On a cold, very windy day, at the beginning of February, I make the relatively short journey from Southport Pier to the strangely named village of Banks, and learn a little more about birds.
I drive to the village of Banks, park up on the road near the bus stop, and wait for the bus to come. Even though I’ve booked a day off work today, I decided to join a meeting by Skype for one particular project I’m on, because I really enjoy it, and the people on it are great. Some of the meeting attendees are mystified why my feed comes through with a background chorus of seagulls – I just tell them I’m waiting for a bus to Southport. They think that’s strange, but there’s a lot more strangeness to come.
I have to leave the meeting early since I’ve a bus to catch, and so I make the short way to the No 2 bus stop on the strangely named New Lane Pace – it’s a road, I have no idea where that name came from.
I get chatting to the only other person at this bus stop. He’s an old guy who works in the fields at the end of the road – “next to the Banks” he says. Right, I’m starting to understand. I know the end part of the walk today is along raised walkways between the farm fields and the salt marsh. These must be called “The Banks”, and that explains the name of the village. [Looking it up afterwards, my guess was right. The banks today are further out than they were in medieval times, to reclaim more agricultural land, and because the Ribble has receded from where it was. In 1719 there was a massive flood across this area when the banks broke. 47 houses were washed away, nine people drowned, and lots of cows and sheep were lost.]
I mention how nice the weather is here today, and that it was pissing down in Manchester this morning. He tells me it’s because it’s low tide. Come again?
“Eh?” I say, trying not to sound too confused. “The weather comes and goes with the tide” he says. Now, I’m no meteorologist, but this sounds a bit far fetched to me. Is this really possible? I start thinking about moisture off the sea, or temperature changes in the air caused by the water, or….. no I can’t think of anything else to cause a link.
“And the wind” he adds. “The wind comes in with the tide.” Now he’s pushing it. Then I pause to consider… this guy’s been working the fields in this strange corner of the world for as long as I’ve been alive (and that’s depressingly more than half a century), so what do I know? He must have noticed these patterns over decades. As he drifts off staring into the sky, I start humming the tune to Strange Days by The Doors to myself. Strange Days indeed.
The bus turns up a few minutes late. We get on – my new friend shuffles to the back of the bus, while I decide not to force myself upon him any longer and sit near the front. He probably thinks I’m pretty weird too – I told him I come from Cornwall and he gave me a very strange look. We have this Japanese friend who teaches my son, and she keeps telling us that the Japanese people are very strange. We think she’s very strange too, so who really are the strange ones? I guess strange is just different, and Japan and Britain are very different places. It seems that West Lancashire and Cornwall are very different places too, and we find each other strange…. strange days have found us, Strange days have tracked us down, They’re going to destroy…. by the time I’ve hummed my way through the song a couple of times we arrive at the relatively normal, and lovely, town of Southport. Here’s a picture of their quite spectacular war memorial.
Lots of seaside towns are quite run down these days, as flights to foreign seaside towns with guaranteed sunshine often turn out cheaper than rail tickets to places far closer. Southport has managed to maintain its class and dignity though. It is to Blackpool what Llandudno is to Rhyl. I can’t think of any more parallels because I’ve not visited that many seaside towns. Yet. Ask me again in five years, when I’ve visited them all! Anyway, I like Southport.
I make my way from the centre of town to the pier. I can’t be bothered to start the walk from the end of the pier – it’s a very long pier, and I did that at the end of the last walk. As I reach the sea wall the wind really hits me. It’s very strong today. It’s low tide in half an hour, so quite what will happen to the wind with the turn of the tide I dread to think. The twang of duelling banjos drifts through my mind, but I quickly dispel it.
The wind is so strong it has piled the sand up in drifts, like snow, along the promenade.
North of the pier, the beach gets muddier and muddier, with seagrasses becoming more and more prominent. My strange friend told me earlier that a guy sank in quicksand just yards from the pier recently, right up to his chest, and they had to pull him out – he couldn’t get out by himself. When he was telling me this back at the bus stop I was staring at him, probably with a discernible look of doubt in my face. Now when I look at the mud out to sea I can imagine a struggling figure, sinking deeper and deeper as he tries to fight the squelching, gulping aesophagus of the sand. He must have thought I was very strange.
Gradually as I walk north, the mud is replaced by grass, and it becomes firm enough for me to clamber down the sea wall onto what was once a beach, but is now a grassy marsh.
The track is dry and covered with shells. These shells must be quite old now. As the land has reclaimed the sea (the opposite of what is happening on the east coast) these reaches are only touched by the sea during violent storms. As I pass through the marram grass, in which the wind is making waves as if to mimic the far off sea, I come across an old tree bough, weathered by water and air and by the little worms that have made it their home.
I disturb a flock of geese, who take to the air before I notice they are there. They squawk in disgust at their interrupted afternoon doze, sounding just like the geese that live next to my flat in the Rochdale Canal in Manchester, but they look quite different. These are Pink Footed Geese apparently, although I’m much too far away to see the colour of their feet (I meet a guy later on who tells me what these geese are).
The path eventually ends, and becomes a pavement to the main Marine Drive. Either side of the raised road are the salt marshes, teeming with wildlife. In fact, at a nearby gate we’re reminded that we are second class citizens around here!
When I see a guy walking along the other side of the road, I realise there is a much nicer path that side, on grass. I damaged my left heel a few days back leaping down the stairwell of my apartment block (I may be 53 in my body but I’m still only 7 in my head). Walking on sand or grass, or even mud, is a lot more comfortable than tarmac at the moment, so I’m grateful for the change of surface.
I stop to chat with the guy, who initially gives me a strange kind of nod, and asks me “are you birding?” Is this some sort of West Lancashire initiation ritual – what does he mean by birding? I start to think about intriguing possibilities until my gaze drops down to his binoculars dangling from his neck. “Oh no” I blurt, “I don’t know anything about birds, I just like looking at them”.
Realising I’ve not only made a faux pas to this real “twitcher“, but extended the double entendre way past where I wanted to take it. I look down at my boots. I tell him that I have seen some geese. He doesn’t seem particularly excited about that, so I proudly tell him I saw an oyster catcher as well. In fact I saw that on my last walk, but I gamble that a little white lie here might restore my dignity somewhat. He’s less than impressed. Apparently they’re quite common. He tells me that there’s a long-billed something or other around here, and that is rare. I didn’t catch what he said, and was too embarrassed to ask him again, thinking I could look it up when I got home, but it turns out there are quite a few long-billed things around Britain’s coast. It might be quite rare, but since I didn’t see it I don’t suppose it matters that much.
Luckily I didn’t use the word “twitcher” out loud to him, which apparently they take exception to. I realise it might be a good idea to learn some more birds. Well, I know what an oyster catcher and a pink footed goose look like now, which is two more birds than I knew before I started this epic walk.
I take a couple of selfies, since that doesn’t require any great knowledge. Yes, it was cold.
I pass a few gorse bushes in flower. I love gorse, it smells so delightful in the summer, but this time of year the smell doesn’t seem as strong. It reminds me of those Lincoln biscuits you used to get. I think it’s probably coconut. I try to smell the flowers but get a gorse thorn up my nose, and move swiftly on.
Near the end of Marine Drive the road swings round to meet a huge sewage works. Luckily I had a tailwind for most of the walk, but as I pass it I get the full blast. I realise I should have turned off onto a footpath to my left a hundred metres back, but now have to take a slightly longer route over a busy roundabout and into a housing estate.
I pass the Crossens Pumping Station, which has a huge old diesel engine as a gate keeper. I like that. Much of the land around here is normally waterlogged, and I guess the pumps have to continually run to keep it as useful agricultural land.
I pass a huge boulder with a plaque embedded into it, explaining how it was transported here from Dumfries 18,000 years ago by the ice sheet which covered the whole of northern Britain. Rocks transported like this to places they wouldn’t normally be are called “erratics” apparently.
Behind the boulder is the start of the walk along the banks. This gradually arcs round to the right over a couple of miles, with the sea marshes on the left and the raised fields and drainage ditches on the left.
I’m joined along this section by at least three kestrels (at least I think that’s what they are), hovering just out of reach of my iPhone camera. Here is one of them, unfortunately little more that a dot.
I clamber down off the bank on the seaward side to look at one of the lovely looking pools a bit closer. I’m not sure whether these pools are man-made or natural – they seem a bit regular, like canals.
Just before the end of the walk, I come across a wonderful metal gate that sings in the wind…
I finally come to my turning off point – a route which takes me off the coastal path and back to my car, half a mile away. For some reason I feel especially tired after this walk, even though it was barely 7 miles. My foot is hurting, and I think I’ve been walking a bit strangely to compensate for that. Just one more strange thing for today.
This walk was completed on 4th Feb 2020. It was about 6.6 miles. Here’s the real-time recorded map of my actual route, which you can pan and zoom around…