Portland – Three Lighthouses Walk
Teresa Ridout on a walk which does exactly what it says on the tin
Published in March ’14
The Portland Ledge, off Portland Bill, and the Shambles, a two-mile long sandbank situated three miles from the Portland coast, combine to create the Portland Race. This continuous disturbance of the sea has long been notorious for the number of ships that have failed to reach the safety of nearby harbours.
From Roman times beacon fires were lit on Branscombe Hill above the Bill and on Verne Hill, but the shortage of fuel meant that beacons were not lit regularly. Later, two stone windmill towers near Wakeham provided only unsatisfactory navigation marks. In 1669 Sir John Clayton was granted a patent to erect a lighthouse on Portland Bill to guide the vessels that headed through the hazardous waters to Portland and Weymouth harbours. However Clayton’s scheme fell through partly due to the high cost of construction in such a remote exposed location. It was not until Trinity House accepted that the Race posed a grave risk to shipping passing round Portland Bill that a patent was obtained from George I and twin lighthouses were finally built and opened in 1716. Old Higher Lighthouse stood on the hilltop and Old Lower Lighthouse on lower land near the cliff, and the lights from two lighthouses were intended to ensure a clear bearing by day and by night for passage past the Bill and the Shambles. Originally the lighthouses were coal-fired and concerns were expressed at the fact that the lighthouses were not always lit. When, in 1752, overseers from Trinity House sailed to Portland to inspect they reported that ‘It was nigh two hours after sunset before any light appeared in either of the lighthouses.’
In 1788 Trinity House commissioned the installation of Argand lamps at Old Higher Lighthouse, the first lighthouse in Britain to be fitted with these lamps, which consisted of a wick enclosed in a glass tube which gave a clean, intense light roughly ten times brighter than before.
At the same time, Weymouth builder William Johns was commissioned to build a new tower at the Lower Lighthouse. He produced an elegant 63-feet-high tower with Gothic-style doors and windows and, inside, a spiral Portland stone staircase which led up to the lantern house, where a system of special lens lights was developed by Thomas Rogers to concentrate the light from six Argand lamps into a series of intense fixed beams which reached up to 18 miles out to sea on a clear night.
Old Higher and Lower Lighthouses were rebuilt in 1869 but had relatively short lives, eventually becoming inactive when Trinity House announced that both were to be replaced by the present Portland Bill Lighthouse at a cost of £13,000. The new lamp was lit for the first time on 11 January 1906.
Old Higher Lighthouse was sold privately and eventually purchased in 1923 by the pioneer of birth control, Marie Stopes. The lighthouse is now privately owned and two of the buildings within its grounds are used for holiday cottages. The Lower Lighthouse is now the Portland Bird Observatory and Field Centre, it offers hostel-style accommodation in the lighthouse, annexe and keeper’s cottage. The garden has one of the few vegetated areas on the rocky part of the Bill area and attracts many varieties of birds, and the hedges provide a resting place particularly for smaller species.
The 136-feet-high red and white circular stone Portland Bill Lighthouse (left) has been unmanned since March 1996 and is controlled from Harwich.
Distance: 1½ miles
Terrain: Easy short walk on mostly hard surfaces with some uneven areas
Start: Portland Bill Lighthouse
How to get there: Follow the A354 from Weymouth across to Portland, and from Easton follow the signs to Portland Bill
Parking/Displays/Refreshments: Parking is available in the pay and display car park next to Portland Bill Lighthouse. The Lighthouse Visitor Centre is operated independently from the tower lighthouse and it is worth checking opening times before visiting (www.trinityhouse.co.uk/lighthouses/lighthouse_list/). The Lobster Pot Restaurant and shop next to Portland Bill Lighthouse open 7 days a week.
Maps: OL15 (Purbeck & South Dorset), Landranger 194 (Dorchester & Weymouth)
This is a short walk which crosses level or at worst sloping ground, and is normally relatively dry. The route gives views of the limestone cliffs and 18 miles of the Chesil Beach causeway linking Portland to the mainland and is a tremendous opportunity for bird watching.
1 Start from the car park at the Portland Bill and follow the South West Coastal Path north. Keeping the MoD buildings and then the cliff on the left, walk up the rise towards the Lookout Station with the Higher Lighthouse behind it, and then towards the top of the cliffs. The Lookout Station is manned by the voluntary organisation, the National Coastwatch Institution.
2 After the Lighthouse continue along the path until reaching a path marker stone. Turn right and follow this indicator. Follow the clearly marked path as it turns east and then to the south, where it eventually comes back to the road. During this stretch, to the left can be seen the narrow strips of field that were known locally as Lawnsheds and are the remnants of the field system which was cultivated by families in the area. Nearby is the important archaeological site, Culverwell, where evidence has been found of Mesolithic settlement dating back to around 6000 BC.
3 Follow the pavement south with the Bird Observatory (Lower Lighthouse) on the left. Cross the road, continue on the path just after the Bird Observatory and skirt around a quarried area and the back of the coastguard cottages. From here there is a clear path back towards Portland Bill and the car park. ◗