Stretching for just over 20 kilometres (about 12 miles) along the coast of northwest England and linking the two seaside towns of Crosby and Southport, this footpath is a great way to escape the bustle of nearby Liverpool and to get some fresh air and exercise while getting up close to some rare flora and fauna, ancient remains and a lot of sand.
The Sefton Coastal Footpath was developed by Sefton Council for a number of reasons:
The footpath was designed to link a number of already existing paths that ran along short sections of the Sefton coast close to towns and villages. By linking these paths people were able to explore the sections in between.
The Sefton coastline is home to a number of rare species, such as the Natterjack Toad and native red squirrels, and contains the most extensive and developed dune system in England. As a result, large sections are designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest, EU Special Protection Areas and Special Areas of Conservation. The footpath passes through them all, as well as a variety of Local Nature Reserves and English Nature and National Trust properties.
The footpath has become part of a project to build a footpath along the entire Northwest coast and also shares its final stage with the Trans-Pennine Trail1.
Where am I going?
Starting in Crosby Marine Park at the bottom of South Road in Waterloo, the path heads straight for the beach, running between Crosby Marina and a smaller lake2 and crosses a narrow section of sand dunes. From this point you can choose to walk along either the beach or the promenade for about 4km, until you reach Hall Road Coastguard Station.
After the Coastguard station, the path comes off the beach and runs alongside Hightown Dunes. Here the footpath becomes slightly difficult to follow as a number of paths cross the dunes at a variety of points, but the proper route of the Coastal Footpath is marked by posts with a yellow badge and a picture of a toad on them. After another 4km, the footpath reaches Hightown Sailing Club and turns inland to avoid the Altcar Rifle Range, which uses the next few miles of coast as a firing range. Instead of more sea views and sand, the footpath is sandwiched between the Altcar base and a railway until the footbridge across the River Alt, when the footpath runs between the Altcar base and a number of farmers' fields. After about 6km you enter Ravenmeols Local Nature Reserve and a number of exciting things happen: you reach the first in an unbroken series of reserves that stretch all the way to Ainsdale; you enter the woods, which can be a pleasant change as the path is quite exposed up to this point and you start to head back towards the beach, via Saint Luke's Church Road and Ravenmeols Lane.
At the bottom of Ravenmeols Lane, which becomes Lifeboat Road, you are presented with a choice: either head over the big dune in front of you, getting onto the beach immediately, or go right into Formby Point Nature Reserve and use the boardwalks to cross the dunes, which is much easier on the legs and lungs. Once on the beach, the footpath heads north towards Ainsdale and some truly impressive sand dunes and there are a number of paths which cross the dunes and head into the woods, if you fancy a change from sand.
About 6km from Formby Point the footpath reaches Ainsdale-on-Sea and a Pontins resort. Here the path heads away from the beach once more, crossing the Coastal Road3 and entering the final Nature Reserve, Ainsdale Hills, which consists of mature dunes and dune slacks. Emerging onto Falklands Way, the footpath goes alongside the Coastal Road for a short while before getting back onto the beach for the final few kilometres to Southport Promenade.
20 kilometres is a long way to walk in one go, even for the fittest of people, and so the Sefton Coastal Footpath is easily broken down into shorter sections or incorporated into circular walks. One of the biggest bonuses of the footpath is the good transport links nearby with regular bus and rail services. All the towns along the footpath have stations on Merseyrail's Northern Line, which runs between Liverpool and Southport. All the stations are within a couple of miles of the beach and served by trains at least every half-hour in either direction. A few suggested walks are:
South Road to Hall Road
This walk starts at the bottom of South Road and follows the footpath until the Lifeboat Station at Hall Road and is good for those with buggies or prams because of the option of walking along the Promenade. This walk is particularly recommended at high tide during stormy weather, as the waves break spectacularly on the sea wall. Both ends of the walk have car parks and nearby train stations.
Formby Station to Freshfield Station
Starting from the top of Formby Bridge, walk down Kirklake Road until you reach St Luke's Church Road. Passing through the gate and entering the pine woods, you will notice that there are a number of different paths to take. All of these paths eventually get to the footpath on the beach, either by passing by the ranger station and the car park, or by crossing the dune heath and the dunes. Once on the beach you walk to the north until you come to the beach marker with 'Victoria Road' written on it. Going back across the dunes, you pass through a National Trust property until the edge of the woods. From here it is a short walk up Victoria Road to Freshfield station. Both stations have large, free car parks.
Freshfield Circular Walk
Starting from the ticket office of Freshfield Station, turn left and head down Montagu Road, following the signs for 'Fisherman's Path'. After about a kilometre, you come to a level crossing over the railway and a path that cuts across Formby Golf Course. Beyond the gate marking the entrance to the Local Nature Reserve, take the path that goes straight ahead through the woods, across the dunes and to the beach. The dunes here are some of the highest on the Sefton coast and crossing them can be a bit strenuous. Once on the beach, head south, turn inland at the beach marker for Victoria Road and go back to the station as described above.
So why should you walk the Sefton Coastal Footpath? Well if the allure of more sand than you can shake a stick at isn't enough, here are some other attractions along the way:
Waterloo to Hall Road
Crosby Marine Park, where the footpath begins, can occupy a few hours itself. The park is backed by five gardens, each with a slightly different theme and plants for different seasons. Inside there is a large adventure playground with a zip line swing and other rides for kids and teenagers and a number of large fields for playing football and frisbee or just running around. Finally, the park contains Crosby Marina and a smaller boating lake. Boats can be hired to take out on the Marina, or you could just watch the various powerboaters, yachters and windsurfers. It is inadvisable to swim in the lakes, as a number of people have been seriously hurt on the rubbish and debris on the bottom of them.
During 2005, Crosby's seafront was the setting for one of Antony Gormley's works of art, Another Place, which consists of 100 cast-iron mouldings of his body dotted along the seafront, all looking out to sea and becoming submerged when the tide comes in. Gormley, who was also responsible for the Angel of the North, has said that the sculptures are supposed to be looking out reminding people of left homes, distant homelands and the sadness and loss involved in emigration.
Crosby Leisure Centre is the newest landmark on this stretch of coast and resembles a giant seashell set just back from the beach. As well as having impressive architecture and containing a large swimming pool, the leisure centre is a handy landmark, as it is about halfway between Waterloo and Hall Road.
Hall Road to St Luke's Church Road
There is relatively little to see on this stretch of the footpath, though it is the only area without a large sandy beach and can give some great views in stormy weather.
However, a small area of Petrified Forest can be seen near Hightown Sailing Club at very low tides. It is a relic from thousands of years ago when the coastline was a few kilometres to the west and the whole Sefton coast was grassland with a few copses of hardy trees.
At the very end of this section, Ravenmeols Local Nature Reserve stretches between the Altcar base and the much larger English Nature Reserve at Formby Point. Less developed and much quieter than its neighbour, the Ravenmeols reserve consists mainly of small sand hills and a strip of woods. Recently, attempts have been made to improve the woods' red squirrel population, expanding the relatively small colony of this endangered species. Ravenmeols is an excellent place to escape the crowds on hot sunny days and still experience the Sefton coastline at its best.
St Luke's Church Road to Ainsdale-on-Sea
On the corner of Ravenmeols Lane and St Luke's Church Road, Saint Luke's Church is one of the oldest buildings on the footpath, built in 1855 on the site of a much older chapel. Its position, surrounded by dense woods, is dramatic, and the small graveyard contains a number of relics, most notably a font found to have been built in the 12th Century.
Formby Point Nature Reserve is the largest nature reserve on the coast and Sefton Council's flagship conservation project. The reserve stretches between Ravenmeols Lane on the edge of Formby to Blundell Avenue in Freshfield and is up to two miles wide. The reserve can be split into three distinct zones: pine woods, dune heath and slack (and the sand dunes themselves). It is crossed by a large number of paths and boardwalks. There is a large car park in the centre of the reserve, with a Coastal Ranger station and a large pond near the northern edge of the dune heath area. Due to its size and accessibility, Formby Point can become somewhat crowded on summer days, but there are usually secluded areas for those seeking some tranquillity.
Occupying a narrow stretch of pine woods and dunes, the National Trust reserve in Freshfield lies between the Formby Point reserve and Formby Golf Course and is confusingly also called Formby Point4. It is here that the pine woods are at their widest and most impressive, and there are a variety of well-marked paths through the woods, including a squirrel walk, which is very popular with families and recommended on an autumn evening when the red squirrels are most active. There is also a beautiful sculpture trail. In the sand dunes at the end of Victoria Road, there are a number of boardwalks and observation points that give excellent views of much of the Sefton coastline and the nearby Wirral peninsula.
Ainsdale-on-Sea to Southport Promenade
The last of the nature reserves on the coast, Ainsdale Hills Local Nature Reserve, is very different to the other reserves mentioned. Firstly, it has no pine woods or beach. Instead, it contains dune slacks and older dunes and is less spectacular than its neighbours. It is also undeveloped: paths are marked and maintained, but that's it. There are no boardwalks and very few information boards and is quite inaccessible for those with mobility problems or buggies and prams. As a result, the reserve is very quiet, one of its biggest attractions. The other major attraction is that most mature dune systems further down the coast have been built upon or farmed so it gives a look into an ecosystem not really present in the more popular reserves.
Southport Promenade has a number of attractions, including Pleasureland, a theme park with some decent rollercoasters, and Southport Pier, the second longest pleasure pier in the country, reaching out over a mile across the astonishingly wide Southport beach5.
Sand Dunes and Pine Woods
From the Ravenmeols LNR to Ainsdale, the coast is dominated by these two features. They are perhaps the most attractive features of the coastline, as well as the biggest attractions, since all of the nature reserves are based around them.
The sand dunes vary significantly along the coast: between Hall Road and Ravenmeols they are relatively small, anchored by grass and quite narrow; after Ravenmeols they get steadily bigger, reaching up to 10 to 15 metres high and a kilometre wide near Ainsdale. While most people seem to prefer struggling up the larger dunes and then sliding down them, it is in the smaller dunes that much of the rarer flora and fauna are found. Though historically stable, the dunes are capable of moving quite dramatically, especially after large storms, and some of the nicest houses in the region can find their lawns covered in sand. Beyond the initial ridges by the sea the sand dunes form part of a complex system that extends for several kilometres behind the coastline.
Unlike the sand dunes, which have been around for thousands of years, the pine woods are a recent development, with most of the trees planted in the middle of the 19th century to protect both homes and farms from sand and the stormy weather that sometimes comes off the Irish Sea. For a brief period during 2004 the woods also became site of a more unusual attraction when Coleen McLoughlin discarded her £25,000 engagement ring in the woods as a result of her footballer fiance Wayne Rooney's indiscretions. People swarmed to the woods hoping to find the ring, prompting both Sefton Council and the National Trust to ban the treasure seekers as they were disturbing the squirrels.
Flora and Fauna
There are a number of rare plants and animals that make their homes in the Sefton woods and dunes. The two most famous animal species are the natterjack toad and the red squirrel. The toad, which is used as an emblem on waymarkers for the Coastal Footpath, is only found in the UK in the dunes of Formby Point and small sections of the Norfolk, Lincolnshire and Dumfries coastlines. The native red squirrel has become endangered in the UK because of competition from the larger and more aggressive invader grey squirrel. Another notable animal is the sand lizard, which was once common in the UK, but has become endangered because of the destruction of its natural habitat.
A large number of plants found on the Sefton coast, such as the dune helleborine and a number of hybrid willows, are rare or endangered in the UK and a full list of species can be found at the Sefton coast website.
The weather can be one of the biggest draws to various parts of the footpath. Almost all sections are good in some weather, meaning the different parts of the footpath can be pleasant at different times of the year. In warm and sunny weather, the beaches and sand dunes are great places to be and especially good for those with younger children. During autumn the woods become alive with colour as the deciduous trees shed their leaves, while in winter they become moody and atmospheric. Since red squirrels don't hibernate, they can be found dashing about even on the coldest of days. The evergreen canopy of pine trees will protect walkers from the worst of the wind and rain and it can feel like the whole woods are yours alone. During stormy weather it can be exhilarating to be on the more exposed sections, witnessing the fury of the weather pounding the coastal defences6, so look out for depressions, put on your waterproofs and prepare to get wet.