rom the sand dunes of Formby to the mud flats of Arnside, the Lancashire coast packs in rather more contrasts per mile than might be imagined.

Between Crosby, on the edge of Liverpool, and the Ribble Estuary, it is known as the Sefton Coast, a 20-mile stretch of golden beaches, sand dunes and marshland, home to red squirrel, natterjack toads, great crested newts, rare dune plants and a good tick list of birdlife, too. The dunes are a National Nature Reserve, and Ainsdale the birthplace of actor, Anthony Quayle star of Ice Cold in Alex and Anne of a Thousand Days. Today, the beach is a 'kite beach', where kitesurfing and land-based kite traction activities are enjoyed.

Southport, a short distance away, is a good old-fashioned seaside resort, rather more up-market (and elderly serving) than rough diamond Blackpool to the north, the two gazing at each other across the Marshside Sands like elderly ladies no longer on speaking terms. The hodgepodge of towns that is Merseyside likes to embrace Southport these days, as if trying to cut-and-paste a refinement that is missing from its make up. It is still a contentious issue, but historically this largely 19th-century town is a part of Lancashire, founded in 1792 around much earlier settlements. Southport has always enjoyed an air of elegance and sophistication, with a glorious tree-lined boulevard main street lined by glass-canopied shops and hotels, where, it is said, the future Napoleon III lived in exile from 1846-8, and was later inspired to develop the great boulevards of Paris.

Today, Southport is rather re-inventing itself as a conference and golfing centre, and the Royal Birkdale golf course, the far-reaching sands, its pier – the oldest surviving iron pier in the UK and the second longest – annual flower shows and New Pleasureland fairground are all key players in the new team.

North of Southport, the Ribble Estuary intercedes, bearing rainfall from the distant moorlands of Yorkshire ales where the river rises. Before the Preston bridges were built, travellers would cross the Ribble here, from Hesketh Bank to Freckleton with the aid of a guide. Now it is all so much easier, and visitors whizz along the coast to the double act of Lytham St Annes. These two resorts have grown together and attracted those looking for a seaside place to retire as much as those looking for fun and frolics. Lytham is the older of the two, with a pedigree founded on fishing and shrimping that dates back 1,400 years; St Annes – more correctly St Annes-on-Sea – is a 19th-century planned town, and, like Southport, a genteel Edwardian and Victorian seaside resort with stylish hotels, built to entice the middle classes from the mill towns further inland. Locals for certain know where one ends and the other begins, but the reality is that the two work together to provide an elongated resort that is both agreeable and relaxing, and a generally peaceful community. A far cry then from that brash rival further north.

Blackpool offers no pretence at shyness. This is bright, breezy and brassy full-on, and was ever thus since the days when mill towns emptied and headed for an annual break at the seaside. Historically taking its name from the contents of a draining channel that ran through inland peat bog before discharging into the Irish Sea, Blackpool has links across the sea, for Dublin is Irish for 'black pool'. But Blackpool, a settlement that can trace its ancestry to Viking and Anglo-Saxon times, was not always a resort for the masses. During the 18th century, as sea bathing came into vogue so it became fashionable for small, elite groups of wealthy visitors to make the long and arduous pre-railway trek to the coast.

It was an idea of the late-19th-century mayor of Blackpool, John Bickerstaffe, that led to the building of Blackpool's famous tower, which today forever pins the town on the Lancashire landscape, and is visible for many miles. Less visible from afar, but producing a vast amount of light, Blackpool's annual illuminations, arguably the 'Greatest Free Lightshow on Earth', has been a major attraction since 1879, today using over one million light bulbs, and taking twenty-two weeks to prepare. Contrary to expectations, such a display does not savagely rack-up Blackpool's electricity bill: low voltage supplies and green electricity from renewable resources like wind turbines, hydropower and Biogas are edging Blackpool towards a carbon neutral state long before the next Olympics.

Visitors who find Blackpool just a little OTT, move north to Thornton, Cleveleys and Fleetwood, formerly a deep-sea fishing port and now seeking to re-invent itself as a north Fylde answer to Blackpool, but on a smaller scale. It could learn a lesson from Morecambe, which tried likewise, and succeeded for a while, before surrendering gracefully. But there is a spirit of rejuvenation about Morecambe these days, with the opening of the spectacular new Midland Hotel, a delightful pier with numerous sculptures, an outstanding view of the South Lakeland fells and an entertainment legacy founded on the likes of the late Dame Thora Hird and much-loved comedian, Eric Morecambe, both of whom were born here.

But before reaching Morecambe the coastal visitor encounters the seemingly endless mudflats of the Preesall, Pilling and Cockerham Sands. Earlier travellers would cross the sands at low tide probably guided by monks from Cockersand Abbey, a charmingly evocative ruin founded in the 12th century as the Hospital of St Mary-on-the-Marsh and later refounded as a Premonstratensian priory. Although it cannot now be proven, the likelihood is that the monks at Cockersand would ring bells to help travellers, and perhaps walk out onto the sands to guide them, as was the case with the religious houses in Furness.

Beyond the urban sprawl of Morecambe lie the Sands, a place of life and death for centuries. Yielding flat fish, shrimps and cockles by the ton, this huge expanse has been fished since before records. It is an eminently dangerous place, and guides were first appointed in the 12th century, although the earliest who can be traced with certainty lived around 1500. Today, the Queen's Guide to the Sands is Cedric Robinson MBE, who leads thousands of walkers safely across the sands each year. Cedric comments: 'I go out on the sands almost every day, but I never take them for granted. Too many people have lost their lives trying to cross by themselves. It's dangerous, but it's so beautiful.'

Carnforth is the last sizeable settlement along the Lancashire Coast before it surrenders gracefully at Silverdale to the charms of Arnside in what was Westmorland but is now Cumbria. This modest railway town owes its claim to fame to the use of its station in the film Brief Encounter starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard.