Tuesday, 25 October 2011

South West Coast Path Section 54 The Isle of Portland

View From The Start

After the hors d’ouevre of the Rodwell Trail I was quite excited about the main course of the day, which was to circumnavigate the mysterious Isle of Portland. An earlier trip to the Isle of Portland some years ago did not leave an especially good impression and I was rather keen to exorcise that memory by exploring the coast, which from a distance looked far more promising than the interior.
Verne Fort

The Isle of Portland is not a true island at all these days, being connected to the mainland by Chesil Beach and the A354, which is the only road on and off the island. Officially the South West Coast Path crosses over to the island along this causeway too, but I could see no merit in subjecting myself to this rather boring couple of miles of walking alongside the road.
Railway Incline

Instead I parked at the top of the hill above the town of Fortuneswell and devised a route that would allow me to circumnavigate the island using the official route. It was pleasing to see that this car park was free and with plenty of room on this by now superb day. In fact I had to pinch myself to remind me that it was now October, so warm and benign were the conditions. Sadly the air wasn’t quite as clear as I would have hoped, and long distance views were impossible. A pity, for I imagined I would be able to see Devon and the Isle of Wight from up here.

Verne Fort Entrance

I walked first along the crest of Verne Hill where I could gaze across the fabulous view of Chesil Beach and Weymouth. This stupendous view is surely one of the finest in all of England and I was surprised that the car park wasn’t more full. As I left the car park behind, I crossed what appeared to be a railway bridge. The railway below was no ordinary trackbed though as it sloped steeply away from my position. I remembered that Julia Bradbury had explored some industrial railways on the island as part of her ‘Railway Walks’ series a couple of years ago and immediately recognised this to be one of those.The trucks would have been pulled up and down these incline railways using ropes and pulleys.They must have been quite the sight when in operation!

Verne Fort Detail

At the end of the road I took a path that wound its way around the perimeter wall of what is now a prison, although most of the buildings are hidden behind a huge perimeter wall hinting that the building once had military significance. The walls were covered in cotoneaster, an invasive plant that seems to be thriving here on Portland. From one Victorian engineering structure to a very different one as I got myself on to a different part of the former railway that had the inclines admired earlier. This made for nice easy going, even when faced with the steep incline down into Castletown on the banks of Portland Harbour.

Railway Incline Into Portland Harbour

As I descended down the incline much of the investment associated with bringing the London 2012 sailing events came into sight. Some very large apartments had been built on the site of some of the naval buildings, although interestingly one of the blocks appeared to have been abandoned part way through construction.Any trace of the freight yard that would once have existed at the bottom of the incline has long since been obliterated by history and the expansion in the Royal Navy yards that occupied this part of Portland Harbour during theCold War. Now the Royal Navy has moved out and commercial buildings are filling the void.

Portland Castle

Before moving on I took a look at Portland Castle, almost hidden in the trees off the road. A quiet spot now, but its presence reminds us of the strategic need for this kind of defence in years gone by. A group of giggly girls had got together for what looked like the last hurrah of summer. Despite the unseasonably warm weather Istill thought they were very brave in considering swimming in the harbour waters.

Fortuneswell Beach

I pushed on along the harbour road to where the A354 finally enters the island at the northern end of Fortuneswell. From here I started the walk down the western side of the island, heading up on to the top of Chesil Beach for its last half mile or so before it runs into the cliffs of Portland.This was the first time I had been on to the top of the beach since its embryonic beginnings at the western end, two walking days further back along the coast.As I looked along the line of shingle I thanked my lucky stars that the coast path doesn’t even attempt to use this as its route. To do so would be mind-numbingly boring and extraordinarily hard work. I sense that only the fool hardy or masochistic would attempt such a route, while everyone else would do the sensible thing and boycott it entirely.

Try Again

I briefly walked along the promenade looking for a refreshment stop and was pleased to see that there was a café at the far end. I was less pleased by the cost of the cold can that I purchased and even less pleased by the fact that they appeared to have no water available to buy. They were missing a serious trick here in my opinion, especially as the beach below was filling up with scuba divers and their associated companions. Although the café looked the part, I wasn’t sure whether they had mentally already wound down for the winter…

Dive Team

Anyhow, feeling somewhat refreshed I plodded my way back up the steep hill that I had only recently descended on the other side of the island. I took it slow and steady to enable me to enjoy the changing view as I climbed. At the top I paused for a minute to enjoy this view for the last time before my perspective was to change. At the topof the hill I met with what was once the narrow road that accessed the hinterland of the island.It has now been widened and moved away from the cliff edge slightly, enabling some public art depicting various reminders of the quarry industry to be installed. Portland Stone has been prized for many years and was used in the construction of St Paul’s Cathedral, the UN building and the Cenotaph among many other prestigious buildings. Reminders of the quarrying are ever present throughout the island and the next couple of miles in particular provide a good study of the impact made by quarrying on the landscape.


The path continued along the top of the enormous cliffs for the next mile or so, with breathtaking views across Chesil Beach and the azure sea below. I was astonished at the colour of the sea, which wasn’t too dissimilar with the parts of the Mediterranean I have seen. On the shore side of the path were lots of quarrying reminders, with half cut blocks discarded and various engineering features still in place to help get the stones out. It made for a fascinating section of walk, and for me probably the best section of the entire day.

Cotoneaster Cliffs

At Blacknor the path just about manages to skirt around the side of a military installation and the views across Chesil are suddenly replaced with views down towards Portland Bill and its lighthouses, the southern tip of the island. The scenery changed somewhat too, with the cliffs getting less dramatic all the way as I headed south. The walk became more open too with less quarrying activity. The interior of the island cannot be called picturesque, for most of the visible buildings are rather ugly looking ex military and local authority housing. Although a gloriously sunny day, I could imagine how depressing these places must be on those gloomy cold and grey winter days – grim!

Path Framing

Still, progress was very quick along this section of coast, partly because I was heading slightly downhill the whole time. The path was undoubtedly popular, although some of the walkers were less than considerate towards their fellow users. One family in particular were paying no attention to their dog, who was yapping at all who passed and then decided it would terrorise a group of horse riders for daring to amble slowly past. The reaction from the owner/ keeper? Nothing at all…

North Portland Cliffs

As I approached the very ugly looking business park at the edge of Eastnor my way was blocked by an animal of a very different nature – one of the largest caterpillars I had ever seen! This big hairy beast was shuffling across the path in front of me. Sadly I didn’t know what kind it was, although I suspect it was a tiger moth of some sort given its resemblance to those I have seen in books. Portland has a few species that do not appear anywhere else due to the geographical nature of its location. I did think I might have struck gold and found a rare species, but I couldn’t be sure…

West Coast

A little further on and I passed the first of three lighthouses that occupy Portland Bill. This first one is now converted to a very desirable looking house and is neighboured with a National Coastwatch Foundation lookout tower. I should imagine this is one of the better gigs for a Coastwatch Volunteer as the view must be stupendous on a good day. Ahead of my the present lighthouse was obviously the honeypot that most visitors had headed for today. The car park was stuffed and all around the ‘Bill’ were hundreds of people milling about enjoying the day.

Huge Caterpillar

After looking around the outside the lighthouse (which was now closed for winter!), I popped into the café to stock up on drink. The place was absolutely heaving, with dozens of plates of fish and chips being dished up to what must have been an unusually busy October Sunday. I trust the owners had stocked up ahead of time, for there didn’t seem to be any shortage of food.

Portland Lighthouse
The onward part of coast was initially a strange mixture of tourism, industry relics from quarrying times and the odd bit of fishing. Yet the mixture of activities seemed quite natural altogether somehow. Over by the third of the lighthouses there was quite a large collection of beach huts. Most appeared to be boarded up for winter now, but there were quite a few that had been opened up again for the day. I suspect that many of the owners hadn’t dreamed of such a day when they shut up a few weeks earlier.I was interested to see that one of the huts was for sale as I passed. It had clearly seen better days (in fact I pulled down a garden shed at home that was in better shape), and yet the owners wanted £20,000 – yikes! I guess it was all about location, location, location!
Portland Bill Lighthouse
Eventually I reached the end of the tourist bit, rather more suddenly than I could have expected. The path then entered an old quarry, which was a bit of a moonscape. I am guessing that all the best quality had been removed for the next few hundred metres was a bit of a desert in terms of vegetation and ecology – even the grass was having a hard time growing! There was still a fair amount of activity going on though, with canoeists offshore exploring the coastline, a diving vessel speeding back round I assume to the beach where I had seen the rest of them before and a bunch of rock climbers practising on some of the steep cliffs.I was pleased to see so much human activity as I was slightly uncomfortable at how bleak the landscape had become, courtesy of our forefathers. It was a relief to head up out of the quarry, although having to walk along the main road for a short distance wasn’t quite what I had in mind for an escape.
Portland Bill

Fortunately the road walking wasn’t far and I was soon heading along a twisting and turning section of path down into Church Ope Cove. This fabulous little cove was not what I was expecting after traversing the quarry.It reminded me of some of the Cornwall stretches of the Coast Path, as the little cove was overlooked by the ruin of Rufus Castle, said to have been built for William II (William Rufus). Not much is left of the keep now, for much of it has fallen prey to coastal erosion.Far below the castle, the cove is flanked by lots of beach huts and although the beach is still popular it is sadly not made of sand any longer as it was another casualty of the quarrying industry, with much of the surface now covered by quarrying debris. Yet, despite that nature is taking charge again and the stones are already turning into rounded pebbles!
Framed By Huts
Having descended almost down to sea level at Church Ope Cove, I faced a rather steep climb up to the base of the castle keep. Having satisfied myself that there was little more to see of the castle up close I continued on my way, soon re-acquainting myself with the railway line that I had followed earlier today on the Rodwell Trail. A short section is available to walk on the Isle of Portland too, as it made its final journey into Easton. I was so taken with the railway line and the rock climbers practising their skills along the former cutting that I missed the fact that I was supposed to climb higher up above the trackbed! No matter, for I found a way up a little further along, although I had to do my best impression of a mountain goat in order to reunite with the official path!
East Coast
At the top of the cliff I was soon aware that I had regained the height that I had on the other side of the island for far below me was the breakwater coming into view. The path continued a course around yet another prison, this time a young offenders institute, but no less formidable looking. I guess Victorian prisoners were left in no doubt about their freedom being taken away! The land below the cliff was clearly used by the military in recent times, with a prominent rifle range in view but now rapidly becoming overgrown due to its lack of use.
Church Ope Cove
Just beyond the prison I passed what could be forgiven for being just another random old shed. This was however the engine shed for the locomotives that worked the quarries in this area. A very noticeable incline leads down towards the port and I should imagine was once a hive of industrial activity. Today the rails are gone and replaced by a road, but not too much imagination is needed to guess what it once looked like. Of course it helped that there were a few pictures showing how things used to look on the side of the old shed.
Rufus Castle
By now I was really thinking about my return to the car and rather than retrace my steps along the same road that I had taken earlier in the day, I took a path leading round yet another quarry (this one still operating!) to reunite with the incline that I had found at the outset of the walk. By now the view had changed a bit as the sun was a little higher in the sky and the shadows were much reduced. I was pleased to see that the bush at the top of the incline attracted so many butterflies, although the numerous red admirals seemed a bit shier than I was used to. I tried in vain to get some decent shots before eventually giving up. Of course the fact that I had a two hour drive home helped focus the mind a bit!
Portland Railway
All in all this was a superb walk – helped of course by the unseasonably warm and sunny weather. Despite not usually liking crowds when I am out, I did really appreciate watching what everyone else was doing. Seeing so many different activities going on put the Isle of Portland into a completely new perspective. Although the settled parts of the island don’t do its natural beauty justice, the coastline is dramatic and definitely worth a look – don’t be tempted to by-pass this section when heading east!
Portland Breakwater


  1. I'm glad you enjoyed this walk anyway and it looks like you had perfect weather. I remember last time I was there I parked next to a car with a "Keep Portland Weird" sticker in the back window so it's true the place is a little unusual. I was also very surprised with how stunning the coast is, and parts of some of the towns are also quite nice (where the museum is for example) although I agree a lot of them aren't. Regarding the £20k price tag for a beach hut you might be interested that the ones on Mudeford Sandbank (you've been posting those photos onto flickr recently) sell for more than 5 times that price. Yes - over £100k! Crazy for what is little more than a shed but part of the reason is that (unlike most beach huts) you're permitted to sleep in them, which makes them more desirable (but still not worth that sort of money).

  2. Hi,
    Great blog. I'm the SWCP National Trail Officer, and we're in the process of rebuilding our website, and I'd like to add a link to your pages from the revamped version of these pages on the new site - http://www.southwestcoastpath.com/main/sections/index.cfm?fsa=dspSectionDetail&w_id=184. Would this be OK?
    Mark Owen (mark.owen@devon.gov.uk) - 01392 382557

  3. Thanks for your kind comments Jon! This walk was a revelation to me. I am amazed at the prices of beach huts. I did see on in Worthing for £30k, but it was at least in good condition! I didn't know that about the Mudeford beach huts - no wonder they are popular.

    Mark - you lucky man! Must be one of the best jobs on earth... I would be delighted if you linked my blog. Can you conjure up a few more days off so I can come and visit some more?

  4. Hi Paul

    I have just spent some time reading through your posts on the SWCP, which are a great mixture of narrative and photographs. This is one of the LDF's on my bucket list and one which you seem to have enjoyed, although you still seem to have a few sections to complete.

    Your pictures of Babbacombe and it's cliff top railway brought back some fond memoiries of a holiday nearly 50 years ago, spent camping in a small clearing overlooking the sea, living on pasties, (which I see you are quite partial to) milk and beer, one of the best holidays I have ever had.

    Other locations such as Bovisand, Chesil Beach and Falmouth are remembered from my diving and sailing days in the south.

    I smiled at your comments on how genuine walkers mainly acknowledge one another, while tourist look away or are engaged in conversation. I mainly walk solo or with my wife but have to admit to walking with 3 or 4 friends on the LDF's. Having said that we are usually never together at any one time apart from the evenings spent in the local hostelries.

    I look forward to your further posts on the SWCP.


    PS I have closed my Google blog as I am now on http://www.walksintameside.co.uk but your options wouldn't accept the url in open ID.

  5. Thanks for your kind comments Bill. I am glad you are enjoying my blog. I have had a fascination with the SWCP since tackling a short section when on Scout Camp in Lynmouth in 1981! It is my ambition to complete by the time I am 50 - I have managed quite a few more sections pre-blog days so this isn't so unreasonable. I have yet to find a section I haven't really enjoyed to be honest.

    I must admit that I really miss the Pennines - I had a fabulous few years of walking when I lived up there. Not too many opportunities now but I have subscribed to your website so I can get a good dollop of nostalgia every so often!

  6. Hello Wanderer

    I must say that I by-passed Portland on my travels under the pretext that it was an island and did not meet my definition of coastline. Following your description, I might change my criteria!

    I have walked the section from Weymouth to Burton Bradstock via Abbotsbury. I took the route inland of the Fleet, not fancying miles of shingle. I was a lovely route in late Summer, meeting literally millions of swallows migrating south.

    As you can see I am on the move again, now by foot. I have a backlog which I promise to clear in the near future. Perhaps we may meet up on our travels.

  7. Hello Tom, I think you missed out by not going round the Isle of Portland. Well worth a look 'unofficially' if it doesn't meet your criteria!

    I have also done the section from Abbotsbury - the official Coast Path follows the Fleet coast rather than Chesil Beach and I was thankful for that!

    You never know - we might meet, or have we already without even knowing it?

  8. Hello, Just would like to say thank you for your positive comments about mu Home Isle. I am a volunteer Ranger for Portland, and your comments about the paths were very pleasing. In the past, Portland has had a bad press about being Bleak, and windswept. These comments were usually made due to the conditions. In fact, even in the South West Coast Path Association's annual book...the review states "Portland Isn't Pretty" This is not a good advert for Portland. Perhaps Portland isn't pretty to visitors who arrive from, maybe their own well funded and lovely home towns. Unfortunately, Portland is in a area of deprivation, after the Royal navy left, the Naval Air station left, and the Admiralty research station Left. Portland IS part of the Southwest Coast path, and as you so rightly say...You cannot miss it out! Your blog here is refreshing, your point of view valid and acceptable, and again...Thank you. For giving a different perspective on the Isle of my birth, a positive candid look at an insular Isle. Thanks very much, and if you return to the Isle, Maybe we will cross paths. It will be a pleasure to chat! All the best. Andy Straw (Volunteer Coast Ranger)

    1. Hello Andy, Sorry that I have taken so long to reply. You may not have realised but this blog is no longer active as I ran out of room! You can now find me on Worthing Wanderer 2. Thank you so much for your lovely comments. I found Portland fascinating and although I caught it on a good day I think my view would still be the same on not such a great day. In fact one of these days I shall return to look around more at some of the industrial stuff.

      This was one of the most enjoyable stretches of the SWCP I have completed. It was surprising and delightful!
      Kind regards