The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Legging it in Dorset — Portland

Rodney Legg offers his classic 8-mile circuit around the top of the island cliffs

The High Angle Battery, Portland
The High Angle Battery was built for the Verne Citadel in 1892 so that its guns could be fired onto the vulnerable decks of attacking warships rather than their heavily armoured sides

Portland ‘is carved by Time out of a single stone’, Thomas Hardy wrote. Grandeur and grey are words that apply to Portland’s bleak landscape, in contrast to the green and white lines of Dorset’s mainland coast. En route everywhere along this eight-mile circuit you will encounter local history on a national scale. Be prepared, however, for the occasional strenuous scramble up, down or sideways.

A Mesolithic mace-head found beside Southwell Road spurred excavations that revealed extensive settlements here, from 6000 BC. Roman sarcophagi are displayed in Portland Museum. The earliest recorded history is from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 840 AD: ‘Earldorman Aethelhelm with the people of Dorset fought against the Danish army at Portland, and for a long time put the enemy to flight.’ Portland’s turbulent ‘Year of the French’ was 1416, after which the island defences were strengthened against foreign intruders, notably Richard, Duke of York, who re-built Rufus Castle between 1432 and 1460.

 Rufus Castle, Portland
Rufus Castle, originally built in Norman times for King William II (nicknamed ‘Rufus’), towers over the ruins of St Andrew’s Church, once the main place of worship for Portlanders

Exeter Cathedral consumed considerable quantities of Portland stone in 1303 and ‘the King’s stone from Portland’ was also shipped up ‘London River’ for building the Palace of Westminster in 1347. The key to the enduring popularity of Portland stone is that it is easy to cut and carve and then hardens on exposure to the air. Portland stone buildings in London included the Banqueting House, Whitehall, the Duke of Richmond’s House in Holborn, York House for the Duke of Buckingham and St Paul’s Cathedral (which in 1635 was the biggest building in Europe). Stones selected for the post-1666 rebuilding of London but left lying on Portland as surplus to requirements were marked with architect and surveyor Sir Christopher Wren’s personal wine-glass symbol and identification numbers such as ‘Y 332′. Edwin Lutyens chose Portland stone – from opposite Avice’s Cottage in Wakeham – for the national Cenotaph was memorial in Whitehall, in 1920.

Mock-Gothic Pennsylvania Castle was built in 1800 above Church Ope Cove by eminent architect John Wyatt for John Penn. Its name came from across the Atlantic, where his grandfather, William Penn, had established ‘Penn’s land of trees’ in Philadelphia. On Portland Bill the ‘T.H. 1844′ on a stone pyramid stands for lighthouse provider Trinity House (not four-year-old Thomas Hardy). It is a navigation beacon. Portland Lighthouse, completed in 1906, has a 3,370,000 candle-power main lamp visible 28 miles away on clear nights, with a sequence signature of four flashes in five seconds, then a gap of fifteen seconds followed by the next pulse of flashes.

The Grove, once Portland's main prison, Portland
The severe Victorian lines of The Grove, once Portland’s main prison, stand out against the sky. It is now a Young Offender Institution.

Front-line Portland earned the Royal Navy its first Victoria Cross from territorial waters when Jack Mantle continued to fire his pom-pom as his ship was blown to pieces in Portland Harbour by Stuka dive-bombers in July 1940. The so-called ‘Slapton Sands disaster’ happened off Portland, seven miles into Lyme Bay, as American tank landing craft were intercepted by German E-boats. The death toll was 638 sailors and soldiers in the early morning of 28 April 1944. On D-Day, in June 1944, Portland Harbour was the main springboard for the United States 1st Infantry Division, crossing the Channel for the bloodiest of the Normandy landings, on Omaha Beach.

As for the walk, if you need to ask directions, try to target a Portlander rather than a ‘kimberlin’. They are us, in an epithet of disapproval used by insular islanders. You can, however, believe what you are told, as the oath of the island signifies that printed words were unnecessary in striking a deal: ‘On the word of a Portland man.’

The paddle steamer Waverley, Portland
The paddle steamer Waverley passes Pulpit Rock, created in about 1875 by quarrymen at Beacon Quarry who left a chunk of cliff standing proud from the ledges of their working floor

Park and start in the first public parking place on the top of the island, by turning left beside Portland Heights Hotel into the ‘Viewing Areas’ beside Yeates Road (Ordnance Survey map reference SY689731). Postcode DT5 2EN for those using sat-nav.

Set off along New Ground (NE) with the famous view of the Chesil Beach, Fortuneswell and Portland Harbour down to the left. Cross the second of the three bridges of the former stone-carrying Merchants’ Railway, which dates from 1825. Enter Glacis after the junction with Verne Hill Road in 550 yards. Follow this for just 50 yards and then turn right while going round the corner to approach the austere back entrance of the 1860-built Verne Citadel, now Portland Prison. Turn right to enter the 1892-dated High Angle Battery. The big guns are gone but the barbettes, rail tracks and underground magazines have been preserved.

Exit from the coastal corner (E) of the surrounding hillocks in 275 yards. Head towards Weymouth Bay (NE) beside the chain-link fence of a communications compound with masts to the left and a quarry to the right. Turn right at the clifftop in 275 yards. Follow the remains of a stone wall (SE). Keep the sea to the left for the entirety of this walk. In 225 yards descend beside Nicodemus Knob stone-cut sea-mark. Proceed to Incline Road in 450 yards and turn right up it.

Turn left after the building at the corner in 225 yards and take a path and then a road through a stone gateway. Follow the cliff-side wall. Razor-wire to the right contains the Young Offender Institution which now occupies the Victorian convict establishment at Grove Prison. Continue straight ahead along the cliff path at the seaward end of the Grove in 775 yards (S). Follow the edge of the exposed plateau between Yeolands Quarry and the tumbled undercliff at Shepherd’s Dinner (SE). In 1 mile, emerge from these scrubby badlands (SW) onto the main street in Wakeham.

 Looking down Portland's west coast from Blacknor towards the Bil
Looking down Portland’s west coast from Blacknor towards the Bill, with Southwell Business Park (formerly the Admiralty Underwater Weapons Establishment) dominating the middle ground

Turn left (S), for 275 yards, and pass thatched Avice’s Cottage, which was given to the island by birth-control pioneer Dr Marie Stopes. It is now the entrance to Portland Museum. Beside it, turn left (E) and in 225 yards pass beneath Rufus Castle, also known as Bow and Arrow Castle. Then comes a sharp turn (S) down an awesome flight of steps towards sea level at Church Ope Cove in 225 yards. Turn right after the first 94 steps for an optional diversion to the ruins of St Andrew’s Church, tucked under Pennsylvania Castle in 80 yards. On returning to the main path, continue down another 44 steps. Proceed straight ahead from this point (SW), behind the central row of beach huts, up a rougher cut set of steps and follow the yellow footpath arrows, which are reassuring waymarks (S). In 550 yards, after passing exposed sections of rusty sewer pipes, the track bears right to climb inland behind Cliffside boulders (NW). Follow a zig-zag path up to Southwell Road in 325 yards. Turn left along the road (SW) to pass Cheyne Weare viewpoint and then Cheyne House in 650 yards.

After the drive to Cheyne House turn left, towards Freshwater Bay (S), through the cliffside galleries of disused quarries. Now head towards Portland Bill (SW), with its lighthouse being visible almost all the way. En route are God Nore, Limekiln Cove, Sand Holes, Cave Hole, Broad Ope, Longpoints, Cellar’s Ledge and Red Crane. The latter is named for one of the derricks that take pot-boats in and out of the water. In 1¼ miles arrive at the Lighthouse. Hereon, from Pulpit Rock, the sea is still to the left but what was south has become north. After a 225 yard exploration of former Beacon quarry, skirt inland around a geological raised beach from 200,000 years ago, as the sea level rose during a warm interglacial interlude in the Pleistocene ice age. The exposed shingle lies to the left, inside the Ministry of Defence’s Test and Evaluation compound. Follow the chain-link fence (E) and then turn beside it (N). Pass the Coastguard Cottages and Lloyd’s Cottage signal station in 775 yards. Branscombe Lodge, another former home of Marie Stopes, is the old Higher Lighthouse in 325 yards. Follow the cliff path beside the top-secret Underwater Weapons Establishment of ‘Portland Spy Scandal’ fame in the 1960s, in ½ mile. Today it is part of the thriving Southwell Business Park.

In a further ? mile, begin to pass to the left of the main housing estate at Weston. Beyond it (NE) in 450 yards, the wide open spaces become constricted into a narrow path beneath the outer wall of Fort Blacknor. A Victorian emplacement rises to the right and concrete mountings were used for rocket projectile tests in the 1930s. The cliff path then widens and levels out, in 225 yards, though the terrain becomes rougher. Bower Quarries, Trade Quarries and Tout Quarries – now incorporating a Sculpture Park – merge together for the final mile along Portland’s western edge above the West Weare precipice. Below are Clay Ope, Tar Rocks and Alleluia Bay. Emerge at Priory Corner, which is the sharp bend where New Road becomes Priory Road. Turn right, uphill (E) beside the war memorial and its separate plaque to the HMS Sidon submarine tragedy of 1955. Pass Portland Heights Hotel, in 225 yards, to return to Yeates Road in a further 50 yards.

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