NAS and NASAC member Duncan Ross recently left his dive kit at home and went in search of the fabled Formby Footprints – traces of our ancestors and the animals they once hunted on the Sefton coast. Spoiler alert! He didn’t find them, but his first foray in pursuit of this rare phenomenon just north of Liverpool brought unexpected surprises and provided a starting point for future visits. By Duncan Ross

Banner Image: Lasting impression – Footprint of an adolescent male (Image: Gordon Roberts/NT Formby)

We are often not good tourists in our own localities, putting off visits to the best around us to ‘another day’, which invariably morphs into another. I try my hardest to challenge this mind-set and actively pursue what’s out there. My scuba diving journey has benefitted hugely from this attitude, but with things a little quiet on that front at the moment, it seemed like a good time to do a little investigating on the foreshore.

The Formby Footprints have been on my radar for around ten years. At the most, it is a 40-minute drive from my house, and until a few weeks ago on a sunny October morning, I had never granted myself a couple of hours to search for this very exclusive (and elusive) spectacle.

Back in the news recently, one of the footprints has just been dated by the University of Manchester as being from about 8,200 years ago, putting it firmly in the Mesolithic period. Having dived the submerged Bouldnor Cliff site in the Solent, I was eager to connect something in my local area to the same era. Mesolithic traces have also been found at Greasby (Wirral) and Lunt Meadows (Sefton). Linking these sites, a countrywide picture of ancient hunter-gatherers begins to form in one’s mind.

The search

Online research gave me an approximate location and tide times, but that was about all I had in my armoury when I arrived at the beach. After an hour-and-a-half of fruitless searching (where the only footprints I had found were my own), I retreated. Although a little disappointed, I was satisfied that I’d tried my best on my first expedition. I’d had a beautiful walk, seen Little Egrets and Oystercatchers, and even spotted two shipwrecks that appear at low tide: the remains of the Ionic Star, which sank in 1939 and the Pegu (sank in 1936) can be viewed easily when one emerges from the sand dunes that lead from the National Trust carpark.  

Above: Wreck of the Ionic Star (Image: Duncan Ross)

Above: Wreck of the Pegu with the Welsh hills behind (Image: Duncan Ross)

On my way back to the car I bumped into a few people who offered tips about how to find the Footprints. The day was still beautiful, the tide was still out, so a grabbed a snack and went back for ‘round 2’. It was explained to me that I should be looking for dark clayish mudflats, and also that I should go in the opposite direction to where I’d be searching!

Only viewable at low tide, as the waters of Liverpool Bay recede, sand is washed away from the mudflats and very occasionally footprints, paw-prints and hoofprints can be seen. Spotting the tracks is in no way guaranteed, and it could take many visits before one is lucky enough to catch a glimpse of them. To put this into perspective, local expert Gordon Roberts (now sadly passed away) first became fascinated by the Footprints in 1985. It was not until 1989 that he actually found some.

The prints, some of them dating to around the 7th Millennium BCE, are of both adults and children and several species of animal – red deer, roe deer, wolves, dogs, horses and aurochs. Birds such Cranes have also left their prehistoric mark here. Some of the footprints are known to be from as recent as 1,000 years ago, giving a firm chronological sequence from which researchers can form a changing environmental and human picture of the area. Baked and hardened in the sun, the prints were long-ago covered by sediment and now, through erosion, they are reappearing. I found several patches of the mudflats, but whether or not I could see footprints was unclear. Many indented shapes fitted the bill, but with no prints leading to or from them, it would be impossible for me to say with certainty if they were human. Also, I found many recent (I think) dogs’ paw-prints in soft malleable clay, suggesting the likelihood that there will be recent human footprints too. An expert eye would have a much better chance of discerning which is which.  

Above: Large Canidae wolf imprint – (Image: Gordon Roberts/NT Formby)

In all I must have walked around 5 miles in circles, lines and zig-zags, leaving far more Formby footprints than I found, but I feel I have a much greater insight into what to look for and where to look in the future. The National Trust-owned Formby Beach is a rather beautiful place and is absolutely worth visiting whether footprint searching or not. Colossal sand dunes, the distant misty Welsh hills and miles of walkable coast make for a great experience.

More connections

In one spot there is a substantial amount of building rubble – bricks, blocks, chunks of concrete and water mains pipes. I imagined the debris to be from the Liverpool Blitz, as is the case at Hightown Beach (locally known as Blitz Beach) but I was incorrect. Later research enlightened me that the 8th Kings Regiment (Liverpool) were barracked at Formby Beach during the Second World War, and it was where the infantry trained for D-Day. It is easy to imagine. Facing the dunes from the shoreline, I was momentarily struck by the coverless distance that men would have had to run when they did it for real in France. The barracks were demolished after the war and heaps of rubble were dumped close to the beach to bolster sea defences. This information led to another surprise connection with my diving exploits down south, not too far from the Solent. Recently, I’ve been investigating the circumstances of the Tanks and Bulldozers submerged site off Selsey Bill, Sussex.

Above: The 8th Kings Regiment former barracks (Image: Duncan Ross)

Members of the 8th Kings (Liverpool) were onboard LCT (A) 2428 - the landing craft tank that was heading to Juno Beach, Normandy, when it capsized on D-Day spilling the aforementioned vehicles into the sea. The regiment were the first to hit Juno Beach with the 3rd Canadian Army assault waves on the 6th June 1944. The Lieutenant (James Charles Orrell) that I have been researching in focus may have actually been on Formby Beach with his regiment on the run-up to the Normandy invasion. Connections between sites, whether through people, era, research or events, really fascinate me and make the process of discovery so much more holistic.

I did not find the Footprints this time but I will return and try again, and who knows, I may get lucky one day. I think patience is a small and apt price to pay for something that has taken so long to form and emerge. That there are humanoid footprints on the Suffolk coast, nearly 1,000,000-years-old, is hard to comprehend. It’s not quite a 40-minute drive over there, but I could still be tempted to make a visit!

Above: 10-metre-long human footprint trail (Image: Gordon Roberts/NT Formby)

If anyone is ever in the Sefton area, and requires any helpful information about searching for the footprints, please feel free to contact me.

Parking is £7.50 at Formby Point National Trust carpark. Parking is free for members.