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  • Writer's picturePaul Weston

A WALK ROUND PORTLAND


At the end of a long pebble beach in Dorset, England, is the Isle of Portland, a rugged limestone promontory.  Portland is the home of Jack Stone, hero of two of my novels, Weymouth Bound and Not by Sea, and it also features briefly in my latest book, Cape Corse.

Portland forms the eastern extremity a bight of the English Channel, Lyme Bay.  For seamen, especially those in former times, Lyme Bay could be a fearsome place, as the prevailing south westerly winds make the Chesil Beach a lee shore, and ships would often become embayed, and be driven ashore. 

The Beach is very steep to, and the undertow caused by breaking waves receding down the slope, combined with the uncertain footing, makes climbing ashore in any sort of sea very difficult.  Some ship masters, when they thought stranding was certain, drove their ships as hard ashore as they could, hoping that the end of the bowsprit would overhang sufficiently to allow the crew to climb ashore free of the breakers.

The Bill, the southern tip of Portland, protrudes several miles into the English Channel, and from it, rocky ledges extend several miles out to sea.  The Channel is very tidal, and the streams swirl around the Bill.  For perhaps ten hours a day, there are south going streams on both sides of the Portland, and when these streams collide with the east/west currents of the Channel, they produce disturbed water, and this is exacerbated by the shoaling and uneven seabed to produce the famous Portland Race.  When spring tides coincide with a strong gale, the Race is a fearsome place, and the roiling breakers are best viewed from the shore. 

There is an inside passage, but this is not for the feint hearted in any sort of weather, as it takes one within yards of the rocky shore. 

When I was a child, our next door neighbour was a widow whose husband had been swept overboard from a yacht and drowned in the Race.  Last Sunday we watched the fishing boat Boy Lynham, which had been potting in Chesil Cove, take the Inshore Passage and work her way north close inshore on the east side of the Bill, avoiding most of the south going current.


A circuit of Portland is one of our favourite walks.  It is about 10 miles long, and mostly follows the South West Coast Path.  We start at Fortuneswell on the west side of the Isle, where in my mind’s eye I can see HMS Oleander hove to in Chesil Cove, Kennedy pacing the deck anxiously as Snowden visits Jack Stone’s parents in their cottage ashore.  A stiff climb brings us to the top of the island, and we walk along the coast to the Bill, where we generally have lunch at the Lobster Pot Café.  We return along the east cost of the Island before turning west and completing the circuit.

The walk is full of interest.  The views over Chesil Beach and Lyme Bay towards Devon in the west, and along the Dorset Coast to the east are stunning if the weather is clear.  The industrial archaeology is inescapable, driven by Portland’s main industry – quarrying of limestone.  The Isle is almost hollowed out, much of the stone having been transported to London for high class building work.  Everywhere there are strange arches, trackways, abandoned cranes and the overburden which has sometimes been tipped over the cliffs.

Another feature of Portland is the remains of the Naval presence.  In the 19th century, the Navy built a huge harbour – big enough to allow the Home Fleet to lie at anchor, with the breakwaters formed from stone blocks quarried on the Isle.  The Fleet required support services, and workshops, fuel tanks and barracks were built.  Protection against potential enemies was provided by a series of forts, including the huge Verne citadel and batteries, such as the High Angle Battery which was intended to subject enemy ships to plunging fire which would penetrate their decks.

If our legs are giving out, or time is short, we sometimes catch a bus at Avalanche Road, named after an iron barque which sank after a collision south of the Bill in 1877 with the loss of all the passengers and all but three of the crew.

Our walk takes us past the walls and high fences of the Young Offenders Institution, a slightly depressing experience, though the view across Weymouth Bay to along the Dorset coast to St Albans head is very beautiful, and then past the enormous Verne Citadel, before descending to the coast and completing the circuit.  Just before we reached the car we watched as the crew of a traditional Portland Lerret, prepared their fishing net, and then launched their boat from the steep pebble beach.


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