Clive Hannay makes a rewarding trip to the extreme south of the county
Published in August ’16
Oh come with me
To the rolling sea,
While the weather’s calm and still.
And we’ll have some fun and laughter with
The Adventures of Portland Bill.
So went the theme to a classic children’s cartoon TV series of the 1980s, about the adventures of a lighthouse-keeper and his friends. In reality, the sea off the Bill is more turbulent than rolling as the tides surge over the underwater ledges and reefs, while the Bill’s exposed position means that the weather is not often calm and still. When it is, and clear visibility allows the full view from St Aldhelm’s Head to Start Point, there are not many better places in Dorset to be.
Those treacherous waters meant that the need for a lighthouse on the Bill was recognised from the time that man first took to the sea. Before 1716, this took the form of a bonfire lit on Branscombe Hill, above the Bill, but in that year, two lighthouses came into operation: one on Branscombe Hill and one closer to the sea, the latter becoming the first lighthouse in the world to use magnifying lenses.
A storm in 1901, during which fourteen ships were lost around Portland, convinced Trinity House that the two old lighthouses should be replaced by something more modern. The present building, 136 feet high with its distinctive red tummy-band, came into operation in 1906 and the two older lighthouses were sold. Both survive. The Old Higher Lighthouse is a residence and was once the home of Mary Stopes, the birth control pioneer, who used to scandalise the locals by bathing naked from Church Ope Cove. The Old Lower Lighthouse also became a family home and was at one time a tea-room, but after World War 2 it became derelict. In 1961 it was restored as the Portland Bird Observatory and Field Centre, an independent charity that records the wide variety of birds at the Bill, including rare migratory species which through exhaustion or adverse winds find themselves making a landfall here.
The present lighthouse was looked after by three keepers until it was fully automated in 1996. Today it is home to a visitor centre with excellent displays about lighthouses in general and Portland’s in particular. Visitors can also climb to the top of the tower, where the three tons of lenses float on half a ton of mercury. Opening hours vary a lot and it is best to check them at www.trinityhouse.co.uk/lighthouse-visitor-centres/portland-bill-lighthouse-visitor-centre.
As a further aid to navigation, an obelisk had been erected on the very end of the Bill. Bearing as it does the inscription ‘TH 1844’, it has often been taken as a monument to Thomas Hardy, but in 1844 he was only four years old, and the initials actually stand for Trinity House.
The historic connection of Portland with the armed forces, especially the Royal Navy, is of long standing. To the north of the Bill is Southwell Business Park, formerly the Admiralty Underwater Weapons Establishment (AUWE). Here one of the most notorious spy-rings since World War 2 was uncovered in 1961: two of the employees of AUWE, Harry Houghton and Ethel Gee, were passing secrets to Gordon Lonsdale, which was a cover name for Colonel Conon Trimofovitch Molody of the KGB.
At the Bill itself, the military establishment (and considerable eyesore) is the Ministry of Defence Magnetic Range, where magnetic fields are measured to a very high degree of accuracy. Compasses are tested and calibrated, but the major work is on mine counter-measures and bomb disposal equipment. Portland was chosen for this work because there is minimal magnetic disturbance. Today the site is operated by QinetiQ, the military services company.
Like most parts of Portland, the Bill was exploited for the extraction of stone, having the great advantage, in pre-internal combustion days, that the stone could be taken away by sea. Towards the end of the 19th century, quarrymen at Beacon Quarry (which took its name from the site of an Armada beacon) dismantled White Hole, which had been a natural rock arch, but left one stack which is now known as Pulpit Rock, presumably because it looks a suitable place from which to preach, or it may be that the large slab leaning against the stack looks like an open bible. This would be appropriate because Portland was famous for its variety of devout religious sects. Pulpit Rock has the distinction of being Dorset’s very southernmost tip.
The rock gives its name to the Pulpit Inn, which offers sustenance to visitors to the Bill, along with the Lobster Pot restaurant, which stands among the apparently rather haphazard collection of beach huts on the grassy spaces to the east of the lighthouse. ‘Pleasure huts’ might be a better term, since ‘beach huts’ conjures up a picture of brightly painted structures fronting onto golden sands; not only is golden sand in short supply hereabouts, most of the huts are in quieter colours that seem in keeping with the Bill’s landscape. These huts began to grow up in the 1930s, when the car park was built – the first tarred road to the Bill dated only from 1922 – and before modern planning regulations came in. They are immensely popular in the kinder summer weather; some of them are startlingly well-equipped.
A good sense of Portland Bill’s main features can be gained on this 2-mile walk. There is a pay-and-display car park on the right beyond the Pulpit Inn, just before the modern lighthouse. Leave the car park by walking away from the Bill, crossing the drive to the QinetiQ establishment, passing the Pulpit Inn on the right and heading up a broad open space to the National Coastwatch Institution lookout, whose white mast and yardarm are visible on the skyline. Watchkeepers there welcome visitors if they are not too busy. The Old Higher Lighthouse stands nearby.
Pass the lookout and continue along the coast path with Lyme Bay and the impressive cliffs of Wallsend Cove to the left and Southwell Business Park ahead. In about 350 yards, turn right to follow a barbed wire fence on the right down into a dip. On the far side of the field, join a track and continue in the same direction before following the track as it bends to the right. Walk downhill towards the sea until the track meets a road.
Turn left and in 70 yards right on another track that leads down to the edge of the sea, with the Old Lower Lighthouse away to the right. At the sea turn right and walk through the beach hut village to the lighthouse. Pass to its left to view the ‘TH’ obelisk, then continue along the edge of the sea to admire Pulpit Rock. Turn inland on one of the many tracks that run between rocky outcrops, and the car park soon comes into view.