Wykes Regis To Wykes Regis Portland Circular Dorset
It’s Friday 4th May 18 and after a well deserved rest and a lovely breakfast at the 4 star Swallows Rest B&B, it was time for me and Barry Plant to say goodbye to Keith, Jane and other guests, before heading back to the Rodwell Trail footpath for the start of today’s adventure. Today our walk will circumnavigate the Isle of Portland and bring us back to Ferrybridge, Wyke Regis, near to our starting point. The Rodwell Trail footpath runs from Weymouth to Portland and opened in 2000. It travels along the former route of the Weymouth and Portland Railway which was constructed in 1865 to carry passengers and Portland Stone between the two settlements. Sadly it closed to passengers in 1952 and goods in 1965. Today it is part of the South West Coastal Path.
Now I am a huge fan of Portland and have visited on many occasions, for birdwatching when I was younger and near yearly since 2007. There is something about the place that keeps drawing me back. It could be the fond memories of sleeping in Portland’s Old Lower Lighthouse, now an RSPB Observatory, with my good friend Ian Carpenter once a resident of Portland and a top birdwatcher from Gillingham, Kent, who’s knowledge I gleaned from as a young man. Yes people, I did not make up all those Latin names, he taught me well, which I really appreciated. It could also be for the scenery at every turn, from the Heights Hotel, the Bill, the high sea cliffs, blue azure waters or walking around the old quarries. The place is just absolutely stunning.
Following the trail beside the busy Portland Beach road we eventually arrive at the south-western shore of Portland Harbour, which has seen a lot of regeneration creating 11 hectares, a total of 60,000 square metres of business space. Including the usual marina facilities, it has bars, restaurants, 15 retail business units and 5 larger commercial units. Now following the South West Coastal Path which diverts down Hamm Beach road which was originally marshland called “the Mere”, it’s now hard to imagine this vast tidal area and 100’s of sheep being traditionally brought here to be washed by local farmers. Now reclaimed, the site houses the Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy. It was formed as a not-for-profit company in 1999 and officially opened on 1 April 2000. It occupied converted naval premises until a clubhouse was built, which was opened in June 2005 at a cost of £7.85 million donated by charities, individuals and local councils. Due to the combination of clean winds, sheltered waters and weak tides in the area it provides an unrivalled location for thrilling sporting competition. Their purpose is to effectively promote the sport of sailing to all levels of competence and ability, through courses, training and national as well as international events, whilst supporting and working closely with the local community. Its an outstanding facility and hopefully will go from strength to strength, helping or producing more Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls for Great Britain.
The Portland Marina dry stack which can store 120 boats up to 9.9 metres. A sort of multi storey boat park, it should reduce the costs of keeping your boat in a marina. You have unlimited launches and you simply call, ask for your boat to be put in the water before you arrive for a days boating / sailing or removed after a day out on the high seas.
The Royal Navy pulled out of the dockyard here in the mid-1990s and by 2002 the air station had become the home of the ‘Whiskey Bravo’ Search and Rescue helicopter, but this facility shut down in 2017. This Black Cat Lynx helicopter sits guard at the site of the former RNAS Portland (HMS Osprey), which is now part of the marina.
Walking through the marina it still feels a world apart for the average person like me, maybe a little jealous, but I do like it and I think the regeneration project has been a success.
Portland Castle is an artillery fort constructed by Henry VIII. Built between 1539 and 1541, it formed part of the King’s Device programme, to protect against invasion from France and the Holy Roman Empire, and to defend the Portland Roads anchorage. The fan-shaped castle was built from local Portland stone, with a curved central tower and a gun battery, flanked by two angular wings. Shortly after its construction it was armed with eleven artillery pieces, intended for use against enemy shipping, operating in partnership with its sister castle of Sandsfoot on the other side of the anchorage. During the English Civil War, Portland was taken by the Royalist supporters of King Charles I, and then survived two sieges before finally surrendering to Parliament in 1646. It is considered to be one of Henry VIII finest coastal forts.
Looking back north over Castletown from the steep incline of the Old Merchants Railway bed, also note the redeveloped south-western Portland harbour and marina.
The old horse-drawn Merchants Railway was built in 1826 and was one of the earliest public railways in the world. In 1865 it carried 81,000 tonnes of Portland stone, from Tout and other west-coast quarries and from Priory Corner to Castletown. The Yeates Incline brought stone from the eastern end of Tillycombe. Two lines of trucks were joined by a chain running over a drum at the top of the incline and the weight of the laden trucks descending drew the empty ones back up to the top of the railway. Teams of horses were used to transport the stone to and from the trucks.
Portland’s Victorian Verne prison was formerly a citadel built as a defensive fortification on the highest point of Portland, Verne Hill. Built by prisoners from Portland Prison between 1860 and 1872, it housed 1000 troops in its 50 acre site. It was finally passed into service as HM Prison on 1 February 1949. Subsequently it was rebuilt using prison labour and is now a modern prison. Largely completed in 1874, it help defend Portland harbour and was designed with open gun emplacements facing seawards on the north, east and west sides. The original armament installed in the late 1870s included two 12.5-inch RML guns, five 7-inch RML guns, one 8-inch SB 54 cwt., one 10-inch RML gun, and four 40-pdr RBLs. It is protected on the SW side by this huge ditch and on the N & E sides by sheer cliffs.
Portland Stone has been quarried on Portland since Roman times and was being shipped to London in the 14th century. Extraction as an industry began in the early 17th century, with shipments to London for Inigo Jones Banqueting House. Sir Christopher Wren’s choice of stone for the new St Paul’s Cathedral was a great boost for the quarries and established Portland as London’s choice of building stone. It has been used extensively as a building stone throughout the British Isles notably the Cenotaph and in major public buildings such as Buckingham Palace. Exported to many countries Portland stone was used in the construction of the United Nations headquarters building in New York City, for example.
Looking down from Fortuneswell over Balaclava Bay you can see the shipping channels through the Southern and eastern entrances of Portland Harbour. Interestingly on the 4th November 1914 HMS Hood (1891) was scuttled in Portland harbour to block the Southern Ship Channel, a potential access route for U-boats or for torpedoes fired from outside the harbour. Her wreck became known as “Old Hole in the Wall” and on a clear day the underwater shadow of this fine ship can still be seen from this vantage point today.
The Old Engine Shed is a disused 19th-century shed, once used to house locomotives for the Admiralty Quarries’ railway. Opened to provide the stone needed to build the breakwaters of Portland harbour. The shed was used for various purposes over the span of 150 years and at one point provided stabling for quarry horses. Much of the railway in and around the quarries was built by convicted labour, but this ceased in 1921. The Admiralty Quarries closed in 1936 and during this closure, the tracks in the quarries and of the Incline Railway were removed, along with the last locomotive from the shed. According to English Heritage, it is unusual for locomotive sheds from this period to survive in so unaltered a state, which is probably down to that wonderful stone.
The high fences of HM Prison Portland, a Male Adult / Young Offenders Institution originally opened in 1848 as an adult convict establishment, before becoming a Borstal in 1921, and a YOI in 1988. In 2011 it became an Adult / Young Offenders establishment. The purpose of the original prison at Portland was largely to make use of convict labour in the construction of the breakwaters of Portland harbour and its various defences. The first convicts, totaling 64, arrived aboard the HM Steamer Driver on 21 November. The Admiralty Quarries were developed for convicts to work in and once established, convict labour was providing 10,000 tons of stone per week for use on the breakwaters. The conditions within both the prison and its quarries throughout the 19th-century would later help calls for penal reform in the UK, as many prisoners died while quarrying stone.
Interestingly from the moment of the prison’s inception, the convicts became a tourist attraction. The village of the Grove had been developed directly due to the prison, and a number of homeowners decided to open cafes from the upstairs of their houses for tourists to watch the convicts at work.
The rock strewn area through Penn’s Weare below Grove Cliffs are as a result of early quarrying days on Portland, enormous loads of overburden were tipped over the cliffs edge into the sea between the Cove and Southwell. Stone was also shipped out on sailing barges here from 3 piers located around the Cove. In 1734 the Southwell Landslide devastated the area and it is believed that this overburden caused the landslide. Today you can see rocks and stones of all shapes and sizes laying at all angles throughout this area. Below Grove Cliffs and above this WWII pillbox placed here camouflaged amongst the stones, sits the footbed of the old dismantled railway which closed in 1965. Today this track way is one of the routes used for the South West Coastal Path. However closer to the foreshore there is another path that meanders between the boulders and scrub toward Ope Cove. This part of the foreshore is my favourite area of Portland and if you want to just sit and have some ‘me time’ this is the place to do it.
Another World War II pillbox at Penn’s Weare, today this area is an extremely important area for wildlife. The coastal scrub has a rich diversity of plant life; Wild privet, dogwood, hawthorn, wild madder, the parasitic ivy broomrape and nationally important but tiny, mosses, liverworts and lichens found on the rocks. The mosaic of scrub grassland and boulder scree in turn provides shelter and food for a wide range of resident and migratory birds and invertebrates.
Above Ope Cove are the remains of St Andrews Church once the main Parish Church of Portland. Sadly, after the Southwell Landslip, the church was abandoned due to the danger of falling over the cliff completely. It had caused a large section of the graveyard to slip down the cliff, so this led to the church being closed and partly demolished in July 1756, with much of its stone being taken and used in local domestic dwellings.
Also here is Rufus Castle, also known as Bow and Arrow Castle. Its name derives from King William II, known as William Rufus, after whom the original castle was built. The existing structure dates largely from the late 15th century, making it Portland’s oldest castle. Built on a pinnacle of rock, some of the original structure has been lost to erosion and collapse over the years, it has an interesting history.
Lastly in the picture to the right is Pennsylvania Castle, built between 1797 and 1800 by John Penn who was the grandson of William Penn the founder of the US state of Pennsylvania.
The beautiful Church Ope Cove Beach. One of only a handful of small beaches on Portland. Ope Beach used to be sandy, but now over time small rock pebbles from the surrounding quarried area have completely covered the beach. It also has one of Portland’s few streams running through it into the sea. In 789 AD, the first recorded Viking attack within the British Isles, including Ireland, occurred on Portland’s coast. It is believed that Church Ope Cove was the location. Approximately 3 miles (5 km) out to sea from the bay is the Shambles Sandbank, one of the most feared navigational hazards in the area. It was here in 1805 that the East Indiaman, the Earl of Abergavenny, foundered and eventually sank, killing 263. Among the dead was the captain of the ship, John Wordsworth, brother of the Romantic poet William Wordsworth. The poet immortalised the catastrophe and death of his brother in his poem: To the Daisy. It was beyond the Shambles that the Battle of Portland took place in 1653 between the English navy led by General at Sea Robert Blake fighting the Dutch Navy led by Lieutenant-Admiral Maarten Tromp.
After the short walk along the road above Freshwater Bay we eventually drop back down onto the quarried cliffed sided foreshore above the sea. Here we pass several primitive wooden cranes used at the time, known as a “whim”, also called a derrick or gibbet. A type of windlass it was used to raise stone from the quarries onto ships.
From near Cave Hole we get our first view of Portland Bill Lighthouse.
Another Whim called “Broad Ope Crane” above Cave Hole, also known locally as “Bob’s Crane”.
Cave Hole was originally known as “Keeve’s” and regularly featured in Portland’s smuggling tales. Cave Hole is made up of a series of caves with steep roof sections, tunnels and ledges, and represents the first stage in cave collapse. A local tale has long reputed that the cave is home to Roy Dog – a black dog, “as high as man, with large fiery eyes, one green, one red”. It is said that the creature emerges from the watery depths to seize any traveller passing by Cave Hole and drags them down into his dark watery domain.
As mentioned earlier the Old Lower Lighthouse at Portland Bill was built in 1869 and has been the home of the Portland Bird Observatory and Field Centre since 1961. Entering Portland Bills hamlet of seaside huts the lighthouse can be seen just up the hill to the right. It is an important place for the studying of migratory birds, which includes its ringing programme. Portland’s Bird Observatory and Field Centre has now become a registered charity and caters not just for its many birders but for naturalists of all persuasions, offering hostel-style accommodation. It was a great place to visit and stay when I was younger and will live long in my memory.
Walking the foreshore here sometimes means a small scramble up a bank or two through the old quarry remains. With a multitude of small paths running all along the sea cliff edge, it just makes that day more interesting. It’s a lovely area and the promise of a top class cream tea at the famous Lobster Pot restaurant ahead, puts some spring into our walking boots.
The Lobster Pot restaurant has to be on your to do list when visiting Portland Bill, a word of warning though it’s very popular and tables go fast. However please do not let that put you off, they have an outside serving hatch, plenty of outside seating or there’s the grass or rocky foreshore to enjoy one of their famous cream teas.
What do you do when you’ve just polished off two large scones, jam and a bowl of clotted cream. You get an ice cream chaser and well deserved too, walking in all this heat. “please remember Baz, one is mine!”.
From the Lobster Pot you get a great view of Portland Bill’s largest and most recent lighthouse. The Trinity House operated Portland Bill Lighthouse is distinctively white and red striped, it stands at a height of 41 metres (135 ft). It first shone out on 11 January 1906 and flashes four times every 20 seconds, it has an intensity of 635,000 candelas, with a range of 25 nautical miles. There is also a fog signal used in times of bad weather. The signal uses a four-second blast every 30 seconds with a range of 2 nautical miles. The lighthouse guides passing vessels through the hazardous waters surrounding the Bill, while also acting as a waymark for ships navigating the English Channel.
The Trinity House Obelisk (Sea Mark / Day Mark), also known as the Trinity House Landmark. This obelisk , Grade II listed since 1978 was built in 1844 to warn ships off the coast of Portland Bill. It stands at the southern tip of the of the island close to the large Lighthouse, acting as a warning of the low shelf of rock extending 30 metres south into the sea. The obelisk is made of local portland stone and is seven metres in height. It is inscribed “TH 1844” on its north face. Surprising the monument was saved from threatened demolition in 2002 after Trinity House deemed it too expensive to maintain.
The famous Pulpit Rock just a short walk from the obelisk is a large rock stack that can be reached at low tide in good weather conditions. It is actually the remains of a large sea arch which collapsed due to quarrying and was intentionally left as a quarrying relic by the quarrymen. It was designed with religious connections; the large slab leaning against the main stack depicts an open bible leaning on a pulpit. It can be climbed after someone in the distant past chiseled hand holds into it. Having done so already there is no need to today, but please heed my words of warning, it can be a dangerous place if you have no head for heights or in high rough seas, people have fallen and died at this spot.
Here in the past I had been fortunate enough to see Puffins flying past, but sadly after speaking to another birdwatcher their numbers have diminished and are rarely seen today.
Interestingly, if a fisherman, this area is also popular with Wrasse fishing and the British record 9.1lb Ballan Wrasse was caught here by Pete Hegg in 1998.
Heading north and we get our first glimpse of West Bay ahead and Chesil Beach from the western side of Portland.
Portland Bill Coast Watch Lookout Station up on the hill near the Old Higher Lighthouse. Today it is run entirely by public donations and manned by 65 volunteers who deserve so much credit. One of 46 stations around the coastline, some featured on my posts, these stations have been re-opened after Government closures to save money. The volunteers give 9,417 man hours to the community yearly and work closely with the Dorset Search & Rescue, the National Maritime Operations Centre (NMOC), Search & Rescue Helicopters, the RNLI, UK Border Agencies, Immigration, Drug Alliance, Dorset Police, Marine Police and also give regular weather reports to NMOC at Fareham. It is vital work given the treacherous waters around the infamous ‘Portland Race’ and they deserve a huge pat on the back.
The Old Higher Lighthouse, built along with its sister lighthouse the Old Lower Lighthouse mentioned earlier in this post on September 29th 1716. Now grade ll listed king George 1st agreed for them to be built and granted a patent in 1716. In 1788 Trinity House had Argand Lamps installed within the higher lighthouse, the first lighthouse in England to be fitted with them. Both lighthouses were rebuilt in 1869, but in 1905 after the large new Portland Lighthouse was built they Auction both off for sale. In 1923 this lighthouse was purchased by the doctor, pioneer of birth control Marie Stopes as a summer residence and today it has become one of the many lighthouses available to rent as a holiday cottage.
Clearly seen here Portland is a huge lump of limestone 4 miles (6 km) long by 1.7 miles (2.7 km) wide. Justifiably this makes Portland’s sea cliffs famous for its wealth of quality rock climbing and here at Blacknor point it is exceptionally good. Today this venue is regarded as one of the best climbing spots in the UK and although it is hard to see them, there are climbers on these steep white rock faces in this picture.
A small gun emplacement which is very close to falling into the sea at the cliffs edge at Blacknor Point. Close by this spot is Blacknor fortress (not pictured), which was built in 1900-02 as a coastal defence overlooking Lyme Bay to defend Portland Harbour and other naval institutions on the island. The fort was operational during both World Wars with two 9.2 inch guns. During World War 2 on the night of the 27 April 1944, the fort witnessed the Slapton Sands Massacre. As part of Exercise Tiger, United States soldiers were practicing landings at Slapton Sands when they were attacked by German E-Boats. The gunners at Blacknor Fort were ordered not to open fire for fear of hitting the Allied troops. More than 600 American soldiers and seamen drowned by the end of that dreadful night, many were pulled down by the weight of their own equipment. RIP.
The fort was decommissioned in 1956 and is now privately owned and split into three separate properties, one of which was built on top of one of the two gun emplacements. Only this and one other gun emplacement along with an observation post survive outside of the fort’s perimeter.
As you round West Cliff you get your first glimpse at the mighty Chesil Beach (sometimes called Chesil Bank). It is one of three major shingle structures in Britain and it’s name derives from the old english ceosel or cisel, meaning “gravel” or “shingle”. The beach is 29 kilometres (18 mi) long, 200 metres (660 ft) wide and 15 metres (50 ft) high. Officially it is not a beach, but a Tombolo, a thin strip of sand, shingle or rocks joining two bits of land together, which is exactly what Chesil does with Portland and Abbotsbury. Many tombolos are quite small, jutting out just a few hundred metres, but the Chesil is huge, the biggest and the best in Britain. Quoting another post “Chesil Beach is one of those rare phenomena, something that’s greatness stems simply from its existence – in short, it is great because it is there! Or perhaps, it is there because it is great! Either way, it’s well worth seeing. You won’t forget it and you won’t regret it”.
Following the South West Coastal Path through West Weares high up on the rugged West Cliffs, you come across this stone bridge over the path. This bridge supported a tramway that bought rubble and waste from the quarries to a point where it could be tipped over the edge of these cliffs. There are others, but this is the only one that is still capped. Below West Cliff much of the foreshore is littered with old stone dumped in this way.
Nearing the end of West Weare high up on West Cliff there has been some major landslip and the path has completely gone in places. For safety the path has been moved slightly inland to avoid this danger area, but a quick peek at a safe distance reveals the enormity of this landslide and its definitely an area to steer clear of, if walking this route.
The view high up overlooking Fortuneswell and Chesil Beach. Portland has been inhabited since at least the Mesolithic period (the Middle Stone Age) and there is archaeological evidence of Mesolithic inhabitants at the Culverwell near Portland Bill and of habitation since then. The Romans occupied Portland, reputedly calling it Vindelis and it is likely that the Romans developed the area around Fortuneswell due to its location near a natural water coarse and springs. The village pond and its main well were situated within the centre of the village and the village name was first recorded as “Fortunes Well” in 1608, with evidence suggesting this originated from the belief in the occult star-telling power of its water, where one’s future luck could be seen.
After a brief stop at the Heights Hotel for a few drinks and to admire Chesil Beach in all it’s wonderful glory, it’s a quick photo beside the Olympic rings created to celebrate the London 2012 Olympics. Since this photo was taken they have now been fenced off due to the public climbing all over them for a photo opportunity, Sadly a recent report by a structural engineer concluded “that the rings look extremely vulnerable if clambered on and it would do serious harm if to fall on someone.” Personally I thought it nice that families bought their children here to sit in the rings for a photo and I must say that I am a little surprised that this issue wasn’t discussed before installation. So for now it is an unsightly fence and hopefully a solution can be found to make them safe for future generations to enjoy.
After a brief walk down through Fortuneswell on the busy A354 we arrive on Chesil Beach at Chiswell Cove. Chiswell (once known as Chesilton) is officially the oldest settlement on the island, but today it is indistinguishable from Fortuneswell the largest village as the two villages have now joined together. During the Great Storm of 1824 Chiswell received the full force of the storm, which saw the death of thirty residents, the destruction of eighty houses, and the damage of many others. Despite several coastal defences being built through the later part of the century and right up to 2014, they have failed to stop flooding and destruction to this area, however some protection is surely better than none.
I was reading an article on Geoff kirby’s excellent “Exploring Portland” web page that Chiswell had several “Opes” meaning an ‘opening’ or a passageway which allowed the residents of Chiswell access the beach. Over the centuries the ‘Opes’ have come and gone. Some were large enough to have cottages on either side to form a short ‘street’ whilst others were so narrow that two fisherman could scarcely pass each other. In the 1880s there were three Opes. “Big Ope”, “Little Ope” and “Dark Ope”. “Big Ope” runs now, as then, up to the Cove House Inn. This has cottages on both sides so lives up to its name. “Little Ope” is now called “Lerrett Ope” to remember the double-ended rowing boats used on Chesil Beach. This Ope runs up to the Chesil Beach alongside the Community Garden and “Dark Ope” was a covered passage through a cottage which has long been demolished. At about the same location is a very narrow uncovered passage called – amusingly – “No Ope”.
Now after walking the length of the busy A354 or Portland Beach road which has very little to see, we arrive back at Ferry Bridge, Wyke Regis. Ferry Bridge is where the inlet of water that fills the Fleet behind Chesil Beach runs daily. It also means we have finished our four day walking extravaganza along this part of the Jurassic Coastline of Dorset and must head for home due to work. I am sad to be leaving this area, but excited to be heading home to start planning for the next leg of my journey around the coastline of the British Isles. I would like to Thank Barry for his company over the four days and I hope you enjoy reading this and my other pages. 15.95 miles.
Please remember I am walking the coast in aid of Demelza Children’s Hospice and any donation no matter how small would be very much appreciated. Please see the Donate link on the top of my home page. Thank you Shaun.