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Discover the history of Formby

Aparagus beds in the sand dunes at Formby, Merseyside
Aparagus beds in the sand dunes at Formby, Merseyside | © National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

While Formby boasts far-reaching views and an abundance of rare wildlife, it is also steeped in history if you know where to look. Learn how the asparagus fields point to a history of prize-winning cultivation, the shoreline holds traces of the distant past with prehistoric footprints, and the shipwrecks off the coast tell stories about the area’s maritime history.

Asparagus at Formby

The British have enjoyed eating asparagus since Roman times. Before the Second World War, it was an important crop in the Formby area. Local growers used the port of Liverpool to export their crop around the world by ship. It is rumoured that the culinary delicacy was served to passengers in first class on the doomed transatlantic liner, the Titanic.

History of Asparagus 

Since Roman times, when it was introduced from northern France, the inhabitants of the British Isles have prized asparagus for medicinal purposes, both as a diuretic and to aid digestion.  

Known also as sparrow grass, sparrowgrass and sparagus, it was found growing wild around the eastern and southern coastal fringes of England until the Tudors started growing it in their gardens.  

A hit with Henry VIII

Henry VIII would have eaten it fresh (boiled and served with butter or cream) but also out of season (May - June) pickled. The famous diarist, Samuel Pepys, wrote in 1668 that he ate ‘a hundred of sparrowgrass’ for which he had paid one shilling and eight pence. His meal, we are told, consisted of the asparagus accompanied by ‘a little bit of salmon’.  

By the 1700s, it was fashionable to eat the asparagus baked inside pastry as a pie called a ‘torte’.

Formby asparagus

A ‘History of the County of Lancaster’ from 1907 indicates the population of Formby, given as 5642 at the time, cultivating rye, wheat, potatoes and asparagus, ‘a speciality in the district’.  From 1848, when the railway line running from Southport to the growing metropolis of Liverpool was completed with its convenient stops located at both Formby and Freshfield, these local crops could be easily transported into bustling Liverpool by train.

At the same time, the train line was solving the growing problem of what to do with Liverpool’s excess of human excrement. Inspector of Nuisances, the aptly named Thomas Fresh, was enterprisingly arranging for the waste problem to be relocated to Formby and Freshfield on the train.

Exporting asparagus

The local farmers were making good use of this readily available, cheap fertiliser. The asparagus crop grew well on its diet of Liverpool ‘night soil’ Formby asparagus was shipped daily by train from Liverpool to London’s Covent Garden and around the world by liner.  


In the 1920s and 1930s there were 200 acres under asparagus cultivation in the Formby area. Due to the introduction of improved sewage disposal infrastructure in Liverpool combined with land use competition pressures after the war, the asparagus acreage has sadly reduced to an area of just five acres today.  

However, in the heyday of the 1930s local farmer Jimmy Lowe won prizes at the prestigious Asparagus Competition, still held annually in Worcestershire’s Vale of Evesham, on no fewer than five occasions. Formby asparagus was top class.

Visitors learning about the ancient footprints found on the shoreline at Formby, Merseyside.
Visitors learning about the ancient footprints found on the shoreline at Formby, Merseyside. | © National Trust Images/Paul Harris

Prehistoric footprints at Formby

The Sefton Coast at Formby contains a tantalising glimpse into the lives of our ancient, hunter-gatherer ancestors. On warm days as long ago as 6000BC, the footprints of the humans that lived on the coast and the animals that sustained them were preserved through a process of sun, sand and mud. The sediment beds that contain the footprints are exposed by tidal erosion and offer a unique insight into the prehistoric life of the area.

The human population who inhabited prehistoric Formby subsisted on a protein rich diet that included fish, deer, aurochs (a large, wild ox), birds and their eggs. Foraged foods would have made a good proportion of their diet such as shrimps, razor clams and winkles and edible seaweed.

Find out about archaeologist Alison Burns’s work on the Formby footprints  and the research done by late local resident Gordon Roberts: The Formby footprints

Ionic Star shipwreck at Formby
The Ionic Star shipwreck at Formby | © John Dempsey

Shipwrecks at Formby

Under clear conditions and at low tide, you can see the remains of the Ionic Star and the Bradda off the Formby coast.

The Ionic Star

The Ionic Star is a skeletal series of rusty and blackened outcrops, a memory in rusting metal of a time when she followed the trade routes across the equator and down to South America. She is by far the most complete of the wrecks visible from the coast.

The ship was calling into Liverpool with a refrigerated cargo of meat, cotton and fruit when she ran aground in 1939. This error may have been in part due to the fact that all navigation lights were turned off due to the advent of the second world war making things considerably more difficult for the errant captain and crew.

Her Blue Star Line sister ship, the Doric Star, was sunk by the German Battleship the Graf Spee only a few weeks later. The Ionic Star was partly salvaged for scrap, despite the narrow window of access due to the changing tides, after she went down on the edge of the infamous Mad Wharf sandbank in October 1939.  

The remnants were then used as target practice by the RAF and what remains is brittle and melancholic, a memory of a former era clinging to the shifting sands.

The Bradda

Not far from the remains of the Ionic Star is a lump of metal and a line of wooden spars that is all that remains of the Bradda. She was taking a shipment of coal to Ireland in bad weather when she ran aground shortly after leaving Liverpool, claiming the lives of all but one of her crew.  

The crew from the Isle of Man, under Captain Cregeen, put up flares and lit rags soaked in paraffin in a bid to attract other shipping to their plight, but the ship had been washed over the navigation channel wall. When she listed, the crew were washed into the sea. Samuel Ball was the sole survivor.

The tragic loss of life makes the remains of the Bradda a poignant place on the Sefton Coast. Her engine block and spars are reclaimed by the tides every day – a reminder of how fierce and unforgiving the sea can be, even in the shallow waters of Liverpool Bay. 

Discovering Formby's shipwrecks safely

Timing is crucial for visiting the wrecks, so they're best viewed with an experienced guide and wellies. To find out about upcoming guided walks to the shipwrecks at Formby, please check our social media or email

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