Winter 1999

The Sands of Time

Article by Andrew Brockbank and John Houston

The time span of a millennium is quite appropriate for a coast such as the Sefton Coast. Ours is not the hard cliff coastline of, for example, much of Scotland but we know now that our coastline has a history going back several thousand years to the end of the last ice-age. In geological terms this is the Holocene period and the earliest signs of activity are the Mesolithic (middle stone-age) and Neolithic (later stone-age) finds of trackways, footprints and plant remains in the silts and peats along our shore. Later the coasts of northwest England and Ireland were settled by Danish and Norwegian Viking people who would probably have introduced livestock grazing to the sandhills. The history of the Sefton Coast is fascinating, the more so by the wealth of documentary evidence and artefacts, especially in the more recent period.


The remains of submerged ancient forests on the Sefton Coast has been known for centuries. More recently geomorphologists studying the silts and peats on the shore also came across the hoof prints of animals but the real significance of these finds was not apparent until Gordon Roberts began looking into the subject in the late 1980s. There is now considerable national interest in the footprints of the Formby shore. Recently a set of antlers from a Red Deer were found on Formby beach. Sue Stallibrass and Gordon Roberts take up the story.

"On the 14th July 1999, National Trust volunteer Gordon Roberts led an evening Prehistoric Safari along the Formby Foreshore. Whilst the group was examining red deer and wild cattle footprints that had been preserved in an exposure of ancient, sun-hardened mud, one of the group (Miss Fin Mann of Edgehill College) noticed what appeared to be a small fragment of bone eroding out of the sediment. It was soon clear that the fragment was much larger than it had first appeared, and more time would be needed to retrieve it. The next morning, Pat and Gordon Roberts and National Trust volunteer Philip Sexton returned to excavate the bone' and record its position in detail.

It proved to be a complete set of large red deer antlers, still attached to part of the animals skull. Almost 80cm long from base to tip, with eight tines each, the antlers belonged to an adult male who died in his prime during the autumn rutting season. The antlers are in excellent condition and appear to have become buried in the sediment very shortly after the animal died. Dr. Sue Stallibrass of English Heritage/Liverpool University has sent a small fragment of skull bone to the Oxford radiocarbon laboratory to obtain a date. This will not only tell us when the stag died, but will also help to date more closely the muddy deposits it was found in.

These deposits, with their footprints of people, deer, cattle, birds and dogs (or wolves!) were laid down in the lee of an offshore sandbar somewhere between 3,500 and 6,500 years ago.

Formby's Viking Origins?

Early settlement on the dunes may have been seasonal or temporary, but evidence from other parts of the Merseyside coastline, has revealed sophisticated settlement and trading links within an Irish Sea Province. Finds of Roman and Viking age from the shoreline at Meols on the Wirral suggest significant trade whilst stone-cross fragments, 'by' place names and entries in Irish annals tell of Norse-Irish and Danish immigration, settlement and craftsmanship on our coastline - most evident in the early 10th century. On the banks of the Ribble near Cuerdale Hall, a massive hoard of Viking silver, discovered by workmen in the 19th century, is amongst the most remarkable such finds in Europe.

Many place-names on the Sefton Coast date from this time, including Birkdale, Ainsdale, Formby, Ravenmeols, Altcar and Crosby. Formby was perhaps once Fornbei, meaning either 'Forni's town' or 'old town', while Meols means sandhills. It seems very likely that Vikings were the first people to settle on this coast in any numbers. They presumably lived by fishing, bird-catching, livestock grazing and cultivation.

As we navigate a new millennium, will the secrets of Forni's farmstead remain but a folk memory? Or could the same archaeological finds that excited Victorian antiquarians on the eroding foreshore at Meols (Wirral) in the 19th century, reveal new meaning to observers in the 21st century seeking truths about Formby's foundation(s).

Recorded History

In the Middle Ages, there were settlements at Ainsdale, Argameols, Ravenmeols and Morehouses (Hightown) but Argameols had disappeared by 1503, probably washed away by the sea during a period of deteriorating climate. This sort of catastrophe was commonplace on such an exposed coast and there are written accounts of terrible storms affecting the region in the early 18th Century. Steps were already being taken to prevent the sandhills blowing inland. In the 1630s 'Hawslookers' were appointed by the Manors of Ainsdale and Birkdale. Their job was to keep an eye on the dunes and to bring before the courts anyone taking Starr (Marram) Grass which was used for making mats, baskets and brooms and for repairing thatched roofs.

Farmed rabbit warrens were certainly in use from the late 16th Century. In 1667, there is a record of the two Lords of the Manor, Henry Blundell and Robert Formby, establishing warrens at Formby and setting the boundary between them at Wicks Lane.

Early built development along the sand-dune coast was often associated with shipping. It seems there were small ports or landing places with quays at Formby and Altcar in the 17th Century. Formby Lighthouse was built in 1719 to guide ships entering the Mersey. The danger to sailing ships of a 'lee shore' a shore facing the prevailing wind) led to the building of Britain's first Lifeboat Station in the dunes at Formby Point, probably in 1775; it was already in existence by 1776.

With the coming of the railway in 1848, Southport soon grew to be a fashionable resort, the pier being constructed only twelve years later. This success led to the establishment of the Formby Land and Building Company in 1875, with the aim of setting up a rival resort. Albert and Alexandra Roads were driven through to the beach, their ends being joined up with a double tiered promenade of brick and concrete. Perhaps fortunately for the future of this part of the dune system, the Company failed and was wound up in 1902. All but two of the houses have since been demolished and the remains of the promenade, now mostly buried in sand can still be seen.

Further reading.

Good reference books on the history of the Sefton Coast include.
Bailey, FA. 1992. A History of Southport. Cromwell Press.
Cook, A.L.M. 1989. Altcar. The Story of a Rifle Range. TAVR Association for the North West of England and Isle of Man.
Harrop, S.A. 1985. Old Birkdale and Ainsdale Life on the South West
Lancashire Coast 1600-1851. The Birkdale & Ainsdale Historical Research Society, Southport.
Kelly, E. 1982. Viking Village: The Story of Formby. E. Kelly, Formby.