Grassy sand-dunes where sea-birds and swimmers throng
The marshes and saltings on the southern side of the Ribble estuary are the home of countless sea-birds and a regular stopping-off place for flocks of migrants. Further to the south, away from the mud-flats, quicksands and fierce currents of the river, the coast becomes sandier and safer for boating and swimming, and the holiday resorts of Southport and Formby reach almost to the northern fringes of the port of Liverpool.
A large straggling village on the road which runs along the north bank of the River Ribble, Freckleton has a small brick church built in 1837 which has box pews and a lovely Jacobean pulpit which came from Kirkham church. The pulpit’s eight sides are embellished with miniature, minutely detailed faces and the inscription: ‘Cry aloud, spare not: lift up thy voice like a trumpet’. recent years its trade has declined, part of the old port area is now being redeveloped. It was also an important railway junction, and its position midway between London and the cities of Scotland led to the building of hotels where weary passengers could rest before completing the second half of the journey.
Richard Arkwright, born in Preston in 1732, was the inventor of the spinning frame, an innovation which helped to make the town a centre for cotton-spinning for 150 years. It is still a busy industrial town with a modern shopping centre near the main street, Fishergate, whose modern shop fronts have been built on to Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian premises.
The treasures of the Harris Museum and Art Gallery in the Market Square include 19th-century water-colours by British artists, Georgian drinking glasses and costumes, pottery, toys and games from the 18th century to more recent times, Bronze Age burial urns and coins from a Viking treasure hoard found buried near a ford across the Ribble. The museum is an imposing building in the Classical style, built in 1893 with money left to the town by E. R. Harris, a local man.
Preston was the second oldest borough in England and has been represented in Parliament since the 13th century. It was jiven the right to hold a Merchant Guild, a form of regular market for merchants, under the charter of Henry II in 1179, and the Guild has been celebrated every 20 years since 1542, with only one break during the Second World War. The Fulwood Barracks, at the northern end of the city, is the home depot of the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment and also houses the Regimental Museum with uniforms, medals and weapons dating back to the regiment’s beginnings in the 18th century.
Hoghton Tower, 6 miles east on the road to Blackburn, is a 16th-century fortified manor house with a walled garden, an old English rose garden and a collection of dolls and dolls’ houses. It is at Hoghton Tower that James I is supposed to have bestowed a knighthood on a joint of beef, to produce the cut known as ‘sirloin’.
From the point where the mud-flats and saltings of the Ribble estuary give way to the open Lancashire coast, a long stretch of flat, firm sand stretches as far as industrial Merseyside. On this wide beach is the resort of Southport, which despite a wide variety of modern holiday attractions still preserves much of the style and atmosphere of a Victorian or Edwardian watering-place. Its popularity goes back to the late 18th century, when William Sutton, an innkeeper in the village of Churchtown, used driftwood from the beach to build the first bathing house, in which people could change into the right clothes for a sedate paddle in the shallows.
The main street of the town, the elegant tree-lined boulevard of Lord Street, was built during the 1820s, and tablets honouring William Sutton can still be seen in the wall bordering the gardens at the junction of Lord Street and Duke Street. The promenade was added in 1835, and expansion has continued ever since. Now more than 300,000 visitors every year are attracted to Southport’s sandy beach and its acres of sand-dunes.
Other attractions of Southport include the Pleasureland amusement park, a zoo, a model village, a Marine Lake covering 86 acres and a pier three-quarters of a mile long, served by its own miniature railway. The shopping centre of the town around Lord Street, where many of the shops are set under the cover of elegant verandas, has been designated a Conservation Area for the quality of its Victorian architecture, Steam-port Transport Museum, in Derby Road, houses a collection of preserved railway engines and vintage road vehicles.
HOW DUNES ARE FORMED Dunes start to form when hardy plants such as sea rocket germinate on the strand-line. These check the movement of sand blown towards the land and allow the growth of marram grass, which forms a network of roots and also grows upwards, so trapping more moving sand. A new series of dunes often forms to seaward of the original dunes, protecting them and allowing other plants such as sea spurge to fill the gaps between the marram grass and complete the consolidation of the sand.
So firm are the sands at Ainsdale beach that motorists often use them as a road along which to drive to neighbouring Southport. They have to observe a 10 mph speed limit, which is broken only when official motor races are held on the sands, or when light aircraft take off from them.
Behind the beach, a wilderness of dunes stretches all the way to Hightown to the south and Southport to the north. A road curves through the dunes, following the line of an old railway, and the Royal Birkdale championship golf course lies to the east of the road. More than 1,700 acres of the dunes are nature reserves, with varied plant life as well as colonies of the rare natterjack toads and sand lizards.
The national nature reserve has 6 miles of marked paths, including the Fisherman’s Path which leads to the shore from the car park near Freshfield Station. Visitors must keep to these routes, as the dune vegetation is fragile. A special nature trail is available to booked school parties in early summer.
Along the 4 miles between Ainsdale and Southport swimmers should stay in the areas marked by red and white flags. These are patrolled by lifeguards, some of whom operate from amphibious vehicles.
More than a mile of high sand-dunes separate the town of Formby from its beach. Two lanes lead to beachside car parks from which there are splendid walks with views of the ships entering and leaving the Mersey, backed by the distant mountains of North Wales.
Bathing from the sandy beach is only safe close inshore, because of strong currents further out at sea and the speed with which the incoming tide can cut off whole areas of beach with little or no warning. To the south, near the point where the little river Alt flows into the sea by Hightown, the dunes are used as firing ranges. Volunteer lifeguards patrol from Formby Point south to the Alt.
Formby began as a fishing and farming community, and had a lifeboat station as early as 1804; the station was closed in the 1920s when it was replaced by lifeboats further along the coast. Ironically, while many communities along this coast have lost their connections with the sea because harbours and estuaries have silted up, Formby has had problems persuading the sea to keep its distance. On the southwestern side of the town, in the district known as Raven Meols, the sea has been steadily encroaching on the land for more than 700 years. In 1730 the 12th-century Formby Chapel had to be abandoned and a new church built inland, where the present town was established at a safe distance from the sea.
The building of the railway from South-port to Liverpool caused the town to expand quickly during the last century as a commuter town serving Liverpool, and few relics of the older Formby survive today. One exception is the church of St Luke, built on the site of a Norman chapel; it contains a Norman font with carving worn smooth by the sharpening of tools over the centuries, and a gravestone from York Minster which once covered the tomb of Richard Formby, of Formby Hall. Formby was armour-bearer to two kings, Henry IV and Henry V, in the early 15th century and stood 7 ft tall, earning himself the name of Richard the Giant.
In the churchyard is a cross which once stood on the village green. The hollows in the base of the cross are said to have once held vinegar, used to purify coins passing in and out of the village during times of plague.