernie along the Sefton Coastal footpath from Ainsdale station to Formby.  When we reached the beach, the Clwydian Hills across the bay were still white with snow from last weekend’s blizzard. That day there was no breeze, so it felt just a little warmer, if still bitter.

We followed the signposted route for the Sefton Coastal path out of Ainsdale.  For some reason it follows the busy road to Liverpool for half a mile, rather than more seawards through the dunes.  And when it turns to enter the Ainsdale Nature Reserve, the path hugs the edge of the pine woodland by the railway track for another mile or so before finally turning towards the sea down the Fisherman’s Path.

Formby 1

As we walked through the pines, Bernie recalled coming here as a kid in those halcyon days when children could wander far from home without anyone feeling alarm. He and his mates would catch natterjack toads and newts and take them home.  Today the Reserve  is one of the few remaining strongholds of the natterjack toad, Europe’s loudest amphibian, and now a rare and protected species, along with the sand lizards and great-crested newts that live here, too. No jam-jars allowed today!

Ainsdale 1

The pine woods are the haunt of another species whose numbers are dwindling – the red squirrel. I’ve seen them in the National Trust reserve further down the coast at Formby, but there were none to be seen in the woods today.

Formby 6

Out on the beach the air was clear and the sun shone.  The temperature was around 5C, nearly 15 degrees cooler than this time last year (admittedly, that was exceptional, too).  Spring is a long time coming this year.  I was reading this week about Nature’s Calendar, a database managed by the Woodland Trust which is the longest running biological record of the arrival of spring. The calendar, where anyone can log their first sightings of key spring events, began with Robert Marsham, an 18th-century naturalist who recorded 27 signs of spring (the first leafing of ash, first snowdrop flowering, hawthorn first leafing, the first cuckoo, frogs and toads first heard croaking, etc) at his Norfolk home for 62 years. His family carried on his record-keeping until 1958, when modern-day phenologists took over.

Formby 4

They have discovered that biological spring shifted forwards by nearly 12 days in the 30 years up to 2005.  The mild winters and early springs of the last decade are perhaps the reason why March this year has felt so bitterly cold.

Formby 3

Along the shore there was evidence of a great deal of dune erosion having taken place this winter.  Wardens were digging in hundreds of redundant christmas trees to help stabilise the dunes and encourage the marram grass to take root.

The beach was busy with dog walkers and children, released from school that day for the Easter break.  At Lifeboat Road we turned inland, heading for the railway station at Formby. Despite the cold, it had been a great walk in glorious sunshine.

Fudge at Formby

On the beach at Formby

On the beach at Formby

Formby 1

On a crisp December morning we returned to one of our favourite places – Formby beach, a 20 minute drive from our house in Liverpool.  We walked through the dunes, and the closer we got to the sea the more the wind whipped in, cold and bracing, off the estuary.

Formby 11

Formby 2

Since we were here last, a long and elegant boardwalk has been laid down to protect the dunes from the tread of human feet.  Out on the beach, the sand underfoot was blasted flat and firm by the wind-borne sand that scoured the beach in gritty, parallel blizzards.

Formby 3

Formby 8

The tide was out, and offshore the wind whipped the waves into endless regiments of white horses. The Stena Line ferry to Belfast hauled itself out of port, past the wind turbine array and along the estuary towards the sea.

Formby 7

Formby 9

Jean Sprackland, whose book, Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach, was published earlier this year, has written:

It’s 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.

Sprackland has been walking this stretch of coast for twenty years.  In Strands, she gives us two dozen essays on walking the shoreline, grouped by season. Some are personal and poetic meditations (she is a poet – this is her first non-fiction book), others explore the nature of the beach and its creatures from a more scientific perspective. I enjoyed listening to extracts on Radio 4’s Book of the Week in the summer.

Formby 4

Formby 6

Formby 5

As always we had our dog with us –  she loves this place as much as we do – and she bounded around madly, grabbing a stick and running with it between her teeth.

South past Formby Point, in the glare of low winter sun, the towers of Liverpool rose misty on the skyline – waterfront towers that we would pass beneath on our drive home.

Formby 12

Formby 13

Formby 14

Formby 15

Reaching the point, we turned inland and walked trails through the dunes until we reached the car park again. Nearly winter solstice, and light from the low sun lit the dunes with sharp-edged clarity.  A rainbow appeared offshore: rain was approaching.  A brief shower caught us near the end of our walk. On the way home we stopped at Merseyside’s only Waitrose and bought treats. Then the dog drove us home.

Formby 10

‘Prints’: 6000 year-old footprints in the sand

‘Prints’: 6000 year-old footprints in the sand

The prehistoric human footprints of Formby beach have always fascinated me (I wrote about them here a couple of years ago).  So last week’s Poem of the Week on the Guardian website caught my attention.  ‘Prints’ by Helen Tookey takes as its theme the prehistoric human footprints that have been discovered, baked into the mud-layers beneath the sand on Formby beach.

The beach is an important archaeological site, where the natural processes of tide and wind which reveal the footprints also endanger them, since, once exposed, they are soon erased by tides.  It’s remarkable that, in the context of a time frame extending back some 3.75 million years within a variety of environments, only 63 sites have ever revealed hominid footprints and of these locations, Formby Point has yielded the greatest number of prehistoric human footprint trails. Over 200 human footprint trails have been recorded there.

This is Helen Tookey’s poem, which opens with an epigraph from an article about the footprints:

… within some strata the footprints of the animals, birds and humans frequenting the coast at that time have been preserved … The females, often accompanied by children, would have appeared to be mainly occupied with gathering food, eg shrimps, razor shells and other seafood. At one site there was a wild confusion of children’s footprints as though they had been mudlarking …
– Gordon Roberts, ‘The Lost World of Formby Point’


Patience you need and a strong back for digging
razor-clams, wheedling them up with salt and
tugging them out, blind snouts curling. Bored, the
children play catch-me-if-you-can, eeling
from each other’s muddy hands, filthy and
shrieking with laughter. Minding the tide and
uncertain sky, sifting for shrimp, you try
to keep count: no little ones lost in the
creek or sneaking away to the hunting.
What you need’s eyes in the back of your head.


Like two voices shifting into pitch, our
coastline after four thousand years maps yours.
Your fen and creek are gone, you wouldn’t know
this fine sand drifted with pines, but here are
your mud-flats, become lithographic, and
here your people: four-toes, twisted, no use
at the hunt; this girl, months-heavy, inching
her way, clawed feet curled hard into the mud;
and the children, quick, unhurried, knowing
themselves alone possessed of the future.

This is Carol Rumens’ commentary on the poem for The Guardian:

“Prints” takes the footprints, adults’ and children’s, and grows people from them. It’s perhaps, also, a mirror of opposing forces, with its compact solidity (the two parts representing two firmly planted feet?) and an undertow of rhythms that suggests evanescence.

There may be more than one addressee, but I imagine a single female shellfish-gatherer who has her work cut out looking after the children as she searches for food. The vocative can be an ambiguous case in English, though, and it’s also possible to imagine the first section as a monologue, muttered by the prehistoric woman as she braces herself to her tasks, setting a rhythm and expressing her pride in a tough job she can do well.

The subject-object reversal in the first line (“Patience you need”) is idiomatic and emphatic. Process is emphasised in the favoured verb-form, the present participle: in the first part alone we have “digging”, “wheedling”, “tugging”, “eeling”, “minding”, “sifting”, “sneaking”. The word that stands out, the appropriately fishy “eeling”, from a coined verb, “to eel”, brings with it a vivid image of muddy children wriggling and slithering out of each other’s grasp. Frequent, sometimes unexpected enjambment creates a deliberate end-of-line jerkiness, like a little gasp for breath or a moment of distraction. Elusive as the catch, and always at risk, the children can only partly be watched, and again the line breaks help suggest these volatile, fleeting figures. They are restive not only because of natural high spirits. They (particularly, one assumes, the older boys) would rather be elsewhere, hunting with the men. This is a nice touch of psychological insight, and gives the prehistoric family a potentially novelistic presence.

The effect is furthered by colloquialism: we have “minding” as in “looking out for” and the proverbial “What you need’s eyes in the back of your head.” This 10th line develops the statement in line one (“patience you need”) and catches the tone of a parental exasperation as old as the prehistoric hills.

In the second half, we draw back from close-up to panning shot. It’s clearly the poet who is speaking. She began by evoking a family from their footprints and entering their world. Now she imagines the current scene from the hunter-gatherers’ perspective. The landscape has changed in many ways, but the metaphor of “two voices / shifting into pitch” suggests that the outlines also meet and harmonise. At the end of the fourth line, after the depiction of aspects of the coast the hunter-gatherers wouldn’t recognise, the voice becomes reassuring, almost inviting: “but here are / your mud-flats, become lithographic, and / here your people …” The prints may not be etched into stone, but here they irrefutably are, the poem says, and here you are, because of them. (In fact, numerous plaster-casts of the prints have been taken – almost another kind of lithography.) The imagery becomes, again, solid, gravid: “this girl, months-heavy”, and the deformed feet (“four-toes, twisted”), unable to move fast but tenaciously “inching” their way, “curled hard into the mud”. As before, the diction produces physical sensations.

But the poem closes with the longer, abstract view. The children are both “quick” and “unhurried” – an interesting paradox. We imagine a child’s certainty of the infinite time ahead that will constitute being grown-up and all-powerful. The child’s movements are “quick” (the old meaning, “alive”, is also present) but there’s no existential urge to hurry. By contrast, the archaeologist’s backward look sees epochs dawn and die in swift succession. The future was (and is?) never as vast as it seems, and no one possesses it. A gentle irony reminds us, perhaps, that not only these particular people on a particular day are long extinct, but that a whole hominid species has vanished.

The passing of time is one of the traditional themes of poetry, but the discovery of the full dimensions of human history belong to the present. Science, like the universe, keeps expanding, and challenges the poetic imagination to keep expanding too.

Source: Gordon Roberts, Ephemeral,Subfossil Mammalian,Avian and Hominid Footprints within Flandrian Sediment Exposures at Formby Point

Walking his dog along Formby beach one day back in the 1980s, retired teacher Gordon Roberts noticed some unusual trails of footprints on an exposed patch of silt. His curiosity aroused, he began to take notes, then pictures, then plaster casts and careful measurements. Soon he found that the prints were thousands of years old, and over the following months and years he’s recorded the tracks of deer, extinct wild cattle, large birds, and people – in particular, children.  Roberts took plaster casts of their impressions in the sand and copies are now placed on the floor of the new Museum of Liverpool so that visitors can walk in the footsteps of prehistoric people.

In 1995, analysis of 75 well-defined footprint trails at Formby Point indicated the presence of men, young women and children, mainly occupied in gathering food (such as shrimps, razor shells and other sea food). Male footprints are sometimes directly associated with red and roe deer tracks.

Martin Mere at sundown (Source: Andrew Fulton at

Helen Tookey has written another poem inspired by a stretch of land in this coastal area:

‘At Burscough, Lancashire’

Lancashire’s Martin Mere was the largest lake in England when it was first drained, to reclaim the land for farming, in 1697

Out on the ghost lake, what’s lost
is everywhere: murmuring in names
on the map, tasted in salt winds
that scour the topsoil, westerlies
that wrenched out oaks and pines, buried now
in choked black ranks, heads towards the east.
Cloudshadows ripple the grasses as the seines
rippled over the mere by night, fishervoices calling
across dark water. Underfoot, the flatlands’
black coffers lie rich with the drowned.

See also

Betwixt the sand and the foam

I am forever walking upon these shores,
Betwixt the sand and the foam,
The high tide will erase my foot-prints,
And the wind will blow away the foam.
But the sea and the shore will remain
– from ‘Sand and Foam’ by Kahlil Gibran

It was blustery when we left the city, but it was wild on the shore at Formby Point.  The sky was steel-grey, and occasional squalls blew in off the estuary, but the fierce wind was warm, even on this exposed stretch of coastline. It felt as if my being was reduced to a kernel isolated from everything in the world.  Beyond the pummelling roar of the wind I could hear nothing and see little through steamed-up and sand-blasted glasses.

The shore was deserted but for two couples out dog-walking, like us.  One of these, however, was accompanied by a pack of half a dozen Irish wolfhounds.

Here’s a gallery of black and white images that I took (click first image to view slideshow).

%d bloggers like this: