On the Isle of Portland

What do you do in Dorset if it’s midsummer and blowing a gale? (yes, yes, enough about the weather).

Mum and Dad were staying this weekend. A huge wind was blowing, grey clouds rolling across the sky, and waves of rain coming in from the west.

We decided to head to Portland Bill.

The Isle of Portland has to be one of the strangest places in Dorset. Strike that – in Britain. Not quite an island, it’s linked to the mainland by a narrow road which only emphasises the otherness. It is famous, of course, for Portland stone, which was shipped around the coast by sailing barge to London, where it became first Inigo Jones’s, and later Wren’s, building material of choice as they created a shining white classical city out of the brick and tile townscape of the old London town.

It’s strange that a material of such beauty derives from a landscape that is in part ravaged, part strange. Portland is not beautiful – at least not in the conventional sense. But I love it.

At the far southern tip is Portland Bill, with its conglomeration of lighthouses, Ministry of Defence buildings (of unknown use), beach huts and cottages… and above all… the cruel sea. Which in a force 8 gale and on a grey cloudy rainy day is about the most oppressive thing you can go and watch. But completely mesmerising.

To me, this looks like a face. But then I find faces everywhere.

Dad inspecting the monumental white-painted obelisk, a shipping marker, perched right on the cliffs.

Sheltering from the gale.

The initials will stand for Trinity House, who own the nation’s lighthouses, but I couldn’t help thinking of my friend Tom Heatherwick, designer of the Olympic cauldron, London bus, and most excitingly of all – maybe a new garden bridge across the Thames?  I’m not sure that Thomas wouldn’t have been building obelisks in impossible places in 1844.

There’s a weird collection of ramshackle beach huts, that remind me of a place I’ve always wanted to visit but have never been… Derek Jarman’s garden at Dungeness…

Dad and I went to go and inspect the Coastguard hut, permanently manned by volunteers who, well, guard the coast.

This crazy thing is a ‘Sword Stick’ – specially designed for probing into sand, to find contraband. We assumed it would be sealed up now.

Wrong. It was extremely sharp.

You couldn’t be better looked after.  Luckily, given the foul weather, there were no boats at sea except heavy shipping far out in the English Channel.

I was very very happy to learn about this aerial. This, it turns out, is what gives the weather conditions from Portland Bill to the Meteorological Office for their nightly and morning Shipping Forecast. Can we have a Shipping Forecast interlude… And now the reports from Coastal Waters…  I have a curious dilemma at this point. Every single English reader of this blog will doubtless know the Shipping Forecast. Not many foreign readers will. So, for them: it goes out on the radio every night 00.48 in the morning, and then again at 5.20am. I think you will understand that I don’t need a lot of sleep, always, when I say that I often listen to the nightly broadcast and to the following morning.

Well, the Wikipedia entry puts it nicely: The unique and distinctive sound of these broadcasts has led to their attracting an audience much wider than that directly interested in maritime weather conditions. Many listeners find the repetition of the names of the sea areas almost hypnotic, particularly during the night-time broadcast at 0048 UK time.

The Forecast has been the subject of poetry and writing. And, in our own little way, of the special edition of the beautiful Letterpress printed poster that we commissioned from the Flowers & Fleuron Press, available from the shop. We had it printed in special colours, and the sharp-eyed will note the existence of the sea-area Finisterre, which was replaced in 2002 by FitzRoy (in honour of the founder of the shipping forecast). So ours is called the Finisterre Edition. We like to be a bit out of date. Here is mine at home:

You can see Portland just below Wight, about half way down. Well, anyway… it all starts with that little aerial.

which stands next to these rather beautiful white painted 19th century cottages and the upper lighthouse.

We made our way home via the fine, haunting, Portland stone church of St. George Reforne. Now closed for services (except on Christmas and St George’s Day), it is beautifully restored and looked after by the Churches Conservation Trust.

The graveyard is a wild place, surrounded by Industrial sheds.

And with exceptional carving – as you would expect from the Portland stone masons.

My type of building.

The quality of the stonework is incredible. Also, perhaps, as you would expect.

Beautiful Lichen. I became rather obsessive about this lichen (I have been known to obsess about lichen).


We left, and across the road, in the gale and rain, was a cricket match. Just to confirm the weirdness of Portland…

…watched over, in the distance, by the great Victorian Hulk of the Portland Young Offenders Institution.

You see what I mean. We went home for tea… curiously invigorated.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.

Latest Arrivals

1 of 2
1 of 4

Best Sellers