Portland Bill Revisited

Portland Bill is a little island just off the Dorset coast in southern England. I had never been there but had flown over it many times. I became a little curious. The Island is linked to the mainland by a main road, the A354. I went to see recently what went on in Portland and to see who was around. I didn’t make it on my first attempt. The police were just closing the only road after an accident, just as I was arriving.

Portland BillPortland Bill has attracted some attention. It was the setting for the fictional children’s TV series, ‘The Adventures of Portland Bill’. The pretend lighthouse owner was the narrator and the characters in the programme were named after the fishing forecast areas including Dogger the dog. I can’t remember if I ever watched it or not.

The Bill of Portland on the island is the point that is the most southern position of Dorset County, and it pokes out into the English Channel. It is a peninsular with a beak like a bird. It is linked to the mainland from Weymouth by a single road that was built in 1922. The Bill is a dangerous headland for passing ships due to a shambles of shifting sandbanks and very unpredictable tidal races. There have been many shipwrecks over the centuries.

Visitors can view the principal features of three lighthouses. The current one, Portland Bill Lighthouse, is still operating and impressive. It stands out broadly with its red and white painted strips. The other two are still present and served from 1716, but their leases were terminated by Trinity House in 1752 after they were poorly managed. They were replaced by the current and imposing structure. This lighthouse still signals warning of the coastline and is used as a tourist centre and museum as well. Guided tours to the top are provided.

Portland stone moundPortland Stone is quarried around the southerly tip of the Bill. This is a very hard and robust natural resource. The edge of the mining is marked by a stone mound placed by Trinity House which is the lighthouse operator and sea authority. There is a grand pyramid marking the very tip of Portland Bill. It is called the Pulpit Rock. The Pulpit Inn public house, a little up the hill to the north, is named after it. I was a little saddened to see how much erosion had taken place by Portland Stone extraction in these days of current climate change awareness and natural resource preservation. Amongst the rocks rests ‘The Red Crane’. This is a metallic fishing crane that is formerly registered nowadays as a scheduled monument.

Other features to visit are the ‘Lobster Pot’ restaurant and a 19th century fisherman’s hut holding formal grade 2 listing. Admire also the numerous beach huts providing stunning views looking out over the sea towards Normandy. There is also a Royal Navy Magnetic Range station as well. I’m not sure quite whatever that might be, but it seems to be associated with a National Coastline Institution lookout station as well.

Portland LighthouseSea conditions can be quite wild at the tip of Portland Bill. I visited on a really stormy afternoon, but I always love conditions like that though. I got my feet wet and reminded myself to change my socks!

Inland towards the mainland, across the island just a little northwards from the Bill, is fairly open country. It is an ancient strip field system dating from medieval Anglo-Saxon times. The land is not used for agriculture but serves as a nature reserve providing a homeland for many protected species including the rare Sand Lizard. I didn’t find one but loved the contented sound of tweeting wild birds.

Chesil Beach is a long, narrow and straight protection barrier linking just beyond Weymouth to almost Portland Bill. It provides a natural domestic barrier from the often raging shoreline.

Chesil BeachWeymouth’s port, under the protection of the mainland, currently provides safe harbourage to many large cruise ships. They are not travelling anywhere just now. Allied shipping used the harbour with many other southern England ports to assemble over 5000 ships to commence the invasion of France prior to Operation Overlord in May 1944. Many local people will remember the extraordinary spectacle from that time and some nowadays will be able to recall those days with great clarity. The sight of the port affected my senses and held my attention. I had recently been reading a powerful and detailed description of those days.

The Island of Portland with its Bill, lighthouses and dog walkers with their families is wide open to nature in all its forms. I loved it there really as I feel in tune always with the elements.

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Bob Lyons

Retired airline pilot and European explorer

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