Gareth Huw Davies

Travel / Travel Blog

The discrete charm of England’s Sefton Coast

Lord Street–shop in Victorian style

It’s summer, but it seems the British aren’t going to the seaside like they used to. An item on BBC Radio Five (August 12, 2015) extolled the virtues of the National Trust reserve at Formby, Lancashire, part of one of the largest areas of unspoilt dunes in Europe. The is safe haven for some of the few remaining red squirrels in England.

I visited its beach, and toured the adjacent coastline recently, staying at Southport. There are beavers, Britain’s noisiest toad, the best asparagus around, and Southport, North West England’s quieter alternative to Blackpool. One of the classic seaside resorts, it has a grand old pier in renewed Victorian pomp, a spacious shopping street fit for an emperor and sunlit glass-roof arcades.

This is my report

Lord it over
Visit England recently named Southport as one of  the best places for shopping in England. It noted that while, in the Northwest, Liverpool and Manchester offer everything from “glittering malls to obsessively run record stores”-  nearby Southport on the Sefton Coast has the famous shopping Mecca of Lord Street.
“Here the splendour of its preserved Victorian architecture is matched by the incredible array of goods turning a shopping trip into something special.”

Outside Paris, you won’t find many grander mile-long boulevards, fringed with covered walkways to keep the rain off pampered shoppers, and elegant civic gardens. Lord Street is an outstanding example of Victorian town planning. I liked the Victorian and C20 paintings in the wonderful little (and free) Atkinson Art Gallery. And the original shopping arcades. Best is Wayfarers Arcade, with its mahogany staircases and glass roof – it was bathed in sunshine on my visit. Prince Louis Napoleon lived here. Later, as Emperor of France, he asked Haussman to design broad boulevards for Paris. Coincidence?

Pier precious.
There’s a happy ending to the story of one of the original “pleasure piers”, opened in 1860. The council almost tore it down in the 1990s. But after a £7 million restoration, it reopened in 2002 – at almost a mile, the second longest pier in Britain. A purpose built tram waited temptingly at the town end. But I  took the bracing walk instead, on the wooden slatted deck, far out over the wide shimmering sands. Pioneer aviators landed here in the early days of flying. (Southport Air Show 26th, 27th September.)  My end of the pier rewards included original penny slot machines (”What the Butler Saw” was so innocent). And a good Lancashire cup of tea.  www.visitsouthport.com

Beavers return
Beavers were released in Scotland in 2009, back in the wild after 500 years. But they were in England first, in an enclosure at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust’s reserve at Martin Mere, just N of Southport. WWT is diversifying into mammals, but its rare waterbirds of the world are still on noisy and multicoloured display. Among the stars is a big population of avocets, migrants from the Mediterranean. Admission costs less if you didn’t come by car. Walk from Burscough Bridge Station, a mile away. www.wwt.org.uk

Sea show
Three rare species feature on the Sefton Coast, which stretches for 12 miles (20 km) from Southport to Crosby. (The Southport to Liverpool train, and the 21 mile Sefton Coastal Path to Seaforth, connects all these places.) Easily spotted is “Another Place” – 100 identical cast-iron, life-size figures of himself by sculptor Antony Gormley over two miles of foreshore at Crosby. These eery figures, fixed in the sand, stare into the Irish Sea. Closer to Southport is one of the largest areas of unspoilt dunes in Europe. The National Trust reserve at Formby is safe haven for some of the few remaining red squirrels in England. Britain’s noisiest toad, the natterjack, thrives in Ainsdale Sand Dunes reserve

Room with a view
From the balcony of my room in the new Ramada hotel I took in one of the widest views in coastal Britain. To the north I saw Blackpool Tower, far over the curving bay. In the south, the mountains of Wales. The hotel points like the gleaming white prow of a 1930s liner towards Marine Lake, a wide slab of aquatic leisure. Star attraction is the Southport Belle, a Mississippi-style paddle steamer. Another big civic statement is the new Marine Way Bridge, high over the water, linking the town centre to the seafront Ocean Plaza (a retail and leisure complex). This light and airy hotel, well placed for the seven courses of England’s “Golf Coast”, suits the weekend leisure market the resort is courting. www.ramadaplazasouthport.co.uk

Salute the shoots
Formby asparagus, grown on the local free draining sandy soil, was once good enough to be served on the Titanic. Now, after years of decline, there is Lottery funding to support local growers, who include the National Trust. They were serving Warm Asparagus and Blackstick Blue Cheese Salad, with Brioche Croutons at the Warehouse Brasserie on my visit. It is part of the chef’s homage to local ingredients. This converted warehouse holds a clutch of awards for its menu, ranging from Roast Pork and Crispy Black Pudding, and Fleetwood Cod and  Parsley Fishcakes to Tuna Sashimi with Wasabi. Its fish is all from sustainable fisheries. www.warehouse-brasserie.co.uk

The writer travelled on Virgin Trains to Liverpool, www.virgintrains.co.uk