Having previously written about Jersey, I’ve now returned to the main land to write about another island, this one rather closer – Portland.
Portland is a very rocky island and famed for it’s stone. This means it has been bashed about a lot over the years, as large amounts of the stone have been quarried for use in all sorts of buildings ranging from St Paul’s Cathedral, Buckingham Palace as well as further afield, such as the United Nations building in New York. Of course it has also been used much closer to home, having built many of the cottages on the island.
It is not a true island in that it is joined to the mainland via a road (the A354) and Chesil Beach. Before the road was built though, the only access was by boat or along Chesil Beach. The name of the road today, Ferry Road, reflects the history when the island could only be reached by ferry.
As it is not the most accessible of places it has also been a relatively poor area, as it has just a single road on and off and no railway (although there used to be), severing quite a large population (more than 12,000) and traffic from the area then had to flow through the often congested streets of Weymouth and up through the equally congested streets of Upwey to reach the A35 Dorchester Bypass. The island came to international attention during the London 2012 Olympics and road improvements as a result of the Olympics means that access is now improved with the bottleneck at Upwey bypassed and road improvements within Weymouth. The Olympics has certainly helped the prosperity of the area then. Even today quarrying is probably the main industry, but the island is also home to a prison and a Young Offenders Institution, as well as various military structures.
In terms of coastal path the island also has had an odd history. Originally, the South West Coast Path missed out Portland altogether, but a path was created around it’s coast, known as the Portland Coast Path. It later became an extension to the South West Coast Path (but excluded from the total mileage) and later became part of the official route of the South West Coast Path. Now the South West Coast Path itself is being subsumed into the England Coast Path, all of which has left the Ordnance Survey Maps rather confused, with the route around Portland variously marked as the South West Coast Path, Portland Coast Path or England Coast Path on the most recent edition of the map. In places, where the England Coast Path has taken a slightly different route, the old route is also marked, making two coast paths marked on the maps. It’s all a little confusing, but thankfully the signs are good.
So after all that waffling, on to the walk itself. Weymouth is the gateway to Portland and has the advantage of having a railway station, the first on the coast since Exmouth. I was staying further east in Dorset, near Christchurch, so took the train to Weymouth, which is direct and took about an hour. From here I took the open top bus on to Portland.
If you are planning to follow the same route, there is no longer a year-round bus service to Portland Bill. Now the only bus running is this open top bus (route 501) which at least for 2015 ran daily from late May to late September, running 5 times a day except for the school summer holidays, when it is hourly. However there is only an all day fare, they no longer sell ordinary single or return tickets, so it is quite expensive, but very scenic.
I enjoyed the ride out to Portland and arrived there around midday. The lighthouse is such a landmark, it can be seen for some time as you head onto Portland, and the last mile or so it is the main landmark ahead.
You can see why it is necessary to have a lighthouse here and on a good day like this one it is a lovely spot to take in the sea air and enjoy the views. There is a real out of the way feel, when you have sea on 3 sides of you, as you do here. From the lighthouse I headed beyond to the cliffs just behind, where there is an odd white triangular structure whose purpose I have no idea. The low rocky cliffs here show much evidence of quarrying, although in parts it is difficult to tell which parts have been shaped by man and which by nature. The rocks are covered in little pools of salt water, the salt often having crystallised where the tide has not reached for a few days.
I headed initially the wrong way, west, to get a view back of the white triangular thing, which you can see ahead.
I then returned where I had come, passing the back of the lighthouse once again. In fact there are two lighthouses at Portland. The one at the far tip is the famous one, painted red and white but there is another white one a little further up, which you can see in the photo below beyond the cafe. I think it is now a private residence.
I stopped on the rocks here to eat lunch, watching the sea crashing in over the rocks, something I always enjoy doing.
Just past the lighthouse is a large rock, Pulpit Rock. As you might suspect looking at it, it is certainly not natural, it having been left I think from quarrying, it is now a popular spot for climbing – I don’t think I’ve ever been to Portland Bill without seeing someone at the top of it!
From here I also had a good view back to the iconic Lighthouse.
Nature was however showing through too, I spotted this large fossil in the rocks.
The cliffs ahead got quite high and spectacular with some caves underneath, but sadly access is not allowed right along the coast here, as you can see from the fence above. It is some sort of military establishment, and public access is not permitted along the coast.
In fact the official route of the coast path heads more inland than necessary here, which seems odd. I followed beside the fence of the military buildings, as the area outside of the fence is access land anyway. Soon I was back on the coast with the now grass topped cliffs being rather more natural and view ahead to Chesil Beach.
The coast path hugged the coast now and soon opened up to give even better views ahead. The cliffs ahead are high but there is another large ugly building on the cliffs ahead. This I think has had some military uses in the past, but is now I think a sort of industrial estate, with the buildings having a mixture of uses.
It was time for one last look back at Portland Bill lighthouse before it disappeared from view.
However as soon as I lost sight of one lighthouse, I gained the sight of another, this one a low little lighthouse which I think is also now part of a private house.
I could also look back at the rugged cliffs I had already walked over.
The coast path continued right on the cliff tops and now I was close enough to see the rocky beach below the cliffs, the water was very clam and clear with the rocks below the water clearly visible, too.
Soon I passed what I suspect are the ex-military buildings on the right, but this time we are allowed right along the coast. Beyond there was a little shelf in the cliffs I took a quick diversion off to visit, another remnant of quarrying I think what with the rocks piled up around the edge. However the view back certainly made it worthwhile.
The view ahead was also pretty good and I was now passing the just the coastal side of the village of Weston.
The path continued on the cliff tops past Weston and beyond passed along the coastal side of I think a still active quarry. Thankfully, the bit immediately along the coast is no longer quarried but the numerous piles of rocks show that it has been in the passed.
Below I now head had the last major cliff of the island, West Cliff, which is at more of an angle than the previous near vertical cliffs, with an area of lose boulders and shale along the cliffs. I’m not sure if this is as the result of erosion, quarrying or a mixture of the two.
However what I came to next was clearly as a result of quarrying – an arch of blocks built to make a doorway over the coast path – a nice touch although it is slightly disconcerting to walk under these huge blocks of Portland stone that look like they are just balanced there!
Portland may not be as well known for it’s natural beauty, but I was finding the coast to be stunning, with this fine view back where I had come being typical. Beautiful. You can also make out that rock arch near the top left of the picture.
The coast path continued alongside the remains of another old quarry on the right, Tout Quarry, one I note that has now been converted into the Tout Quarry Sculpture Park, perhaps I should go back and visit it.
I was more distracted by the view ahead though – on a clear day, as it was, I can right along the length of Chesil Beach, where I had trudged along all those pebbles! Behind it is the large Portland Harbour and beyond, The Fleet lagoon.
Before the road and railway lines were built, this was the only access to Portland, other than by boat.
Ahead I also had a view of the largest town on Portland, Fortuneswell, which is tucked into the hills below the near vertical cliffs of the rest of the island.
The coast path soon headed up to a little viewing area giving a good view over the town, Chesil Beach and Portland Harbour, as well as my destination for the day, Weymouth.
Zooming in, it was clear to see the narrow spit of land over which the road runs leading to Weymouth, and the fleet to it’s left.
The path now descended down via some steep steps to one of the few beaches on Portland, Chesil Cove, with the sloping cliffs dotted with beach huts.
The steps continued to descend, soon becomes a slope heading down to a little sea wall which provides some protection for the coastal properties of Fortuneswell. It was a warm sunny day and the beach was proving quite popular and the water a lovely turquoise.
Descending down to the beach I joined the people enjoying the beach and stopped for a paddle. The water was remarkably clear – I wonder if this area is popular with divers?
Refreshed I put my shoes back on and made my way initially along the beach and then back to the little sea wall, giving a good view of the cliffs I had been walking and the little beach huts built all up the cliffs.
This walk had not been too hard so far, because although the cliffs on Portland are fairly high it is a relatively gentle climb up and once up the coast was largely flat until this steep descend down to Chesil Cove.
I continued along passing what looks to be a new section of the coast path passing some new developments. The view back over Portland, shoes how high it becomes beyond Fortuneswell with the top being largely a plateau.
I passed alongside the flags that I think are to do with the National Sailing academy and then had to follow the road, or the grassy path just alongside it as I reached the causeway that links Portland with the mainland.
The traffic noise was a little jarring after the peace and quite of Portland, but at least the views continued to be good and looking back, Portland was now receding into the distance.
Portland has a large harbour with the far breakwaters being almost 2 miles from where I was standing. This creates a large amount of fairly calm water which is well used for mooring boats, but it is also used for quite a few films. Out to sea I could see the high chalk cliffs around Lulworth and Worbarrow Bay, a treat for another day.
Soon I passed the visitor centre (and toilets) for Chesil Beach and had a view through to the Fleet itself.
Ahead was the bridge, Ferry Bridge, that means Portland is now connected by road to the mainland but you do realise that this single road on and off must be a bit of a bottleneck if there is an accident along it, for example.
Soon I had reached the end of the causeway out to Portland and the little harbour, backed by modern houses, at Small Mouth.
What followed was a now familiar walk from Wyke Regis, where I now was, to the centre of Weymouth, a walk I’ve done a couple of times already. Although now the best part of the South West Coast Path it is still quite a pleasant and easy walk and one that I find a bit easier going this way, as the signs are not great, as is often the way in urban areas.
The coast path initially runs alongside the Rodwell Trail, which is the trackbed of the former railway line out to Portland, now closed. It must have been a spectacular ride and would I’m sure have been handy for the Olympics too, if it had been kept.
The Rodwell Trail soon heads behind the small beach of Castle Cove, past a sailing club and then joins the road, passing some houses to reach the small park where the ruins of Sandfoot Castle can be seen.
A second or two after I took that picture, the toddler fell into the water. Fortunately his parents heard the splash and came running and got him out, but they really should have been paying attention to what he was doing!
I headed through the park to take a closer look at the remains of the castle. In truth there is not a lot left, and it’s a shame that it is fenced off. I’m not sure if this is because it is dangerous or to prevent vandalism.
I returned from the little park and back to the road. The coast path continues along the road. It used to turn off to the right to follow a path above Western Ledges, but sadly erosion has taken this path and the coast path is now diverted inland to the nearest road, Belle Vue Road, a road of rather grand houses.
It emerges from this to a large park area where a new sea wall has been built around this little peninsula, Nothe Point. The little beach down below is Newton’s Cove and there is a small cafe here now too.
I followed the steps down and then the little promenade around to Nothe Fort. From the park here I could take a last view back at Portland which now looks quite a distant away, viewed over Portland harbour.
The fort itself was just closing for the day, so I didn’t bother to visit, but the park gave me a fine view over Weymouth itself and the sandy beach beyond.
There was also a tall ship moored up in the harbour area which was a nice sight.
Weymouth is so called because it as at the mouth of the river Wey, a mostly fairly minor river but one that forms quite a harbour area. The sheltered waters of this river make it popular for mooring boats, which adds some colour.
There is a ferry over the mouth of the harbour, but there is also a bridge not much further up. It is in fact a lifting bridge, and still opened quite often. I decided to head inland to this rather than use the ferry, since it wasn’t far and I didn’t want to cheat! There is a fine view along the quay over the harbour, with the colourful boats moored up. Weymouth is a nice town.
I took the steps down off the beach and then turned right to head along the road now on the northern side of the river. The railway tracks are still in the street here, but no longer used. Mainline trains from London used to run over these tracks to connect with the ferries to the Channel Islands and France, but it was last used in the late 1990s. The trains have gone from here now, as have the ferries too, the last ferry (for now at least), running earlier this year. It seems no one told the Ordnance Survey though, the map still shows there being catamaran ferries to St Helier, St Malo and St Peter Port.
There was some lovely old buildings alongside the quay now mostly converted to leisure uses.
I had a fine view back along the coast I had walked earlier, with the trees behind the life boat being Nothe Park.
I then headed around the end of the harbour area past a small fairground to reach the lovely sandy beach at Weymouth. There aren’t many sandy beaches in this part of Dorset, so it is no surprise that this is a popular beach and most of the town of Weymouth developed around it, as a thriving Victorian resort.
Although it’s heyday may have passed, it is still quite a busy resort.
I headed down to the beach for a last paddle in the warm early evening sunshine.
It was then a short walk back to the railway station, where I took the train back to Christchurch.
This was a very enjoyable walk, with a variety of scenery. I think a lot of people overlook Portland and it’s a shame as it was beautiful. Whilst much of the landscape has been shaped by man it is all part of the interesting history the island has. The view from the view point above Fortuneswell is perhaps the best, with the wonderful Chesil Beach stretching out before you – it’s only really from here the scale of this beach can be appreciated so the walk is worth it for this alone in my view.
Here are the details of the public transport needed for this walk:-
First Wessex bus 501 : Lodmoor Country Park – Weymouth – Wyke Regis – Portland Castle – Portland Heights – Easton – Southwell – Portland Bill. This runs summer only, from late May to late September, there is no service in the winter. The service varies from 5 a day to hourly during the peak season. The timetable link above is the Dorset County Council one from Summer 2015 (you need page 87), but the service has ended for this year. It should hopefully give an idea of the service for next year though.
If you want to do this walk during the winter months, my suggestion is to take bus number 1 to Southwell, which is then around a 30 – 40 minute walk to Portland Bill. This runs from Weymouth to Southwell every 10 minutes Monday – Saturday and every 20 minutes on Sunday.
Dr Ian West from the University of Southampton also has an excellent website, with a large section covering the Isle of Portland.