That's How The Light Gets In

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

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

All Is Lost: getting to grips with mortality

All Is Lost: getting to grips with mortality

All is Lost 1

Redford in ‘All Is Lost’: a modern day Sisyphus

The other night I found myself adrift with Robert Redford somewhere in the Indian Ocean, catching up with All Is Lost, the film written and directed by JC Chandor about a lone mariner’s attempts to keep his stricken yacht afloat after it has collided with a shipping container and is holed at the waterline.

I hadn’t been particularly drawn to the film when it was first reviewed, but my attention was caught recently by references to the film in an article by Geoff Dyer in the Guardian after the disappearance of flight MH370 that fell from the sky somewhere in the same ocean.  He compared the aircraft’s black box to the brief message that begins, ‘All is lost…’ which Robert Redford’s sailor scrawls, puts in a bottle and tosses overboard. ‘All may be lost’, Dyer writes, ‘ but the hope is that this hand-scrawled version of the black box, will be found’.

All Is Lost must be one of the most truly cinematic films ever produced.  Apart from the few spoken words of his last despairing message spoken by Redford at the introduction, there is virtually no dialogue, apart from an anguished ‘Fuuuuuck’, uttered by Redford at a desperate moment in the proceedings.  The rest is Redford’s superb acting, stunning cinematography, sound – and the silence of a lone sailor adrift on the wide ocean.

The film’s writer and director, JC Chandor, steers well clear of the conventions of the disaster movie genre. Who is this sailor? Where does he come from? Chandor never tells us: there is no backstory of family or previous life.  All we see is an elderly man fighting to stay alive, his actions defined solely by the crisis that has afflicted him.

Does Chandor have an environmental message about humanity beleaguered on the planet we have desecrated? I don’t know – probably not.  The thought only occurs because the film pivots on a random event in which Redford’s sailor encounters solid evidence of globalization and the detritus it leaves in its wake.  The sailor wakes one morning to find that his yacht has been pierced by a container full of trainers, one corner of the metal monstrosity embedded in the gashed fibreglass hull.  The sea is awash with trainers that pour from the container like blood from a wound.

I’m currently reading Jean Sprackland’s book Strands, and coincidentally, I saw All Is Lost on the same day that I read the chapter in which she documents all the  plastic that she finds washed up on the beach. She goes on to talk about 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.

Sprackland speaks, too, of a famous cargo of plastic ducks and other bath toys that spilled from a container ship in the Pacific Ocean in 1992.  A scientist, Curtis Ebbesmeyer, has used observations of where the toys are washed ashore to track the currents and tidal systems that can transport human debris like those trainers in All Is Lost right round the world.
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.  That reminded me of a recent reworking of the poem by Nick Hayes as a graphic poem, The Rime of the Modern Mariner.  The story his modern mariner recounts is one of environmental doom. After killing an albatross and being forced to wear it around his neck, his ship hits the North Pacific gyre, that huge collection of plastics and chemical sludge:

Swathes of polystyrene
Bobbed with tonnes of neoprene
And polymethyl methacrylate
Stretched across the scene
Tupperware and bottletops
Bottled bleach and tyres
The detritus of a careless kind
a scattered funeral pyre.

Allis Lost trainers

A cargo of trainers…

Back on board Redford’s yacht, water has gushed in and shorted out all power on the vessel, eliminating all contact with the rest of the world. Now the camera follows every desperate  move Redford makes to try to keep his vessel afloat: the ingenious method he uses to dislodge the cargo container, the slow and methodical patching of the jagged tear in the hull. He bails out water, makes careful repairs, teaches himself how to check coordinates with a map and sextant.

Later a terrific storm blows in, sheers off the yacht’s mast and reopens the gash in her hull. The sailor is knocked into open water and sustains a cut to his scalp. He realises that his one hope is to chart a course towards the shipping lanes from where the malignant container probably came. In the darkness, with the storm still raging and his boat sinking, the sailor inflates his life raft and cuts the cord. He watches, battered and sodden, as the yacht goes down, leaving no trace.

 

Every aspect of All Is Lost’s production – from the murmuring musical score to the stunning cinematography – make this pure cinema:  just a story told through movement and sound. But above all this is a tour de force by Redford. He throws himself into a physically punishing role with total commitment and the understanding of one who is a sailor (he needs to: he’s on screen from beginning to end). If Robert Redford chose never to make another film, I reckon All Is Lost would be considered a truly fitting achievement to cap his career.  As the Washington Post review observed:

At a time when his 70-something colleagues are trying desperately to prove they’re still hip, macho and please-God relevant, he quietly delivers a one-man master class in the art of screen acting in what is arguably the finest and certainly the bravest performance of his career.

Watching all his tribulations, Redford’s sailor becomes a modern day Sisyphus, rolling his boulder uphill day after day, cursing the toll it takes on his body, but reaching inside himself for the resolve to carry on. In his piece for the Guardian, Geoff Dyer has an interesting take on this Sisyphus parallel, noting that Camus insisted that we must imagine Sisyphus ‘happy’.  Dyer suggests that Redford’s lost sailor is in his element:

This is what he came to sea for. And it would be wrong, as we hear those fateful words, ‘All is lost’, to take this as an admission of regret. It would be just as accurate to say that he has achieved his destination.

Allis Lost 2

The yacht goes down

Several reviewers have noted that All Is Lost explores themes remarkably similar to those in Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity. The crisis of Sandra Bullock’s astronaut, spinning in a crippled craft in space, is even brought about in the same way: by a surreal onslaught of debris.

In an interview with The National, director JC Chandor observed that when everything is lost and a person is forced to confront themselves in extremis, ‘the big existential questions become harder to avoid. What are the things that make life worth living and give it value? Why battle on when death is inevitable?’  He said:

The only thing that everyone on planet Earth has absolutely in common with one another is that we are all going to die. All Is Lost is about a guy coming to grips with his mortality, which is something everybody is going to go through, sooner or later.

In the Observer Xan Brooks wrote:

There is no journey towards redemption and no cosy life lesson lying in wait at the end. There’s just the sea and the sky and the struggle to survive. Chandor’s ironclad minimalism has you gasping for air.

But, as Geoff Dyer noted in his piece, the ending (I won’t divulge it) might suggest redemption, some form of  ‘religious salvation’.  Maybe.  I’m thankful to Dyer, though, for opening my eyes to a poem with which I was unfamiliar.  Of the film’s ending, he writes:

It is also strangely reminiscent of DH Lawrence’s great long poem ‘The Ship of Death‘. Few people can have lived their lives with such a consciousness of death as Lawrence – though this often manifested itself as a wilful refusal to attribute his ill-health to the tuberculosis that would kill him. […] But in the posthumously published poem he confronted his death directly, through the image of a boat sailing slowly into deeper and deeper darkness until it is completely enveloped by it:

And everything is gone, the body is gone
completely under, gone,
entirely gone.
The upper darkness is heavy as the lower,
between them the little ship
is gone
she is gone.
It is the end, it is oblivion.

Few pieces of writing bring the reader this close to the incommunicable experience of death, of non-existence. The end is as uncompromising and absolute as the verdict that flight MH370 went into the water, that there are no survivors. But the poem is not at an end. It continues:

And yet out of eternity a thread
separates itself on the blackness,
a horizontal thread
that fumes a little with pallor upon the dark.
Is it illusion? or does the pallor fume
A little higher?
Ah wait, wait, for there’s the dawn,
the cruel dawn of coming back to life
out of oblivion.

As I write this, hundreds of children are missing after Wednesday’s ferry accident off the coast of South Korea. For the grieving parents it must seem as if all is lost

And everything is gone, the body is gone
completely under, gone,
entirely gone.

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

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

%d bloggers like this: