SUNDAY’S walk began and ended at Ferry Bridge, being a circular walk around the Isle of Portland.
I awoke not so much with the lark as with a surfeit of alarms, my phone being joined by the alarm clock in my room, which the B&B owners had thoughtfully set for me. I was too early for a cooked breakfast but they laid on cereal, which I declined, and toast, which I munched upon merrily. They then scored highly on the Helpful Mammal Scale of B&B Excellence by asking if, since I wasn’t eating the cereal, I wanted some extra toast instead.
My breakfast eaten, my bills settled, I set off down Weymouth Esplanade and made it almost as far as the King’s Statue when they phoned me up to ask if they might have the keys back too. Mr B&B Owner then jogged up the esplanade to meet me halfway. He was really nice about it too, which just made me feel even more of an idiot. Oh well.
The sky was grey and unpromising as I joined the Rodwell Trail again and trotted merrily back down to Ferry Bridge in order to pick up where I left off in Saturday evening.
It waited until I had crossed the bridge and was traipsing along the old railway track bed on the far side before it decided to rain. I put on my walking cagoule and kept going; it was only drizzle, after all.
Isle of Portland
The Isle of Portland is four miles long by a mile and a half wide and is home to some 13,000 people, living in eight settlements. In addition to being a borough, it forms a Royal Manor owned by the Crown Estate, whose signs are everywhere warning you not to ride motorbikes over the common land and so on.
The island comprises a huge great lump of limestone, now linked to Weymouth by Chesil Beach, a barrier beach that has become a tombolo. The underlying geology of limestone all the way means that when the skies open the rain has nowhere to go. I know this because the skies decided to open.
National Sailing Academy
It was really bucketing down as I reached the island proper, rather than the tombolo joining it to Great Britain. I was completely soaked through and, most distressingly, my Ordnance Survey map had been reduced to papier maché. The streets, within a very short space of time, were sufficiently inundated that every passing car was able to leave a wake behind it.
The Sailing Academy was built on an area once called the Mere. Old OS maps show an inlet opening onto Portland Harbour. Perhaps ironically, given the academy’s purpose, the long-vanished Mere is now buried under its car park.
I disregarded the coast path at first, diverting along another street-turned-shallow-canal into Castletown, which is unsurprisingly the part of Portland where Henry VIII built his Device Fort, one of a pair with Sandsfoot Castle, opposite on Great Britain.
Unlike Sandsfoot, which is falling into the sea, Portland is one of the best preserved Device Forts in England.
Having glimpsed the fort, I now needed to rejoin the path, an objective made more difficult by the effective disintegration of my OS map.
I set off in the direction I thought was probably right, heading through the part of Portland called Fortuneswell until I came to a fairly steep road. This seemed like a good sign, as it was climbing, and I realised that I was indeed on the right track – all I had to do was follow this road around a sharp corner to the right. It was then that I saw Old Hill.
Old Hill was a metalled pedestrian footpath that started off as the pavement alongside the road before veering off to the left and sharply upwards towards a viewpoint in New Ground, high at the top of the island’s limestone bulk. Notwithstanding the fact that visibility was nil, and that so much water was rushing down this path that it was essentially now a fast-flowing stream, I couldn’t resist going up it.
It was tough going, and treacherous in the wet (a phrase not usually meant so extremely as ‘under water’) but the rain eased and stopped during my ascent, so that I emerged onto the wide open space of the viewpoint if not in sunshine then at least not during a downpour. Also, I found that I had taken a shortcut to rejoin the coast path.
The footpath led me along a quiet road, from which I could see some sort of military emplacement in the hillside. A sharp bend in the road brought me to its entrance, or at least its side entrance – a tunnel in the hill on the opposite side of a ravine. A large sign topped with the Royal Arms gave some explanation.
Shortly after HMP The Verne, the road sort of ended at a rusted iron gate and turned into a track thereafter. I was now walking through an old stone quarry and the terrain was full of strange little tumuli.
A very helpful Man Walking Dog found me looking at the spoil heaps and directed my attention to two other features:
The amount of stone extracted, as illustrated by Nicodemus’ Knob was a bit of a shock, although given the number of buildings made from Portland stone, I guess it shouldn’t have been.
The Tower of London is made from Portland stone, as is St Paul’s, Buckingham Palace and the Cenotaph, plus parts of the UN Headquarters in New York. It’s difficult to get your head around the sheer volume of stone quarried, shaped and built with. For example, Sir Christopher Wren used six million tonnes of it in various building works (St Paul’s included) after the Great Fire of London.
I guess there are two obvious possible reactions to this, namely ‘it’s an excellent resource, why not exploit it?’ or ‘well, at least they’ve stopped destroying the island now.’
The path now led me past, and through, areas of the current quarry, which were muddy in the extreme. I got somewhat lost and completely missed a field full of goats – the rare British Primitive breed – eventually finding my way back out of the quarry some distance west of where I thought I should have been.
Fortunately, a helpful woman walking her two dogs gave me some directions and I realised, as she spoke to me, that I was now well into West Country accent territory. I love the West Country accent, what’s not to love about everyone sounding like a pirate?
The woman’s directions sent me through the part of Portland known as the Grove which is dominated by the huge wall and Victorian prison buildings of what is now HM Young Offenders’ Institution Portland. The road I was on led me directly past the prison to the east coast of the island where I cheerfully picked up the coast path again.
I now found myself merrily trotting along the clifftop and before long I could see the headland of Portland Bill in the distance.
First, however, the path led me along many quarried cliffs and between, over and more-or-less under boulders until I was suddenly confronted with this marvellous ruin:
Rufus Castle was probably built for William II (William Rufus) and the remaining structure was probably just the keep of a larger establishment.
It was a scene of conflict during the Anarchy, the twelfth century civil war between King Stephen and his cousin, the Empress Matilda. The Earl of Gloucester captured it for Matilda in 1142, although Stephen eventually won the actual war. The castle was heavily rebuilt in the fifteenth century, the remains of which are what can be seen today.
St Andrew’s Church
Just below it and along the cliff, hidden away and accessed by a precarious path are the ruins of St Andrew’s Church and its graveyard, which contains a number of headstones, which include a skull and crossbones motif.
Yes, Rufus Castle is awesome beyond words.
Church Ope Cove
The path out of Church Ope Cove did its best to confuse me, being both steps and a leafy tunnel all at once. This soon turned back into another clifftop adventure, during which, as the sun became stronger, I found that I’d obviously put my hat down somewhere and neglected to pick it back up again. Dammit!
My irritation soon passed, however, and I resigned myself to a sunburned forehead regardless of how much sunscreen I put on. My skin is ‘pale and interesting’ if ‘interesting’ can be taken to mean ‘burns if you show it so much as a photo of sunshine’.
Just after Southwell, the path crept back to the cliff edge and I wandered slowly down it towards Portland Bill. As I ambled along, I passed what appeared to be a large cave. On closer inspection it was a little more complicated than that.
Portland Bill Lighthouses
Portland Bill is a promontory of Portland stone forming the southernmost point of the Isle (and thus, also of Dorset). Being a navigational waypoint and subject to strong currents and dangerous stone ledges, it has had a series of lighthouses built to warn passing shipping.
Near to the current lighthouse is the Lobster Pot restaurant, which also has tables outside and a hatch service menu. I availed myself of this chance to pause, rest, drink tea and eat fresh crab sandwiches. The bacon sandwich may be the Ultimate Food of Walking but a good crab sandwich is something special.
Just around the headland is Pulpit Rock, a stack of rock left by the quarrymen in 1870 when they cut away a natural arch. It apparently has graffiti carved into it -. ‘B Lowe 1890’.
The way on along the cliff was sort of blocked by a site belonging to Qinetiq, as the old Defence Research Agency is now named. I say ‘sort of’ because a large sign warned that anyone traversing the maybe one metre gap between the site and the cliff edge would be doing so without permission, at great risk and liable for whatever befell them.
For all that my fear of heights had still failed to catch me up from the previous day, I chose to walk around the landward side. It was only a small site and I was soon able to rejoin the cliff and see this:
And, looking back slightly, this:
The path took me past Southwell Business Park and up past the village of Weston, taking me past the privately owned Blacknor Fort and a rather magnificent shire horse who was being cooed over by a German woman and paying her no attention whatsoever. The German woman’s companion, who was failing to move her on past the horse, looked about ready to follow the horse’s example and just leave her to it.
I was now approaching the northern end of the path and could see the Portland settlement of Chiswell (pronounced either ‘chisel’ or ‘chesil’ as in the beach).
Tout Quarry Sculpture Park
Almost before I knew it I was approaching the end of my tour of Portland’s cliffs. Soon enough I was faced with a choice, walk back around to the top of Old Hill or make my way down into Chiswell. A brief detour to look at some standing stones in the Tout Quarry Sculpture Park delayed my decision.
Cove House Inn
I picked my way carefully down the path until it finally dumped me on a promenade by Chesil Beach. This handily led me directly onto the Cove House Inn, which furnished me with a nice cold gin and tonic. I sat there for a bit, resting my feet and marvelling that the man on the next table didn’t simply strangle his two children (the rest of the pub would have cheered).
Mirth and Missiles
When my feet were sufficiently rested, I left the pub, heading down a Chiswell side street in which I was almost struck by a handful of stones flying through the air. I looked about, startled, and the Chiswell resident removing stones from his garden looked back at me in surprise.
‘I wasn’t aiming at you,’ he said in proper West Country tones. I agreed that was just as well because he missed me. ‘I did?’ he said, ‘damn.’
And, having defused the moment with humour, we went our separate ways.
Back to Great Britain
The Finishing Steps
A bit of dull roadside walking followed as the path accompanied the A354 beside Chesil Beach, at least until it was rejoined by the old railway track, permitting me to retrace my steps back to Ferry Bridge.
A slow plod back up the Rodwell Trail later, I found myself an ice cream, splashed about in the sea and caught my train home to London.
Counting the Miles
All in all, counting both perambulations of the Rodwell Trail plus my initial wander down the Esplanade, I walked 17 miles on Sunday. But only 11½ of them count towards the total from Gravesend.
This time: 11½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 411½ miles