Winter 1997

The lost world of Formby Point

Article by Gordon Roberts

As a result of erosion, the present coastline around Formby Point coincides with the shoreline during the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age. The environment was then, of course, totally different. There were no high dunes or pinewoods. Where the township of Formby now stands there was fenland with hazel, oak, alder and birch trees. A shoreline of low, grass-clad dunes was perforated by tidal creeks and the Alt entered the sea just to the south of Lifeboat Road and not at Hightown as it does now. The point itself was fringed with salt marshes.

Visitors today walking along the foreshore may notice patchy exposures of mud, revealed - and subsequently destroyed - by the tides and longshore currents. Some have though they were oil slicks! They are in fact, Holocene, marine sediments, deposited in the lea of an offshore sandbar onto a gently shelving beach some four to three and a half thousand years ago. A closer look will reveal that they are laminated and that within some strata the footprints of the animals, birds and humans frequenting the coast at that time have been preserved, their tracks baked hard by the sun of four thousand years ago.

There are the hoofprints of red deer, roe deer, unshod horse and, especially, those of the aurochs, the wild precursor of domestic cattle. (The auroch was hunted into extinction in Britain by the end of the Bronze Age. However, we know from skeletal remains and from later European literary accounts that it had been an awe-inspiring animal. A fully-grown bull could stand six feet high to the shoulder blade and was eleven feet from the muzzle to the rump. Despite its size it was fast and ferocious. Yet, from the huge imprints it made in the Formby mud, we can nevertheless see that it walked as neatly as a red deer). There are also the tracks of 'canidea' (dog/wolf) wild boar and sheep/goat. Among the wading birds, the footprints of the oystercatcher are the most numerous and those of the crane the most impressive.

But, perhaps, the ephemeral human footprint imprints are those that evoke the 'tingle factor'. Before their destruction one hundred and fifty four trails have been recorded to date. From the length of the foot and its shape and by measuring the pace and stride one can estimate a person's height and gender and the speed at which he/she was moving across the (then) soft mudflats. From their association with red and roe deer tracks, the males would seem sometimes to have been involved with hunting or some form of animal management. At other times, where the footprints led out to or back from the sea, they may have been fishing. The females, often accompanied by children, would appear to have been 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!

Photographs and plaster casts sometimes provide evidence of abnormalities and foot deformities : of a man, crippled with arthritis, or of another who had only four toes on one foot and whose metatarsals had completely collapsed. And there was the trail of an adolescent girl with congenital bursitis, from her gait, seemingly pregnant, her feet arched and toes curled under as she struggled to keep her balance and grip, slowly making her way across the slippery mud.

But we ought, perhaps, to put Formby at that time into a wider, historical context. This was also the world of Stonehenge, of the Pyramids, of Ur and Babylon, of Knossos and Minoa, of the Shang Dynasty and of the great Indus Civilisation. Life among the hunter-gatherers of Formby Point had not really changed much since the end of the Ice Age, some five thousand years previously. And that world, too, was coming to and end. Rising sea levels would eventually overwhelm the offshore sandbar, the mudflats and the fenland. The coastline would change and change again. For a moment, though, present-day erosion and rising sea levels permit us one last glimpse of this Lost World before it disappears for ever.

The best way to see the footprints is to attend one of the guided walks offered by the National Trust - click here to view their guided walks programme.