If you’re not lucky enough to live by the sea, I can imagine that you’d want to save your precious days off to visiting a coastal destination during the warmer summer months.
But why should the summer months claim all our visits? On a beautifully bright winters day the coast can be at its most alluring with fabulous light conditions and empty beaches. You’ll often have a coastal path all to yourself, something I’m a great advocate of.
So, back in January, a suitable Sunday dawned bright and cheerful. The hubby and I decided to head up to Southport on the Lancashire/Merseyside coast to do a walk down through the Birkdale Hills Nature Reserve along the Sefton Coastal Path to Ainsdale Sands.
We parked up at the Southport Park and Ride next to Victoria Park where the town holds its popular flower show and started our walk by wandering through the park. This proved somewhat muddy as Britain had just battled a rather wet period of weather, so amongst the puddle (or should I say mini lake) dodging, don’t miss the cute tree art on display.
On emerging from the park, join the coast road for the next mile. Unfortunately this section of the route is not the most inspiring as the sand dunes block any view of the sea and you only have road noise for company. However, once the line of houses on the left ends, the sign for Ainsdale and Birkdale Sandhills greets you on the corner.
Turn left on the footpath that leads up the side of the nature reserve and golf course, then take the path on the right that leads between the Royal Birkdale Golf Club and Hillside School. You’ll eventually join the road that leads to the golf club, so follow the path towards the club house on the right and into the sand dunes beyond. From here, there’s no hard or fast path. Despite the presence of occasional route markers which suggests you’re nicely on a route, you then find yourself grinding to a halt, either due to flooded land or thick scrub. The path just disappears.
You could easily get stressed wondering if you’re ever going to find the ‘right’ way, but this “getting lost” is all part of the fun and as long as you generally keep to a south-westerly heading, at some point you’ll emerge at the coast road once again. Just keep weaving your way through.
I lost track of the number of times we were halted in our tracks by flooded areas and had to retrace our steps, but eventually a gate was spotted in the distance and the road came into view, cars flashing past.
As we passed through the gate I couldn’t contain a wry grin at the footpath sign pointing back the way we’d come, commenting: “Path? Really?”
Cross the road carefully as cars speed along this stretch of road and plunge into the tall sand dunes. If you’ve never walked among sand dunes, scramble to the top of the nearest high one and pause to take in the scene while marvelling at the extent of the dune network. It’s a completely different landscape to my usual walks so this one will continue to stick in my mind for a long time.
Head across the dunes, keeping bent knees as you slip and slide down the sand. It’s great fun but you want to minimise the possibility of sprained ankles.
Eventually you’ll reach Ainsdale Sands: a great expanse of beach where you need to turn left and walk at beach level till you reach the car entrance onto the beach. In summer, this is one of the few beaches dotted around our coast where you can bring cars onto the sand. As a child I found these kind of beach trips most memorable as everything is right there – you’re set up for the day with no need to traipse off the beach at regular intervals for provisions from the car.
On this occasion, Ainsdale Sands was looking quite messy with lots of debris and litter deposited everywhere which was a shame to see. Much of this was likely attributable to the tide and its recently receding stormy waters.
After you’ve soaked up enough of the sea, make your way up the road to the coast road where you’ll find The Sands pub at the roundabout. This makes a great refreshment stop especially as all the tourist attractions and amenities next to the beach are shut in the winter. Take note of the plane sculpture in the middle of the roundabout. The sculpture shows a Lockheed Electra twin engine plane flying above a New York landscape. Installed in 2010, its purpose is to commemorate the transatlantic flight made from Ainsdale beach to New York in 1937 and highlight the impact that these flights had on the aviation industry and society.
You can lengthen your walk as much as you’d like at this juncture continuing on down to Formby through the Ainsdale hills, sand dunes nature reserve and the pinewood forests which are home to the Red Squirrel, the Natterjack Toad, the Sand Lizard and the Great Crested Newt. Or you can decide on a route back up to Southport perhaps walking along the beach. But for us as daylight was waning, we walked inland for ¾ mile to Ainsdale railway station and hopped on a train back to Southport for a bite to eat and a rather hasty walk back to the Park and Ride as the heavens threatened to open (and they did!)
This is a great walk for a winter’s afternoon: at 5.5 miles it’s not too strenuous, with fresh sea air in abundance and options to extend to a full day’s walking if time and inclination allow.
I recommend using OS Explorer map 285 which covers Southport and Chorley plus Wigan, Formby and Ormskirk and allow plenty of time to get lost in the sand dunes.
Have you walked this area of the Lancashire / Merseyside coast before and if so, what did you think?
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