The Saltmarsh and the Sea.
It is our first time on the Sefton Coast: 22 miles of wide, white sandy beaches, dunes and a far-away sea between the Mersey and Ribble Estuaries.
At Formby Point, red squirrels flicker like cloud shadow and flow like light around pine trunks. They hardly seem there. They match the colour of the bark, flaking and lit in dappled patches, and are so close I can see ear tufts. They bury nuts put out for them, patting them down, before they are unearthed and stolen by stalking magpies.
The soughing of the pines and the shivery frisson of silvery poplars makes the sound of the distant sea. Dramatically sand and wind-salted trees give way to dune slacks, low-lying areas of transient, flooded pools: havens for natterjack toads and colonised by creeping willow, dewberry and sea buckthorn with its orange berries. The forming dunes rise high in front of us, rolling like golden, whalebacked downs, pinned lightly by marram grass. This peaceful-looking, flat, wide-open landscape is a dynamic one, however. Constantly shifting, wind and tide-sculpted, moving its boundaries inland at a rate of 4m per year. It is one of the most rapidly changing coastlines in England.
At Crosby there are plants new to me, a seal bobbing and the strange, moving figures of sculptor Antony Gormley’s Another Place. We wonder at the iron men as they sleepwalk into the sea: are they leaving? We can’t help but worry for those submerged by the tide, wanting to breathe for or rescue them. Huge container ships disappear to a horizon peppered with oil rigs and wind turbines that tumble perpetually across the sea like thistledown. We walk back through dunes dotted with yellow evening primrose, sea spurge and spiky sea holly, flowering in oceanic blue-greens and silvers. The names come to me after a moment – absorbed from years of thumbing through wildflower guides for more inland species – I find they have sunk in and resurfaced after all.
At the faded and freshly painted Victorian grandeur of Southport, a peregrine hunts above the carousel and the vintage amusement arcade.
I am let loose alone onto the saltmarsh and inter-tidal mud and sandflats of Marshfields. The vast low seaplain is firmed up with Japanese rose, glasswort and sea purslane. I walk out on firm sand and mud at first, into an unknown, unfamiliar landscape, taking care, down a track where people have walked dogs and where I can see a family at the water’s edge. But the track turns into a river and I cautiously pick my way across amethyst fields of sea aster and begin to watch every step as hidden pools and rivulets are obscured by mats of samphire. The family at the edge of the land turn out to be weathered oak posts.
There are exciting familiars: lapwing, redshank, cattle and little egrets, little ringed plover. And the wild raucous cries of gulls and the kleeping of oystercatchers. A heron creaks over. I go as far as I dare, having gone over my boots, and know I won’t make the blurred and undefinable edge of the sea. But there are birds in huge, spectacular numbers out there, shifting, cross-hatching in skeins and veils, and settling on shining sandbars, out of reach and unidentified. I am humbled by these huge flocks – and my need to improve my seabird and wader knowledge.
I realise I am standing with my palms up and empty before me, as if I’ve just let go of something important and can’t get it back; a female version of one of Antony Gormley’s Iron Men at Crosby, in a muddied dress and disintegrating boots. I am the only upright thing as far as the eye can see, along the foreshore. For a moment I feel vulnerable and exposed. There is nowhere to hide or go, no route of escape. To the north, in the far distance, is Blackpool tower and its Ferris wheel. Southport’s long pier sits a mile or so behind me; pleasure beaches that seemed to have drifted in and docked. A curlew accompanies me, part of the way back, calling its haunting cry. At some point, I register a recent tidal flotsam of small, dead crabs, cockles, mussels, tellin and razor clam shells that doesn’t correspond with the tide timetable.
When I get back, there is a search underway for a missing man. I wish I had news. He is very young and it is awful to imagine. My family are waiting on the sea wall with candyfloss. I feel acutely then, the difference between losing oneself and coming back and being lost entirely – to myself, or others. It seems a fine, blurred, watermarked line. The cry of the curlew draws my gaze back to the saltmarsh and the sea once more. I am sure I can see the curvature of the earth.