XXVII – The Isle of Portland

Hasteful MammalSUNDAY’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.


The Espalanade

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.

Ferry Bridge

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

Chesil Beach

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.

National Sailing Academy
I was just thinking that boats would be more useful than cars in this weather when I passed the National Sailing Academy. Opened in 2000 and housed in this purpose-built building since 2005, the academy will host the sailing events for the 2012 Olympics.

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.

Portland Castle
Built in 1539, her only action was during the Civil War, when Weymouth was Parliamentarian and the Royal Manor of Portland was, well, you can guess. This was an awkward situation, where ‘awkward’ means ‘trying very hard to kill each other for four years’. Portland finally surrendered to Parliament in 1646.

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

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.

New Ground

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.

A view of Chiswell and Chesil Beach. largely obscured by the rain
Like many high places in Western England, there would be some amazing views if only the rain would get out of the way.
A reservoir with a small castellated tower
This is the old Portland Reservoir, cunningly disguised, just in case I needed any more water.
Verne Citadel

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.

This tunnel led to the Verne Citadel, designed by Captain W Crossman RE and built in 1847 as a temporary prison for convicts building the breakwater (they also had to build the Citadel), it was subsequently used as a military base until 1949. It is now, once again, a home for prisoners, as HM Prison The Verne. Its main entrance can be seen high up on the hillside in the photo of the National Sailing Academy.
Old Quarry

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.

old quarry spoil heap, now grassed over
This is a quarry spoil heap. There were a lot of them about. Well, either that, or Portland has some really seriously heavy duty ants.

A very helpful Man Walking Dog found me looking at the spoil heaps and directed my attention to two other features:

A quarry knob - apillar of stone left unquarried, showing the original surface level
This is Nicodemus’ Knob. I’m not sure how tall it is but I’d guess about 10m. It’s uncertain whether the quarrymen left it standing as a landmark, a monument or just to show how much they’d quarried but, either way, it shows the original ground level before they started carting off the stone.
stone blocks set in two parrallel rows in the ground to act as railway sleepers. No rails remain in situ.
And these show how it was carted off, These blocks were the sleepers for the merchant railway, built in 1826. It had a unique 4’ 6” gauge since there was no rail network to standardise such things yet. Horses drew the trucks to a network hub, where gravity was then employed to roll them to the bottom; thanks to a connecting cable, their descent would also pull empty trucks back to the top again.
Portland Stone

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.’

An active quarry
Bad luck if your reaction was the second one. The Portland Stone quarries are still very much in business.
Active Quarry

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 Grove

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.

A stone pillar, not unlike  afree-standing chimney
Not at all sure what this pillar is meant to be, but there were two of them.

I now found myself merrily trotting along the clifftop and before long I could see the headland of Portland Bill in the distance.

Portland Bill, as seen from the Grove
There it is.
Rufus Castle

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:

A ruined castle on a rocky stack, accessed only via an arched bridge
This is Rufus Castle, also known as Bow-and-Arrow Castle. Look at it on its rocky stack, accessed only by a bridge. The only thing that could make this cooler would be if it had the ruins of its very own church with a graveyard full of pirate headstones. That would be awesome beyond words.

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
A pebble beach beneath the ruins of Rufus Castle
The beach below the castle is Church Ope Cove and contains a number of beach huts. The beach appears to be pebbles but is actually naturally sandy. The pebbles are actually quarry waste, smoothed over time by the sea.

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’.

Southwell Road
A quiet road leading to Portland Bill
After a while the path climbed up onto a road just north of Southwell. It was pretty quiet despite being the only road down to Portland bill.
Cave Hole

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.

A series of large caves in a low cliff face
This is Cave Hole. What is it, you ask? It’s a huge cave with a hole in the top. It’s in the name d’you see? In severe weather the water gushes out through the hole in the top adding a freezing cold geyser-effect to the already mighty waves battering the island. The crane you can see is an ancient wooden, hand operated affair.
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.

A white lighthouse with a central red band
The most recent Portland Bill Lighthouse was built in 1906 and is 35m tall. In common with other active English lighthouses, it is operated by Trinity House, whose flag flies from the balcony. In the distance, to the left, is a 7m tall stone obelisk, built by Trinity House in 1844 to warn of the limestone shelf of rock that extends 30m into the sea.
A short, white lighthouse
This is the old Lower Lighthouse, rebuilt in 1869 on the site of its 1716 predecessor. It was decommissioned in 1906.
Lobster Pot

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.

Pulpit Rock

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’.

A stack of rock left by the quarrymen
I don’t know, the youth of yesterday, tagging our landmarks. I blame the parents (and so on)…

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.

Wallsend Cove

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:

The western cliffs of Portland
Are we nearly there yet? I can see the sea! Directly ahead is Chesil Beach and Weymouth. We are looking down the western cliffs of Portland and the buildings ahead on the island comprise Southwell Business Park.

And, looking back slightly, this:

A very short lighthouse (about three storeys)
This is the Higher Lighthouse, one of a pair with the Lower Lighthouse and rebuilt (and decommissioned) at the same time. These days the Higher Lighthouse contains holiday accommodation.

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.

View of the cliffs, looking south from Blacknor. A roughly-built dry stone wall stands on the cliff top.
Looking back from Blacknor. I have no idea who built that rough stone wall on that ledge or why.
West Weare

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).

A glimpse of Chiswell from the cliff top further south
Chiswell is ahead down below. Before it gets there, the path continues along this ledge of Portland stone (barring the odd gap bridged by wooden boards), which almost looks as though it were built rather than natural. The wall and arch ahead seems to serve no purpose other than whimsy.
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.

A row of upright stones
They take their domino toppling really seriously on Portland.
A view of Chiswell and Chesil Beach.
The path down into Chiswell. The view is much better without rain.
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.

Distance Summary

Hasteful MammalThis time: 11½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 411½ miles

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