Lancashire's Formby has formidable community spirit
PUBLISHED: 20:23 24 December 2009 | UPDATED: 16:17 20 February 2013
This coastal town is a picture of affluence, but it also has a beating heart. Roger Borrell reports
It's hard to detect the scent of revolution in the air as you stroll beneath the autumn-gold horse chestnuts lining the leafy main streets of Formby. The outsider could be forgiven for thinking the price of property and the plight of the red squirrel are among the few items that stir emotions in this famously pleasant coastal community.
Just as you are wondering when you'll next spot a footballer's wife, as skinny as the latte she's sipping, cruising between shops, someone breaks the mood by telling you they are 'fighting back against the forces of globalisation'.
Has Lancashire Life stumbled across Formby's very own anarchists' cell? No, we are being shown the area by Sean Brady, an avuncular parish councillor who doesn't look like a man in possession of a Che Guevara t-shirt.
He's talking about the strong spirit of enterprise, co-operation and dogged determination to survive being displayed by local retailers. And while his statement might seem a little fanciful, he's absolutely right.
To prove it he took me to Pritchards in Brows Lane, a bookseller which has been serving Formby for 30 years - 22 of them with current manager Tony Higginson behind the counter.
Like all independents, they have fought hard against the tide of cheap books in supermarkets, websites and charity shops and they have done it by becoming embedded in the community.
'If you are the local theatre club, we don't just put up your poster, we'll also sell your tickets,' says Tony. 'We can't compete with the discounts offered by the big boys but we can compete by doing things which create customer loyalty.'
Recently, the company has been linking up with well-known authors to stage well-attended events as well as taking children's writers into schools in the region. 'We are always looking for avenues that make us stand out,' he says.
'If we all give a little bit to the community, it grows and benefits us all. If you support the local businesses and your son or daughter needs a job locally, they are more likely to find one if the retailers are doing well.'
Bootle-born Tony has no time for the false boundaries that have attempted to define our county. 'I'm Lancastrian through and through and so is Formby. It's got its own identity and it hasn't been sucked in as a suburb of Liverpool or Southport. It stands alone because of all the great things happening here.'
Another example of the spirit of enterprise comes from Clare and Kevin Alliston, who run the Village Deli a few doors up from Pritchards. 'I can honestly say that I've never come across a friendlier group of people,' says Clare. 'We've not had a single negative comment from the other shopkeepers.'
She formerly worked for a convenience store and Kevin was in the flooring trade. 'We wanted to work for ourselves and we loved visiting delis. We live nearby in Birkdale and we spotted a gap in the market in Formby so we decided to go for it.'
It's now almost a year since they opened their sophisticated, modern store and caf. It specialises in local produce with a formidable range from Southport shrimps to Cartmel sticky toffee pudding. 'The only problem,' says Clare, 'is calming Kevin down when a footballer or one of their wives come in!'
When Brummie Sean Brady retired from Liverpool Hope University he decided to get on his bike and discover more about the town he'd made home. He found a place with the usual pressures - an ageing population and a younger generation unable to get on the property ladder.
There's a lack of local employment opportunities and most residents travel to work. Traffic, especially on Bank Holidays when it seems everyone in Lancashire goes red squirrel spotting, is a particular headache. More distant but just as real is the threat climate change poses to such a low-lying community.
Many of these issues are discussed on Sean's blog and via the Formby First networking site but, happily, the social problems which have riven so many other areas are not of the high on the agenda here.
'The town is often described as a gateway to the coast and that's good but we need to find ways of encouraging more people to sample what's available in the town centre. Many never see what's on offer,'
Visitors walk the Sefton coastal path or cycle the Cheshire Line trail, but Sean believes they need to build a spur into the town to encourage them to explore further - and spend their cash.
One of the major attractions for locals is the swimming pool, an attractively designed complex landscaped with expertly clipped trees, a wildlife meadow and a small amphitheatre for outside events.
Inside, it boasts a pool, caf, a gym, and there's even a boules piste. But this symbolises much more than a leisure centre. It's the result of a 30 year campaign led by a redoubtable character called Alan Roberts, the driving force behind the pool trust.
He doggedly pursued his dream of having a pool in Formby and it finally came to fruition when businessman John Moores decided to back the project as a tribute to his home town.
'It's not just about getting people into the pool but about making it the heart of the community,' adds Sean. 'It's a tribute to the philanthropy, affection and the ambition we have in Formby.'