“Frying eggs smell like hope”, I wrote on Twitter, from a greasy spoon in Formby at 11 o’clock on Sunday morning, waiting to join the rest of the group for day two of Walking Through the Sands of Time, a four-day series of artist-led walks along the Sefton Coast, from Crosby – famous for Antony Gormley’s beach-men, Another Place – to Southport, some twenty miles north.
After a hiccup-free first day of travelling, taking 90 minutes from the door of my flat in Chester to the meeting point at the car park by the Marine Lake in Crosby, I was perhaps being a bit complacent thinking I could repeat the same feat of good fortune on day two. I was: Merseyrail, like many transport networks, operate less frequent services on the day of rest. I managed to get away by 9, only 15 minutes later than the previous day, but my second mistake swiftly followed, when I found myself at Kirkdale, heading towards Ormskirk, not Hightown, the day’s designated meeting point.
I hastily left the train, half-scoffed banana in hand, making a 180° trundle over the footbridge. Next train not for 17 minutes. Hmm. I was keen not to be late – or much later than I already was – so I asked a bloke in the waiting room if he had a local taxi number, in the vague hope that I could stump up a fiver and not be terminally late. “Metro Cabs are the best, mate, but I can’t remember their number. Trade-unionised, though, so you get the best rates. Sorry, pal. You from the North East are ya?” Cab was going to knock me back fifteen quid and take as long as the back-tracked train journey, so I sat, waiting for the yellow and grey carriage to roll in and get the day started, staring across the platform, cursing myself for not knowing the name of the ubiquitous lilac bushes that had followed me up the line, from Bache to Birkenhead. Buddleja, I later (re)learned.
Cue the Greasy Spoon, and directions from the weekend girl, whose instructions to “just keep going through the forest” turned out to be about as accurate as anything I’ve ever received in that department. I slurped the last dregs of tea and made my way towards Lifeboat Road, and the delayed start to the day.
There are three cities in the UK which, to my mind, are nearly one and the same: Newcastle, Liverpool and Glasgow. While all have their differences and idiosyncrasies, there are three, key shared characteristics which I think make them startlingly similar: their proud river heritage; their love of football; and most importantly, the spirit of their people. In this case, I want to think about the river: the Mersey, gushing out into the Irish Sea, bordered for much of its length by the Wirral, and famed for its ships and dockyards. When you get the train out of Moorfields on the Northern Line, you pass a landscape of old tobacco factories and grain silos; cavernous old docks are watched over by wind turbines and recycling depots. And the train speeds through Bootle New Strand and Seaforth and Litherland; and you see great Victorian pubs with weeds in their gutters; and you see rows of tumbledown houses where shipyard workers used to call home; and you see more modern social housing, with row after row of trampolines and ladder-clad Transit vans parked outside. And if you’re from Newcastle (or Glasgow), but in this case Newcastle, you feel like you’ve just got on the Metro to the Coast at Monument and whizzed through Manors; and at Byker you’re looking down at the Ouseburn and its vestigial chimneys; and at Wallsend you’re looking at the same rows of Victorian terraces, with their identikit trampolines and barbecues; and at Tynemouth you go underground again, briefly, as the train chugs by the James Knott Flats, you think of similar 30s structures at Bank Hall and Blundellsands; and depending on where you are, you either look West or East and there’s sea: thick, grey and apparently motionless; and beyond it, a Northern sky, with its clouds the colour of concrete and its punctuation marks of wind farms, or marker buoys, or cargo ships.
Sefton. 1995. Brookside Close. Jimmy Corkhill; Tin’ead; double-denim. These are the things I associate with this coast — a TV exec’s 90s pastiche of life in Liverpool. Which is to say that really, I associate nothing with this part of the world. If you’d asked me a week ago what was between Liverpool and Blackpool on the North West coast I’d have shook my head. Not a Scooby. This is why we walk: why we butter our sandwiches at 8am on a Saturday; sausages and dippy eggs for breakfast. Why we Google map the area and try on for size the place names on our tongue: Formby, Ainsdale, Southport. But none of that prepares us. Until we stand on the wild coast, sand in our shoes, sunburn on our hamstrings, we don’t really know what’s here, nor what it means, could mean.
“I’m setting out, armed with curiosity rather than expertise, to pay a different kind of attention to what I see” writes Jean Sprackland in her preface to Strands, her ‘year of discovery’ on the Sefton Coast. “I hope to cut through the blur of familiarity,” she continues, “and explore this place as if for the first time. Some of my finds may be real surprises, and others more predictable; but I shall pick them up and hold them to the light, regardless.”
Oh, Jean, what am I doing here, at half past eleven on a Sunday morning, in a sleepy commuter belt, searching for a path I don’t really know, to meet people I don’t really know, to trundle over more sand dunes that I don’t really know?
These are the questions I ask myself on Lifeboat Lane, Formby, by St Luke’s Church, which I later learn was once nearly entirely covered in sand during a particularly fearsome storm. It’s a story you’d think more than just a bit hyperbolic, until, on Ravenmeols Dunes, you see the size of these beasts. Piles of sand, netted in Marram and Sea Holly, as high as my four-storey apartment block. This is when you begin to believe the submersion of St Luke’s, drowned in sand, proper biblical.
Formby lies below sea level. It relies on mountainous dunes and rigid Pines. Formby smells of wind-whipped sand and money: Gerrard and Rooney both have houses here; Shearer lived in the area during his tenure at Blackburn Rovers. Rivers, football, people. On a lamppost, I spot a warning sign for a rogue-trader, known to have conned locals into dodgy swimming pool installation. Your average cowboy brickie, he is not. Google Earth Formby and you’ll see a lot of blue rectangles in gardens. Trampoline country this is not.
In the 1955-56 season, Manchester City beat Birmingham City in the FA Cup Final. What’s remarkable about this game is not so much the score line, but the fact that Manchester City’s goalkeeper, Bert Trautmann, played the last fifteen minutes of the game with a broken neck. Football trivia aside, what you learn at Hightown, if you’re being guided by natural historian John Dempsey, that is, is that only metres back from the high tide line of the beach, half hidden beneath Pyramidal Orchids and Sea Buckthorn, lies the remains of Fort Crosby, where Trautmann was interned as a prisoner of war during World War Two. And two or three miles north, covered in a different kind of thicket – that which comes in a mist from a paint can to expresses social discontent – is a store house for Operation Starfish, when, during the War, dummy fires would be lit in the country to resemble the shape of nearby port cities, the thinking being that enemy bombs would drop early, ideally causing plumes of sand rather than plumes of munitions, and bodies.
And you stand and watch the tide roll out, which it does quickly, the markers growing by the inch every minute, erect like giant fly swatters or cocktail sticks; and on the wind you hear the crack and whizz of bullets from the rifle range at Hightown; and at Altmouth the lazy boats slumber into marshes as the breeze strums their riggings in cowbell clatter; and a few dog walkers litter the coast, along with the rubble of blitz-bombed Liverpool and cooking oil drums chucked overboard from some distant tanker in the Atlantic; and the skyline of Liverpool, its cathedrals and Radio Tower, are silhouetted to the South as the wind makes a marathon dash for the Mersey and you think of the opening scenes of Atwood’s dystopia, Oryx and Crake, all howling winds, jetsam and distant, empty skyscrapers; and the clouds lift, the sun opening them like blinds, to show you Hoylake, Flintshire, Snowdonia. And you stand, with your face to the sea, arms at your side like the Gormleys, asking yourself what it is you’re shoring up against, out here, on the wild coast of Sefton.