Formby is an understated sort of place despite its multi-million pound mansions

PUBLISHED: 00:11 17 April 2013

Chapel Lane shops

Chapel Lane shops

Archant

Efforts are being made to share the delights of Formby with even more people, as Sue Riley reports

Formby: squirrels and sand dunes, asparagus and aircraft, country clubs and community spirit, footballers and footsteps created in the sand more than 5,000 years ago. For a small place Formby has a lot going for it, particularly its stunning coastal location which is undoubtedly why so many well-heeled sports stars are among its 25,000 residents.

Yet Formby is also an understated sort of place, despite its million pound mansions and supermarkets selling caviar and lobster. There’s a community feel to the place with its thriving golf club, swimming pool, clubs and societies.

Much of its smart upkeep is down to Formby Parish Council, formed just nine years ago. Former chairman Mike Coles says they have had three priorities: security and safety, the appearance of the town centre and now the environment. ‘This used to be a dormitory town, people stay now and people enjoy it. It’s an aspirational place, people in the city see it as a nice place to live,’ he said.

Sporting stars like John Parrott and Alan Hansen have made it their home and the parish council is always encouraging its local celebrities to get involved in the Christmas lights switch-on and other events. They are still trying to get England captain Steven Gerrard to turn on the lights, ‘We are working on him but he is always off collecting caps,’ joked Mike.

Most of the time the council relies on its team of volunteers who look after the memorial gardens and all the planters in the village. Mike said: ‘It’s an area of special scientific interest with unique flora and fauna and has a lot of visitors. We all passionately care about the community. It’s a peculiar town though, the beach and dune reserves are remote from the town.’

So the volunteers are now working on making the town more appealing to ensure visitors stop on their way to the beaches. ‘We have done quite a bit of extra work in cutting the grass verges on roundabouts on the main route in,’ Mike added. ‘We are encouraging people to go into The Village and spend some money.’

The town is on the West Lancashire Coastal Plain and that fear of flooding is the main reason why so many residents and organisations, including the parish council, are against current plans to build hundreds of new homes near the bypass. Oliver Whitaker has lived there since 1968 and says it has changed very little over the past four decades. ‘It’s not a village any more but it still has the feeling of a holiday village at times.’ Oliver, secretary of the town’s Rotary Club, added: ‘There has not been much more building in Formby since we arrived, there’s a shortage of land.’

Those flood plains may be tricky for building but the sandy soil has proved perfect for growing asparagus which has been cultivated in the area for three generations and is arguably the best in the country. Other attractions include Formby Live!, a music festival held every summer. The festival is now run by a couple of bars together with Formby Pool Trust.

Bar owner Pat Wordley said: ‘The event has inspired many young people in the community to take up music and, with regular ‘Open Mic’ nights to hone their skills, Formby has become a rich vein of musical talent.’ Talent scouts from BBC’s ‘The Voice’ even attended last year and invited several of the performers to perform in the competition.

Another example of the get up and go attitude in Formby is the formation of the Vikings Rugby Club. Jason Keating moved to the town 12 years ago with his wife Alexandria and found there were some gaps in sports provision. So he set up the rugby club with three six year olds as his first ‘members’. Now the club has both a junior and senior team with 200 people involved.

A spin off is that two years ago they took over the former cinema which, following a major refurbishment, is due to reopen this spring as a community gym with martial arts classes, cheerleading, boxing and other courses. ‘It’s a not-for-profit sports society,’ said Jason, who works as a police officer.

‘My wife and I are the lead but there is a big base of volunteers, a couple of girls from the sixth form will do the cheerleading classes and we will be taking on an apprentice. We realise we are going to need a couple of paid staff.’ Jason’s efforts were recognised in 2010 when he was named Merseyside Sports Volunteer of the Year and last year he won Sefton Sports Volunteer and was a runner up in the Merseyside awards.

Formby has a fascinating history: at the turn of the 20th century Freshfield beach was the busiest airstrip in the country with daredevil pilots taking off and landing on the long stretches of sand in their bi-planes. In 1776 it was also the location of the world’s first lifeboat station.

The town has a reputation as a stylish place for retail and it says something about the area that a new Barnardo’s shop was recently selling a designer jacket worth £1,250.

But for most people the big lure of Formby is its beach which attracts families and dog walkers. In the New Year residents were encouraged to donate their Christmas trees which have been used to help reconstruct some of the dunes prone to high wind erosion.

In the 1980s a local man with an interest in history noticed footprints in the sand which turned out to have been made by prehistoric man. Since then several lucky people have spotted additional footprints made by people living here 5,000 years ago.

And it’s impossible to write about Formby without mentioning the endangered red squirrels which live in the National Trust reserve near Freshfield. Despite a bad virus five years ago the signs are looking good and numbers are gradually increasing. They are in good hands, a little like the town itself.

Things to do in Formby

An Asparagus Festival is being held on Saturday May 18th in the town. For more details ring 01704 878591.

Formby Live! festival is on from June 28-30th with a range of live music including the Shekinah Eastern dancers and local singer/songwriter, Anna Corcoran. More information online at www.formbylive.co.uk.

Formby Civic Society’s Reg Yorke will be giving an illustrated talk about the world’s first lifeboat station on Thursday May 23rd. For more details ring 0151 934 2964.

The National Trust organises red squirrel cycle walks and tours. For more information contact 01704 878591.

Take a closer look at the prehistoric footprints at an archaeology taster session being held on May 14th, June 5th and 29th. For more details ring Sefton Landscape Partnership Scheme on 0151 934 2964.

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