I had a fabulous walk last week, a walk I have done many times but one which always provides something new and different each time. It was a circumnavigation around an island, The Isle of Portland, which is in fact not an island at all because it is connected to the mainland by a causeway and beach. Whether you would describe it as pretty or scenic depends on your point of view but I would describe it as rugged, probably some of the most rugged coast you will find. It is also probably one of the windiest and wild usually except on this day when I wanted it to be – but more of that later!
There is for me an amazing variety of interesting things on this walk, and it started straight away as soon as I parked the car at the highest point on the ‘island’ with amazing views straight down the causeway back to the mainland.
Having admired this spectacular view, I set off on my walk but within a mile I was ‘forced’ to detour off the track to take in the first of the interesting features of this rugged landscape, three of them in fact! The first is the remains of the old quarrying industry in the form of two bridges spanning the incline that drops off the hill. This is carved out of solid rock and as I stood looking down the rutway lines (grooves cut into the rock like railway lines), I could visualise the quarrymen working hard to get the heavy stone down to flatter ground – I wonder what modern health and safety consultants would have said about their practices! There will be much more quarrying references throughout this post as it was a major industry here.
Continuing a short distance, I passed the old military barracks dating from the late 1800′s. You can visit this, or at least the people who live there, but not as a tourist as it was converted to a prison in 1949! Opposite this, and once part of it, is another military establishment built around the same time and which you can visit, and a fascinating place it is too.
This is High Angle Battery. Built in a disused quarry in 1892, this fort once protected Portland Harbour far below, but was in the end only operational for 6 years. Being below ground level, it gets its name from the fact that the shells were fired high into the air to drop onto the decks of any attacking ships. I always enjoy exploring this fort with its gun posts and underground ammunition dumps and can imagine the busyness of the place when it was operational.
Leaving the fort behind, I continued my walk along the cliff top on the east side of Portland, with views over the extensive old quarry workings that run all along the coast, passing the Young Offenders Institution on the way – this is a Dorset walk with a difference! After a while, I dropped down into the quarry to continue my walk along a ledge part way down and that once formed the tramway for the quarry.
This path eventually took me to one of my favourite places, Church Ope Cove, a place with a real air of mystery and so much of interest. The first sight is of the old castle, one of three on Portland, known as Rufus Castle or Bow and Arrow Castle which stands proud on the cliff above the cove. Built for William Rufus, hence its name, this is very much in ruins now.
Beyond the castle and part way down to the cove my route passed the remains of St Andrew’s Church, once the main place of worship for the islanders. Destroyed by landslips and invasion by French pirates, the church is said to have smuggling connections and has some smugglers’ graves.
Passing through the old churchyard, I was again ‘forced’ to take a detour to look at some other remains! Difficult to access because of erosion, this is the remains of John Penn’s Bath – a rather quirky Dorset curiosity! John Penn, previously governor of the colonial Pennsylvania and part of the family after whom the state was named, owned Pennsylvania Castle which stands on the cliff top above the cove. In the early 19th century, sea bathing was becoming very popular but John Penn didn’t fancy climbing all the way down to the cove so had a ‘bath’ cut out of the rock just below his castle. The idea was that his servants would carry sea water up in buckets from the cove to fill the bath each time he felt like bathing and he would then sit and soak happily whilst looking out through the window onto the sea. Unfortunately he made the mistake of building his bath on common land and was forced by the local community to pay to use it. It is said that he was so outraged that he abandoned it!!
A short distance away was another distraction from my walk, and one that was even more inaccessible! This was an old underground reservoir. It has been suggested that this might date from Roman times although this has not been proven. It may well have served the old cafe that once existed on the beach in the early 20th century but this also is just speculation. It is a fascinating, and dangerously fragile, place and one that is not easy to find if you did not know it was there. I did venture through the narrow entrance into what was a pitch black and very muddy interior to grab one or two pictures using flash.
So, detours over, I continued to make my way down to the cove itself, and as I walked I thought about John Penn’s servants carrying hundreds of buckets of water up that path – I bet they were relieved when he abandoned the bath ! The cove itself is a wonderful place, and one I love to visit. It was once a sandy beach but remains of the quarrying industry has turned the beach into a stony one. There are remains of the fishing industry too in the form of an old winch, and some interesting old beach huts with their pebble wall surrounded ‘front gardens’.
I sat on the beach and ate my lunch listening to the gentle and relaxing sound of the surf washing over the rocks before I continued on my way, following the cliff top quarry path above the sea to eventually reach the southern most tip at Portland Bill. Here too there are remains of quarrying with old derricks on the cliff top, once used to lower stone into the waiting barges below.
And they are not all disused either – well, there is no other way to get the boats into the sea!
Strangely, despite the fact that it is almost impossible to reach the sea from this point without some serious climbing, there are still beach huts here and if you have around £20,000 in spare cash, you could buy one! As you can see, it is basically a shed !
Of course, Portland is not only famous for its stone but also for its lighthouse, and no walk around this area would be complete without a picture, or ten, of it ! I always think these old lighthouses are so attractive, this one particularly so with its red stripe.
It is also famous for its Pulpit Rock – named for obvious reasons. It just begs to be climbed, and people regularly do, and in fact fish from the top too. This is a long exposure shot, hence the blurred clouds and sea.
So, it was on with the return journey, this time along the west coast of the island as the cloud started to form, obscuring the sun but providing some delightful light for me to photograph. The walk along this coast is mainly along old quarry ledges, nice and flat, and being west facing, normally watched over by the setting sun – although not on this day! I walked along here with barely a whisper of breeze, accompanied by seagulls and butterflies, enjoying the stillness.
Ah, but sadly that lack of wind was to spoil the next highlight of my walk. This was a temporary art project called Inside Out Dorset with rather unusual events taking place throughout the county. The event on Portland was an audio visual experience with many instruments, both wind and percussion, set out all around one of the old disused coastal quarries – except it relied on wind and there was little of that on this day. There was though just enough to get a feel of what this project would be on a windier day and I think it would be amazing !
I was nearing the end of my walk now but there was yet another interesting feature to take in, and it is such a great one – and yet another old quarry! This was Tout Quarry which is now being put to very good use as a sculpture park with lots of different artists and even classes on sculpturing. It is a place to take your time exploring as every corner you turn brings another surprise be it a face, a fireplace, a boat, an animal or whatever, all carved out of the solid rock. The most famous is undoubtedly Still Falling by Anthony Gormley.
Reluctantly, I had to leave the quarry as the light was fading and I completed my walk along the cliff edge accompanied by wheatear and the gentle sounds that drift across the still air. And as I returned to my starting point, I once more stopped to take in the breathtaking view across the causeway with the famous Chesil Beach curving away to the west into the gathering evening mist. What a delightful evening and finish to a great walk.
Portland is beautiful in a rugged way and although it is 100% Dorset, it has impacted many places in the world through its quarrying industry – Buckingham Palace, St Paul’s Cathedral, the National Gallery in Dublin, Casino Kursaal in Belgium, and even the United Nations building in New York are some of the places to have benefited from its limestone. There are parts of this corner of Dorset everywhere, but it is still my Dorset and I love it!
Thanks for stopping by and reading the ramblings of The Dorset Rambler.
Until next time,
The Dorset Rambler.
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