Formby is a civil parish and town within the Metropolitan Borough of Sefton in Merseyside, England. It has a population of approximately 25,000, measured at the 2011 Census as 22,419.
Historically in Lancashire, three manors are recorded in the Domesday Book under "Fornebei" as Halsall, Walton and Poynton. The town's early recorded industry points to cockle raking and shrimp fishing (in addition to arable ventures) which last through into the 19th century. By 1872, the township and sub-district was made up of two chapelries (St. Peter and St. Luke), and contained Birkdale township, the hamlets of Ainsdale and Raven-Meols and Altcar parish. Formby was built on the plain adjoining the Irish Sea coast a few miles north of the Crosby channel where the sands afford shelter to the towns.
Erosion of sand on the beach at Formby is revealing layers of mud and sediment, laid down in the late Mesolithic to the late Neolithic, approximately 8,000 – 5,000 years ago, and covered in the early Bronze Age. These sediments often contain the footprints of humans and animals (red deer, roe deer, wild boar, wolf, aurochs) and birds (oystercatcher, crane and other waders) from that period. In June 2016, over 50 human footprints from 7000 years ago were uncovered on the beach.
The common place-name suffix -by is from the Scandinavian byr meaning "homestead", "settlement" or "village". The village of Formby was originally spelt Fornebei and means "the old settlement" or "village belonging to Forni". At that time Fornibiyum was also a well-known Norse family name. He could have been the leader of the invading expedition which took possession of this coast.
It was from Ireland in about 960 AD that these Norsemen or Vikings first came to the west coast of Lancashire, initially trading or raiding and then settling. Tradition says that the Viking invaders failed to defeat the native Anglo-Saxons on the coast of Formby, so they sailed inland, up the River Alt, and attacked from the rear. Dangus Lane, on the east side of the village, is sometimes called Danesgate Land, being connected by local traditions with this incursion.
Formby Hall is located to the north-east of Formby in secluded woodland adjoining the Formby Hall Golf and Country Club. The present house, built for William Formby, dates back to 1523 but it is believed that the Formby family has occupied the site since the 12th century.
Over the years the hall has seen many owners and occupants. Many modifications and additions have been made to the original building. For example, the battlements were added in the 18th century by John Formby who took inspiration from the Gothic-style architecture of Horace Walpole's home at Twickenham. In 1896, the hall was modernised by Colonel John Formby who added the West Wing drawing room.
The hall was inherited by successive generations of sons of the Lord of the Manor. This chain ended in 1958 upon the death of Colonel John Frederic Lonsdale Formby whose sons had both died during the Second World War. The estate was inherited by an Australian nephew but then fell into disrepair. In the 1970s, John Moores Junior leased the hall and the lands and used it as a home to house children from the crowded areas of inner city Liverpool. In the 1980s the hall was once again disused and fell into dereliction.
It was during this period (or earlier) that the house acquired the paintings on the walls that became part of local folklore, most notably the large, striking painting of a woman's face above a fireplace on the house's west side. Executed in household paint, the face was reputed to be the centre of strange phenomena. The painting was removed or destroyed during the early part of the renovations in 1990.
After this, Richard Irving acquired the whole Formby estate. At that time it was a run down collection of derelict buildings and overgrown land. After two years of being frustrated by the local planners, he sold the Hall to another local businessman, who bought it as ‘site as seen’ without even conducting a survey and has since restored the hall to its former glory. The remaining land was sold to other local businessmen who developed a golf course.
Formby Beach is the location of the first lifeboat station in the UK. It is believed to have been established as early as 1776 by William Hutchinson, the Dock Master for the Liverpool Common Council. Although no exact record has been found, the boat used is believed to have been a 'Mersey Gig'. The last launch from the station took place in 1916. Remarkably, a film of this event survived. The foundations of the last of the lifeboat station buildings remain on the beach to this day. In 2016, the newly opened Wetherspoons pub in the town was named 'The Lifeboat' in honour of the original lifeboat station.
Formby is home to RAF Woodvale, a small RAF station on the outskirts of the town. The airfield opened in 1941 and is a former Second World War fighter station with three active runways, the main runway being a mile in length. Today it is used by RAF for light aircraft and fighter training, as well as a few civilian aircraft. The station was also home to Merseyside Police's helicopter, known as 'Mike One'. The RAF station was also home to the last ever operational service of the British legend, the Supermarine Spitfire. In 1957 the last Spitfire to fly with British military markings took off from RAF Woodvale on an operational mission. Woodvale is also home to the Woodvale Rally, one of the biggest shows on an active MOD station in the North West.
Holy Trinity Church is believed to be the only church in the country which holds a special service in which seasonal greenery collected by the menfolk of the parish and then twined into wreaths by the ladies is lifted into place as part of a service of worship in the run-up to Christmas.
Formby has a significant tourist industry, most notably between the warmer months of May and September. In particular, it is popular with day trippers from Liverpool and other industrial towns in Merseyside and West Lancashire. There are two main spots along the Formby Coast which are particularly popular with the public.
The Lifeboat Road site is about 1½ miles from the town centre; there are three linked unpaved car parks with several routes cascading out into the sand dunes and woods. The car parks are about 900 yards from the beach.
Victoria Road is north of Lifeboat Road and is busier due to the red squirrel reserve being located here, as well as it being the starting point for the asparagus trail. The reserve begins at the junction of Larkhill Lane and Victoria Road. There is a charge to park from this point onwards. Parking is available adjacent to the reserve and at the end of the road there is a large unpaved car park for easier beach access. The beach is located approximately 100 yards from the car park.
There is a privately run caravan park called Formby Point Caravan Park on Lifeboat Road, open between March and October. There are around 300 caravans on the park and 20 plots for touring caravans. There is a phone box, public toilet and a play area on site and, until 1995, there was a small convenience store. Additionally, there is a smaller caravan site called Freshfield Caravan Park.
As one of the fastest changing coastlines that National Trust cares for, Formby featured as a case study in both the original and 2015 Shifting Shores report. The sand dunes here are in constant motion as they roll back inland naturally at a rate of 4 metres a year. This motion gives us some of the best mobile sand dune habitat in the UK and creates homes for some very rare wildlife including Natterjack Toads, Sand Lizards and Northern Dune Tiger Beetles. It also produces a steep sided sand wall that acts as an excellent natural sea defence for the residential area of Formby. However, the movement can create complications too as paths, car parks and other features inland become buried as the sand dunes roll back.
* Wildlife *
The Sefton Coast has for very many years been of great interests to those interested in natural history. There are few places in Britain which can show such extensive areas of natural sand dunes and sand dune succession. This makes for a very specialized area and with it comes highly adapted plants and animals.
The world of butterflies is available to all who walk the Sefton Coast with their eyes open. Over the spring and summer months in most years twenty different species of butterflies can be seen out of the sixty six or so which are seen as British. With a little luck a further three occur here.
Moths in general are thought to be night fliers but in fact well over 200 of the 1,050 species recorded on the coast are day flies. The Liverpool World Museum houses a very comprehensive collection of some 120,000 moths and over 97% of all known British species and a complete collection of all British butterflies. Literature in their Entomology Library and data on the specimens show clear evidence of records going back to the late 1800s of moths seen locally. Formby, over the years has had amongst its residents many eminent and nationally known entomologists.
Whilst it is true that most butterflies and some moths are seen flying in the summer months there are six butterflies can be seen now. Tortoiseshell Aglais urticae, Peacock Inachis io and Red Admiral Vanessa atalanta which have successfully hibernated and are now enjoying the spring sunshine. Brimstone Gonepteryx rhamni, Orange-tip Anthocharis cardamines, Comma Polygonia c-album and very soon the first generation of Holly Blue Celastrina argiolus will be joining them. Around thirty different species of moths are out now but most will not be seen during the daytime. A cursory look on the wall near a security light or against a lighted window may well be rewarding. The number seen will rise rapidly as summer approaches.
However a spectacular day flying moth may be seen at the moment along the length of the coast and also on the heather areas off Larkhill Lane and Freshfield Dune Heath. This is Emperor Sturnia pavonia, the female with a 80mm wingspan and the male, smaller, but usually seen flying strongly in the sunshine looking for a freshly emerged female. The eggs are laid on heather Calluna vulgaris or bramble Rubus fruticosus on which the larvae will feed during the summer months before spinning a cocoon in which the pupae overwinters to create the next generation.
Formby is most famous for its Red Squirrels but did you know that it is also home to animals that are even more rare? These beautiful and elusive creatures make their homes in the fragile mobile dune habitats of the Sefton coast where their presence has helped the area to gain both UK and international conservation designations.
All of these animals are heavily protected and it is an offence to pick up, disturb, harm or kill either the animals themselves or their eggs, or to disturb or destroy their breeding or resting places.
However, perhaps the most devastating impact that Grey Squirrels have had is the introduction of the Squirrel Pox virus. Grey Squirrels appear to have a natural immunity to this disease but they can be carriers. If infected Grey Squirrels live alongside Red Squirrels then the disease can be passed between the species. Once in the Red Squirrel population this disease can have a catastrophic effect with an almost 100% mortality rate in the infected animals.
National Trust works with a number of partners as part of the Merseyside Red Squirrel Project in order to conserve this much loved species within the local area. Lancashire Wildlife Trust are the co-ordinators of this project. Their staff and volunteers undertake a wide variety of work including Spring and Autumn monitoring, Grey Squirrel control and engaging with the public and local community to spread the word about Red Squirrel conservation. For more information about Lancashire Wildlife Trust’s work for Red Squirrel conservation click here.
* Asparagus *
The British have enjoyed eating Asparagus since Roman times. Before the Second World War, it was an important crop in the Formby area. Local growers used the port of Liverpool to export their crop around the world by ship. It is rumoured that the culinary delicacy was served to passengers in First Class on the doomed transatlantic liner, “Titanic”.
At the same time, the train line was solving the growing problem of what to do with Liverpool’s mountain of human excrement. Inspector of Nuisances, the aptly-named Thomas Fresh, was enterprisingly arranging for the waste problem to be relocated - sent out to Formby and Freshfield on the train. Here, local farmers were making good use of the readily available, cheap fertiliser! The asparagus crop grew well on its diet of Liverpool ‘night soil’ and from Liverpool, Formby asparagus was shipped daily by train to London’s Covent Garden and around the world by liner. Indeed, it is said that the doomed First Class passengers on the “Titanic” dined on Formby asparagus before the luxury Atlantic liner fatefully hit the iceberg on her maiden voyage.
* Asparagus Walk *
Discover how this one crop helped to shape the Formby you see today. The walk is short and achievable for most people so get out and enjoy it! Classified as easy and dog friendly, the walk should take about an hour and a half. It is 2.8 miles (4.4 kilometres) long.
Asparagus cultivation has left its mark on the landscape of Formby which can still be seen today. The areas of flat land and fields that you see throughout this site aren't natural but are areas where the land has been levelled in the past for the growing of asparagus. Since the end of asparagus farming in the 1990s these fields have been left to grass over, however the remnants of the cultivation fields can still be seen today as ridges and furrows.
The field adjacent to Larkhill fields is part of Larkhill Farm which is one of the few places where asparagus is still grown in Formby. The sandy soil and climate of this area are ideal for growing asparagus as it needs well-drained soils and open sunny fields. It is a high-maintenance crop that needs regular weeding and very careful harvesting, tasks which are still carried out by hand today as they would have been a century ago.
In the months of May and early June, you may like to make a short detour along the track to the right to buy a bunch of Formby asparagus from the Brooks family at Larkhill Farm. The Brooks family have grown asparagus in Formby for a number of generations and work hard to keep the tradition of Formby asparagus alive. Some of the asparagus for sale from Larkhill Farm is grown on our land. To return to the walk retrace your steps to the gate at the end of point 6 and continue from point 7.
During the summer months there are a number of fields here that are home to a small flock of Hebridean and Herdwick sheep. The sheep graze these areas for conservation purposes by closely grazing the faster-growing grasses to allow a variety of wildflowers to flourish.
* Shipwrecks at Formby Point *
Shipwrecks off the coast at Formby Point tell moving stories about the area's maritime history. National Trust volunteer, Dom Delacroix, joins Sefton Coast ranger John Dempsey to learn about this history and shares his experience here.
'It was with trepidation that our noble band of volunteers gathered at Lifeboat Rd and met with our be-barnacled master of ceremonies for our shipwreck walk and the oracle of all things maritime and sunken, John Dempsey.
The conditions were clear and still and as we made our way across the rippled, rigid sands for a 1 kilometre walk towards the wreck of the Ionic Star we were informed that although, super-saturated sinking sand is not a possibility on this part of the Sefton Coast, the incoming tide and its’ accompanying eddies and gullies were still treacherous and the correct timing for visiting the wrecks was of paramount importance and wellington boots an essential accoutrement.
The Ionic Star is a skeletal series of rusty and blackened outcrops, a memory in rusting metal of a time when she followed the trade routes across the equator and down to South America. She is by far the most complete of the wrecks visible from the coast. The ship was calling into Liverpool with a refrigerated cargo of meat, cotton and fruit when she ran aground in 1939. This error may have been in part due to the fact that all navigation lights were turned off due to the advent of WW2 making things considerably more difficult for the errant captain and crew.
Her Blue Star Line sister ship, the Doric Star, was sunk by the German Battleship the Graf Spee only a few weeks later. The Ionic Star was partly salvaged for scrap, despite the narrow window of access due to the changing tides, after she went down on the edge of the infamous Mad Wharf sandbank in October 1939. The remnants were then used as target practice by the RAF and what remains is brittle and melancholic, an eerie and forlorn memory of a former era clinging to the shifting sands.
Not far from the remains of the Ionic Star is a lump of metal and a line of wooden spars that is all that remains of the Bradda, which came to grief in 1936, claiming the lives of all but one of her crew. The Bradda was taking a shipment of coal to Ireland in bad weather when she ran aground shortly after leaving Liverpool. The crew from the Isle of Man, under Captain Cregeen, put up flares and lit rags soaked in paraffin in a bid to attract other shipping to their plight, but the ship had been washed over the navigation channel wall. When she listed, the crew were washed into the sea. Samuel Ball was the sole survivor. The tragic loss of life makes the remains of the Bradda a poignant place on the Sefton Coast. Her engine block and spars are reclaimed by the tides every day- a reminder of how fierce and unforgiving the sea can be, even in the shallow waters of Liverpool Bay.
The sun was setting and the tide was turning and it was time return to dry land whist it was still safe to do so and it only remained to thank John Dempsey for his informative enthusiasm and log the tales we had heard in our memories to pass on to other volunteers and visitors the stories of the Sefton Coast ship wrecks.
** Visiting **
Information boards are located on Victoria Road, opposite the toilets.
Location : Victoria Road, near Formby, Liverpool, L37 1LJ
Transport: Freshfield (National Rail) then 1 mile. Bus routes 525, 526 and 527 from Bolton Town Centre stop nearby.
Opening Times: Dawn till Dusk
Tickets : Beaches Free; Victoria Road Car Park £6.50
Tel: 01704 878591