The Dorset Walk: Portland quarries and coasts
Matt Wilkinson and Dan Bold explore the ‘Isle of Slingers’
Published in April ’12
Think of walking on Portland and you may think first of the area down towards the Bill, or the picturesque east coast around Church Ope Cove and Rufus Castle, but this is to do less than justice to the centre of the island, which is where you will find most of the quarries. It was in these quarries that the real heart of Portland lay, and still lies, and it was in the struggle to persuade them to yield up their stone that the typical Portlander character – hard, strong, independent – was formed.
Today, many of them are still worked, and in those that are not, the massive jumbled blocks stand as a memorial to the men who earned the hardest of livings there. Some of the disused quarries have found a new life as nature reserves where wild flowers, butterflies and reptiles in particular can thrive comparatively undisturbed. Unique is Tout Quarry, which has become a sculpture park and in which carvings are scattered in an apparently random manner that makes a wander round it a rewarding exercise in serendipity.
For many people, the Isle of Portland is Dorset’s Marmite – they either love it or hate it. It is true that on a dank, cold day, the old quarries have an inhospitable, almost threatening air about them and there is a sense of the land thrusting belligerently out against the sea, unlike other parts of the Dorset coast which seem almost to embrace the waves. But on a bright spring day, the quarries show an altogether different face and become places of beauty as well as interest.
Distance: About 4¾ miles
Terrain: Mostly rocky underfoot, so watch out for stumbles. After rain, the quarry tracks are covered with a layer of sloshy clay.
Start: The car parks at Verne Yeates, by the Heights Hotel at the top of the island. OS reference SY691732. Postcode DT5 2EN.
How to get there: Take the A354 from Weymouth across the causeway and onto the island. Follow the main road up through Fortuneswell and, on reaching the roundabout at the top of the hill, opposite the Heights Hotel, turn left. Bear right and the car parks are on the left.
Maps: OS Explorer OL 15 (Purbeck & South Dorset); OS Landranger 194 (Dorchester & Weymouth).
Refreshments: Portland is very well provided for pubs, restaurants and other places of refreshment. The Heights Hotel and Portland Lodge are on the route.
1 Turn right out of the car park onto the road. Where the road bends to the left, turn right down a no through road, then in about 80 yards left down a path with a railing on the right. At the bottom, go straight across the busy road and turn left up the pavement. Just before a hand crane and a tablet proclaiming ‘Portland – Home of Portland Stone’ turn right up a paved path, then bear right onto another paved path and almost immediately left on a rough path signed as being the coast path. Follow this along the top of the cliff above West Weare for about 700 yards to where two pairs of distinctive and massively hewn portals, about 80 yards apart, narrow the path.
2 Just before the second pair, turn left, then left again up the bank. At the top, bear right and continue inland to reach some steps on the left. Descend them into a roughly circular area formed by sculptures and carvings. Leave the area at the far left and follow the main track through the Tout Quarry Sculpture Park, making digressions down the many side-tracks to see what sculptures you can find. Where the main track meets another track at a T-junction, turn right and head towards an embankment with a road on top and a tunnel through it. Go through the tunnel and continue on a narrow path along the bottom of a little valley. The path eventually leads up to a road.
3 Turn right for a few yards, then left up a drive between Portland Lodge and Chesil Beach Motors. In 60 yards, turn left up a rough track which curves to the right and becomes a narrow path. Soon after the top of the rise, bear right, round the edge of Kings Barrow Quarry. Reaching a fork, bear left into the edge of the quarry, but the path soon bears right and heads out of the quarry. Continue to a bluff overlooking a huge roadstone quarry. Here turn right down a slope, then continue in the same direction up the broad drive of the quarry. Bear left where the drive divides, then immediately turn left to head for a green embankment with floodlights on top. Just before the track bears right at the base of the embankment, turn right onto a rougher track. Take the first turning on the left and continue up to a tarmac drive. Turn left up to some rusty iron gates. Pass to the right of these and walk down to the road.
4 Go straight across, down a path between a paved lane on the left and a playing field on the right. Follow the path to the right, round the end of a children’s playground, with posts for a wire-mesh fence on the right. The path now runs past the backs of some houses, then alongside a road. Turn right to cross over the end of this road and continue ahead down a path to the left of ‘Meadow’s Edge’. Go through a kissing gate and walk to the very far right-hand corner of the field. Another kissing gate and a short weighbridge lead onto a drive, where turn left. Take the broad track closest to the building on the right. Stay on this track as it becomes rougher and narrower and leads eventually to the cliff-top.
5 Turn left on the path nearest to the cliff-edge and follow it through the area delightfully called ‘Shepherds’ Dinner’, with Penn’s Weare below and stupendous views of the coastline from St Aldhelm’s Head to Portland Bill. Stay on this path until it goes through a gate, becomes enclosed, passes a bowling club, and emerges onto a road. Follow the road straight ahead, with the forbidding stone walls and wire of the Young Offenders’ Institution on the right and more attractive views across the Breakwater and Portland Harbour on the right.Stay on the road as it bends to the left into an open area.
6 In the far right-hand corner of this area, go through a gap in the wall and bear slightly left to cross a road. Reaching another track, bear left. At a T-junction with another track, turn right. In front of a quarry, the track bears right and descends to the quarry, but just before that, turn right onto a rougher track. Pass to the left of a rusty iron gate and continue ahead with a wire-mesh fence on the right. The track becomes a paved road, which leads past the tunnel entrance to the Verne Prison and a turning to the right (which ignore) back to your car.