A portrait of Portland
What is it about Dorset’s southernmost point that makes it unique? John Chaffey gives it a thorough exploration.
Published in February ’15
Thomas Hardy called the Isle of Portland variously ‘the Isle of Slingers’ and ‘the Gibraltar of Wessex”; Victor Hugo likened it to the head of a bird, with its bill turned towards the ocean: another, almost impertinent, image is of a miniature South America, whose outline it resembles. Whatever image it conveys, this unique mass of limestone, protruding well beyond the coastline into the often storm-tossed English Channel, has a landscape character unique in southern England. Its physical character, a bleak and stony plateau, bounded by formidable cliffs and menacing landslides is complimented by a human presence of sturdy and homely towns and villages, and active and abandoned quarries. It is little surprise that people who live on the island regard themselves as an almost insular breed, different from the mainland ‘Kimberlins’ as they are called on Portland.
The gently sloping limestone plateau of Portland falls from 500 feet in the north of the island to just over 20 feet in the south at Portland Bill, a clear reflection of the underlying geology. Although the southward-dipping Portland Limestone is the dominant rock in the island’s geology, it is underlain by the Portland Sand, which in its turn rests on the Kimmeridge Clay, which can be seen outcropping at the base of the cliffs at West Weare in the north–west of the island. Over much of the island the Portland Limestone is overlain by a veneer of Purbeck Beds. The Portland Limestone is broken by a series of vertical fractures, known as joints, the most important of which trend in a north-north-east- south-south west direction. These joints match almost perfectly the outline of the coast in places on both the east and west coasts. They are also important in aiding the quarrying of the limestone in the island, enabling it to be easily worked in conveniently sized blocks.
Imposing cliffs form both the east and west coasts of the Isle of Portland: in common with the island itself they decline in height from the impressive West and East Weares in the north to the much lower cliffs in the south around Portland Bill. Apart from the southernmost section of the coast, most of the cliffs are affected by landslides. This is a result of water being able to percolate down through the Portland Limestone, but failing to penetrate the underlying impermeable clays, which become unstable. Massive landslides moving along a curved plane in the rocks have long affected the northern sections of the coast, and the slide that occurred in February 1792 is said to have been the second largest recorded in Britain. The re-routing of the A354 at Priory Corner in 1996 was necessary because a section of the original hairpin bend was located on quarry waste that overlay an active landslide. South of Church Ope Cove huge sections of the cliff have toppled seawards to leave a broken and chaotic undercliff. The magnificent cliffs between Mutton Cove and Wallsend Cove on the west coast also exhibit some toppling, but elsewhere, left unsupported, they have just sagged downwards, leaving massive blocks of limestone leaning at all angles at the foot of the cliffs.
Such an uncompromising physical environment hardly appeals as a setting for one of the most distinctive and fascinating patterns of human settlement in the whole of England. People have lived on Portland since prehistoric times: evolution of today’s pattern has resulted in two quite different concentrations of settlement. At the base of the Portland limestone escarpment facing Portland Harbour is the crowded and tightly focused Underhill. Here Fortuneswell and Chiswell nestle at the foot of the heights of Verne Yeates, whilst Castletown is much more tightly squeezed in between the high land occupied by Verne Prison and the open waters of Portland Harbour. Southwards beyond the airy heights where the main A354 road breaks out from its hairpin on to the open plateau, Portland’s villages have had more space, albeit windswept, and shared with quarries, to breathe and expand. Tophill’s Easton, Weston and Southwell lie between the quarry-scarred north, and the open lawnsheds, remnants of mediaeval strip fields, and past and present lighthouses of the extreme, mercilessly windy south of Portland. Easton, with its busy square and shops is central to Tophill; Weston straggles away towards the western cliffs facing out across Lyme Bay to thousands of miles of windswept ocean; Southwell is more frontier outpost to the unforgivingly bleak lands beyond, which end at the Bill, where the sea is never still.
The face of Castletown has probably changed more than the other settlements of Underhill. At one time it was important for the building of a whole range of sea-going vessels, and after, with the completion of the Merchant’s Railway in 1826, it became particularly important for the export of Portland Stone. Later still, the completion of the Breakwaters meant that Castletown became essentially a base for serving the Navy. With HMS Osprey finally closing in 1999, Castletown had to seek a new future. Today it plays host to a whole range of diving and associated activities, reflected in the numerous diving centres and shops servicing the new underwater attractions. Nearby Portland Port is increasing its burgeoning activities year by year, thus carrying on the important maritime traditions of Portland, established hundreds of years ago. Castletown’s single street remains almost as busy today as it was in its naval heyday. Nearby Portland Castle, the perfectly preserved Henrican fort, now managed by English Heritage, is proving an increasing attraction for Portland’s tourist visitors, with its new facilities and well kept gardens. On the site of the old Naval Air Station, HMS Osprey, the resurgent Osprey Quay adds an air of commercial urgency to the northern outskirts of Underhill, nowadays much focused on the National Sailing Academy and one of the UK’s premier sites for sailing sports.
Chiswell, on the western, less sheltered side of Underhill, nestles behind the high pebble ridge of Chesil Beach. Now protected by a sturdy promenade, reinforcements to the beach itself, and culverts to drain away excess water in time of high wave activity, Chiswell can rest more securely than it did in the past, when disastrous floods took their toll: in 1824, eighty houses were destroyed and 27 people were drowned. Today Chiswell has a defiant air about it, manifested best perhaps by The Cove House Inn, looking out across Lyme Bay from within the new defences. Most of the small shops and the garage are now gone, but the refurbished Masons and Mariners Hotel, formerly the Royal Victoria, adds a modernising note to the Chiswell scene.
Fortuneswell, climbing up the slopes from Chiswell towards the heights of Verne Yeates remains Underhill’s largest settlement. Taking its name from one of the several springs that issued forth at the base of Portland’s northern heights, Fortuneswell grew rapidly in the 19th century, and the row-on row of slate-roofed terraces is a characteristic image seen from the hairpin of Priory Corner. Once Fortuneswell could claim to be the commercial centre for all of Portland, but its main one-way street, partly clogged by on-street parking, and served by fewer shops than in the past, now has an air of gentle decline. Tophill’s Easton now thrives at Fortuneswell’s expense. It still retains many fine buildings, with Queen Ann House, at the top beyond the remaining shops, perhaps being the most remarkable. Nearby is the Royal Portland Arms, where George III appreciated its ‘Royal Puddings’, on his frequent visits.
New Road carries Portlanders and visitors alike up to Portland Heights and Tophill. From the magnificently sited Heights Hotel, Easton Lane leads gently down, past old and new quarries, and even newer industrial units to Easton, the hub settlement of Tophill. Easton itself focuses on Easton Square, with its flourishing shops and well laid-out gardens. The square once boasted a fine bandstand, but this was dismantled in the 1960s, and earlier still, there was a 35-metre-deep well, sunk in 1775 to supply drinking and washing water. Completing the village scene in Easton Square are the Jubilee Hall on the south side, the architecturally quite outstanding Wesleyan Chapel on the west and Pearce’s turreted drapery store (now housing the Co-op).
After passing eastwards from Easton Square, through the appropriately named Straits, the airy wide expanses of Wakeham lead away southwards towards Pennsylvania Castle. Wakeham is possibly the oldest settlement on Tophill, its central artery lined with cottages that still retain their rustic appeal with their neat individual porches. At the southern end of Wakeham is the Portland Museum, displaying enthusiastically much of Portland’s past. Running north-westwards from Easton Square, another typical Easton street, Reforne, leads to St George’s, one of Dorset’s finest churches. Built to replace the old St Andrew’s at Church Ope Cove that was becoming endangered by landslides, St George’s, lovingly created by the island’s best craftsmen, was consecrated in 1776. It served the island for 150 years, but was not well attended and was replaced by All Saints, just off Straits.
Leading from this fine Georgian church and its graveyard, rich in the history of maritime life and disaster, Weston Lane leads southwards, past the highly regarded Royal Manor School to Weston, the second of Tophill’s villages. At Weston Corner a much visited pond existed until 1903, but the extensive greens that surrounded it still survive as a spacious asset of the village. A wide variety of architectural styles brings a distinctive character to Weston, although the new estates, almost encroaching on the west coast at Blacknor, are the least attractive. Avalanche Road leads down to Southwell, the last of Tophill’s villages, originally built around a small stream and village pond. Avalanche church was built to commemorate the collision of the clipper Avalanche with the Forest, with consequent heavy loss of life, in 1877 off the west coast of Portland.
From Southwell towards the Bill lies Portland’s deep south. Here the medieval field pattern survives in the so-called lawnsheds: it is still currently farmed, with both sheep and cattle grazed on the strips of pasture. Beyond are the three lighthouses, the older Higher and Lower Lighthouses, now used as a private residence and a Bird Observatory and Field Centre respectively, and the current lighthouse, operating since 1906.
The coast of the south of Portland has been much scarred by stone quarrying, but the focus of this activity has long since moved to the north of the island. Even here many of the quarries lie abandoned, with Tout Quarry, where the Portland Sculpture Trust encourages enthusiasts to work with the local stone, an outstanding example of quarry reclamation and refurbishment. Major quarry activity continues at such locations as Coombefield and Bowers quarries. Finally, the face of Portland is completed with those two, perhaps alien, penal landmarks, Verne Prison and the Young Offenders’ Institution. The outline of both can be seen from afar, even from distant Purbeck, breaking the skyline of Dorset’s fascinating ‘Isle of Slingers’. ◗