82e – Church Ope Cove to Portland Bill

As we walked south from Church Ope Cove I felt that the landscape was almost Mediterranean.  We were completely alone.  The sky was a blistering blue and glared off the limestone cliffs.  The sea rippled in an inviting turquoise colour rather than in the steely green-grey I often see off England’s shores.  Overhead, a young buzzard hovered as it hunted.  We watched it for a long time.  It seemed to follow us as we went.  Were we disturbing its prey as we crunched our way along the path?  Or maybe it was hunting us!

35-buzzardThe Coastal Path south of Church Ope Cove is a solitary, beautiful stretch of coastline that I would recommend to anyone.  After so many quarries, prisons and immigration centres to the north side of Portland it was a pleasure to get back to a stretch of rugged coastline.  Except the ruggedness still had a structured look to it.  None of Portland is untouched.  Its stone has been lost to too many construction projects. Every cliff face had a blocky look to it, showing where the stone had been cut from its face.  We weren’t quite walking in a Minecraft game but the comparison springs to mind.

Looking Back NorthIndeed, we soon reached reminders of Portland’s contribution to the urban landscape of so many cities across the world.  Massive stone blocks had been set at the side of the path.

But these had not been discarded.  They a purpose – they had some ropes looped around them.

Portland Climbing StoneWhy where there ropes looped around these blocks?  I leaned over the cliff edge and peered down – ah!  A climbing lesson – Portland is a much sought-out climbing destination.

Portland ClimbingThe students were all sat around a climbing instructor who was running through the order of the day, which was clearly for the students to take the strain of the rope and climb up to the plateau above.  With us at the top.  Or perhaps other people who would come along after we left.  Other, more sinister, people who could easily snip the rope when these climbers were only half way up, were they so inclined to do so.

It’s not that I don’t trust complete strangers who carry a pair of kitchen scissors with them when they walk in remote places.  It’s just this:  I would be quite happy to place my life in the taut fibres of a piece of rope.  It’s the taut fibres in the minds of the people walking by the anchor point I think I would be more inclined to worry about…

Walk #82 Statistics (of which this post forms the fifth part):

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82d – Portland Part V – Chruch Ope Cove

About half way down the east cost of Portland is Church Ope Cove.  It offers a secluded beach which, it is said, was once sandy but is now pebbly.  Apparently the extensive quarrying on Portland covered the sand with rock debris which was gradually worn down by the sea into the pebbles that form the surface of the beach today.  Dig down, though, and it is said that the sand lies beneath like buried treasure.

Church Ope CoveIt is believed that the first ever Viking attack of Saxon England took place at this spot, in 789AD.  The raid was in the form of three ships from Hordaland in Norway.  They were spotted as they landed and the authorities were alerted.  The Royal Reeve of Dorchester, whose job it was to identify foreign merchants entering the kingdom of Wessex, came down to investigate and was promptly killed for his troubles.  This small incident was the start of a significant period of history and heritage of Britain.

Overlooking Church Ope Cove is Rufus Castle.  Originally constructed in Norman times to defend the exposed bay, the ruins today are actually a 15th Century blockhouse which is believed to have been constructed on the old Norman site.

Rufus CastleLying just underneath the castle are the ruins of St Andrew’s Church.  There have been several churches built on this site and the earliest dates back to over 1,000 years ago.

St Andrews ChurchThe ruins found today are little more than an outline of the church, in places indistinct due to the encroaching green fingers of nature.  Lying outside the church is a small smattering of graves.  Rumour has it that there is a pirate buried here, and that his grave is marked by a skull and crossbones – here he is!

Grave at St Andrews ChurchI accept that this stretch of coastline was notorious for smuggling.  Church Ope Bay itself, which lies all of 100 metres to the south east of the church, saw its fair share.  However, the suggestion that graves with skulls and crossbones on them designate the final resting places of pirates is, I’m afraid, a myth.  Do not plunder these graves in a desperate need to seek buried treasure, for all you are likely to find is a police car waiting for you when you clamber back out empty-handed!

Graves with skulls and crossbones on them might be few and far between, but they are not as rare as you might think.  In fact there is one local to me in Barnet, North London.  It too is rumoured to be the final resting place of a pirate (Barnet, lying somewhat inland, is not renowned for its pirating activities, so maybe this pirate was retired).

In fact, skulls and crossbones on graves are simply a symbol of mortality and death.  Sometimes the skulls are winged, symbolising ascension to heaven.  The skull and crossbones symbol was popular in the 1700’s.  That’s it.  Sorry.  No pirates I’m afraid.

Having put paid to that, there are some myths which deserve to be perpetuated.  There is, I think, a certain duty which is encumbent on all adults to tell all children that a pirate is buried under any headstone they may see with a skull and crossbones on it.  I know this is wrong, but don’t worry about being wrong.  We all err.  In the words of a friend of mine (who knows who she is but who has probably forgotten that she said this to me once):

To err is human, but to arrrrrrrr is Pirate!

Points on this part of the walk (copy and paste the co-ordinates into Google Earth)

  • Church Ope Bay:  N 50° 32.300 W 002° 25.670
  • Rufus Castle:  N 50° 32.370 W 002° 25.740
  • St Andrew’s Church:  N 50° 32.340 W 002° 25.740

Walk #82 Statistics (of which this post forms the fourth part):

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82c – Portland Part IV

Shortly after passing the walls of Portland Prison, the Coastal Path veers eastwards, leading down a steep slope back towards the sea.  After prisons and immigration centres I was rather looking forward to more proper coastline.

From our vantage point at the top of this slope we had views back to Portland Harbour. Look how the sea is calmed by the presence of breakwaters.

Portland Harbour BreakwatersThe landscape on the eastern side of Portland is mostly scrub, bounded by the sea on one side and cliffs on the other.

16-east-side-of-portlandA small herd of British Primitive goats have been introduced to the area as a trial to help manage the scrub.  We kept our eyes open but didn’t see them.  Perhaps they were hiding from the scary titan in the cliffs.  Did you spot him in the photo?  No?  Here, have a closer look!

Face in the CliffHe wasn’t interested in the goats.  He was keeping watch out to sea, where off shore a shelf seemed to drop dramatically, give the sea a beautiful two-tone colour.

East Portland CoastlineThese cliffs are known as The Cuttings.  It was originally an old railway cutting that left several cliffs rising up from its flat quarried base.  It is a very popular rock climbing area, and the various sections of The Cuttings have their own names:  Sunlovers Slab; Mindmeld Area; and Modern Nightmare Area, to name but a few.  One of them is called Hall of Mirrors.  I couldn’t help wondering whether this cliff titan was in the Hall of Mirrors section, and whether this section was named after him and the other faces in the rock?

Points on this part of the walk (copy and paste the co-ordinates into Google Earth)

  • Portland Harbour Breakwaters:  N 50° 34.375 W 002° 24.960
  • The Cuttings:  N 50° 32.565 W 002° 25.420

Walk #82 Statistics (of which this post forms the third part):

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82b – Portland Part III

Portland Stone is probably one of the best known building materials in the world.  It is used extensively in London and the United Kingdom and has been exported to all over the world.  It has been used in many famous buildings.  St Paul’s Cathedral, Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London, the Bank of England, the United Nations Headquarters in New York – the list is endless!  I have a theory that the Isle of Portland used to be a lot bigger than it is today!

There is evidence of quarrying all over Portland.  If you spend any time there at all you can’t help but come across some quarried moonscape sooner or later.

Quarrying at PortlandAt one corner of one of the quarries we found this:

Is this an Escape PodIt looked a bit like the escape pod that was used to rescue the Chilean miners in 2010, although it was too big for that, and the square metal plate at the bottom clearly showed this capsule was not meant for sliding through bored rock to rescue trapped quarry workers hundreds of feet under the surface.  Perhaps, then, it was nothing more glamorous than a rusted metal Portaloo.  Probably something in between these two extremes of high adventure and the begrimed mundane.  I’ve heard it has disappeared from this spot now, so we’ll probably never find out what it was.

As we reached the not-too-high walls of Portland Prison we saw a ladder poking up from inside.  There must, I am sure, be lots of plausible reasons why a ladder would be poking over the walls of a prison, but on this particular occasion I could think of only one!  We waited for the desperate face of an escapee to peer over the top of the ladder and sniff at the fresh air of freedom, but nothing happened.  Perhaps we were too late and he’d already made a dash for it.

Escape Attempt at Portland Prison?Portland Prison, by the way, once housed John Babbacombe Lee, known as the “man they couldn’t hang”.  It was not through want of trying.  He was convicted of murder, although the evidence was circumstantial, and sentenced to hang.  On 23 February 1885 three attempts were made to execute him, but all ended in failure.  Although the gallows trapdoor had been tested prior to the execution, it refused to open at each attempt.  Eventually, after the third attempt to kill the condemned man, the Home Secretary decided to give up and commute the sentence to life imprisonment instead!  Lee was eventually released in 1907 and died in the 1940’s.

Points on this part of the walk (copy and paste the co-ordinates into Google Earth)

  • Quarry:  N 50° 33.375 W 002° 25.900
  • Escape Capsule Portaloo:  N 50° 33.361 W 002° 25.799
  • Portland Prison:  N 50° 33.000 W 002° 25.325

Walk #82 Statistics (of which this post forms the second part):

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82a – Portland Part II

New Ground is a road that runs along the high ground of Portland.  For coastal walkers there are convenient (and free) places to park along its length.  To the north are expansive views over Chesil Beach.

Chesil BeachChesil Beach is a natural tombolo, the exact origin of which is disputed to this day.  It is 18 miles long, running from Portland in the south to West Bay in the north.  It is a pebble beach; its pebbles are fist-sized at Portland and gradually get smaller and smaller, ending up pea-sized at West Bay.  It is said that if a local fisherman landed on Chesil Beach in thick fog then he could tell you exactly where he was just by looking at the size of the pebbles!

In the foreground are the embankments of Verne Prison, introduced in my last post.

The Embankments of Verne PrisonAs we left New Ground we passed right by its entrance.

Entrance to Verne PrisonYou’d be forgiven for thinking it was a fort rather than a modern-day prison.  In fact, it started life as the Verne Citadel.  It was built by convicts from Portland Prison (a different prison, which lies just to the south) between 1860 and 1872.  It was originally a fortress sprawling over some 50 acres and housing 1,000 troops, strategically located so as to have artillery overlooking the sea on three of its sides.

By 1906 the guns had been removed, and the Verne Citadel was used as a barracks and then as an infantry training centre before closing in 1948.  In 1949 it was handed over to the prison commission and turned into a medium security prison housing 575 men.  In 2013 it became an immigration removal centre.

During our walk around Portland we saw plenty of things we weren’t expecting, but of all of them we really didn’t expect to see any wallabies!

Wallaby at Fancy's FarmNo, they were not residents of the immigration removal centre.  They were running around quite happily at Fancy’s Farm which also boasts various other domestic and farm animals.

We would see a lot more on Portland.

Points on this part of the walk (copy and paste the co-ordinates into Google Earth)

  • Parking Spot at New Ground:  N 50° 33.450 W 002° 26.245
  • Chesil Beach:  N 50° 36.600 W 002° 31.550
  • The Verne Prison:  N 50° 33.720 W 002° 26.150
  • Fancy’s Farm:  N 50° 33.530 W 002° 25.920

Walk #82 Statistics (of which this post forms the first part):

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81g – Portland Part I

For me, Portland started off as a little uninspiring.

At the entrance to Portland is the Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy.  Completed in 2008, the academy buildings hosted the sailing events of the 2012 Olympic Games.  Was their legacy one of a thriving sailing community of sporting excellence?  No, our taxi driver suggested after our walk!  Rather, the Olympics had caused a brief and congested flurry of activity but little else besides.  On 5 August 2012, some 80,000 people packed into the town to watch Sir Ben Ainslie win a 4th consecutive medal.  Our taxi driver wished they had stayed away.

Weymouth and Portland National Sailing AcademyNext door to the sailing academy was Royal Navy Air Service Portland, also known as HMS Osprey.  Established in 1917, it continued service until 1999, when it was closed against a backdrop of cutbacks in the armed forces.  There is a still a Lynx XZ250 on display here – this craft was part of the Royal Navy Black Cats Helicopter Display Team – but even this is due to be moved off site in 2017.  The site of the base is now known as Osprey Quay and is a somewhat soulless business park and marina.

Westland Lynx XZ 250Amongst all this new development there are quiet pockets of history.  In the harbour we saw some Phoenix Caissons, part of the concrete Mulberry Harbours which were towed to France during D-Day operations to form massive floating harbours off the coast.

Phoenix Caissons in Portland HarbourWe also saw Portland Castle, built by Henry VIII between 1539 and 1541 to defend England against attack from France.

Portland CastlePortland Castle had quite an exciting time during the English Civil War, being taken by the Royalists and withstanding two sieges before finally falling to the Parliamentarians in 1646.  Today it is a well preserved building squeezed into a quiet corner of a large-scale regeneration area.

We were pleased to take our leave from this strange mix of old and new development, even if it meant passing through a tunnel and undertaking an uphill slog through a housing estate in which our taxi driver later told us that we should not linger were we ever to return to this place.

Access to Portland's Housing EstateThis uphill slog followed a straight line known as Merchants Railway, the site of an old railway used in connection with the island’s long history of quarrying.  It then veered off, continuing to climb and snake around the southwestern side of HM Prison The Verne, an adult and young offenders’ institution which is now used as an immigration removal centre for detainees awaiting deportation.

Portland Prison

Hmmmm.  So far Portland had offered an apparently unwanted sailing academy; a rather soulless business district; a dodgy housing estate; and a prison.  Not a great start, but things were about to get a lot better.

Points on this part of the walk (copy and paste the co-ordinates into Google Earth)

  • Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy:  N 50° 34.230 W 002° 27.370
  • HMS Osprey Lynx Helicopter:  N 50° 34.200 W 002° 27.123
  • Phoenix Caissons:  N 50° 34.250 W 002° 26.570
  • Portland Castle:  N 50° 34.092 W 002° 26.803
  • Portland Prison:  N 50° 33.720 W 002° 26.150

Walk #81 Statistics (of which this post forms the final part):

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81f – Weymouth to Portland

Portland.  There it was, a short walk away across the isthmus behind Chesil Beach and in front of its harbour defences which stretched across the water.

PortlandThe walk across to Portland from Weymouth is not the most interesting one we have ever undertaken.  It starts off along the Rodwell Trail which follows the line of an old railway track.

Rodwell TrailThis may not be the most interesting path to follow, but to me tracks like these can be a bit of a godsend.

In the past, when the kids were still with us, I would see a stretch like this and yell, “Route March!”  I would stride off and stare intently at my GPS to make sure we are doing at least 5 miles an hour, ignoring the shouts of dismay from the kids as they had to pick their paces up.  The quietude of the countryside would be shattered with complaints of a stitch within the first 100 yards, but soon the entire situation would turn into a walking race.  No running – that wasn’t allowed.  Our bulbous bodies would struggle to keep up with our little legs; our elbows would swing like pistons; our bums would wiggle unashamedly at other walkers as they dived for cover to avoid the unstoppable train of our barely-in-control group that steamed towards them.  Then, in a flagrant breach of the unwritten and unspoken rules, one of the kids would break into a run, leading the other to tear off after them.  We could cover miles in minutes like this, and when you’ve got 7,000 of them to cover that can sometimes be a good thing.

The kids weren’t with us today, but family tradition is family tradition, and so it was that in the blink of an eye, we arrived at Portland.

Welcome to PortlandCan you see that sand bank in the background?  That’s the world famous Chesil Beach.  More about that later, for there are much better views of it from the high land on Portland.

Points on this part of the walk (copy and paste the co-ordinates into Google Earth)

  • Rodwell Trail:  N 50° 35.402 W 002° 28.060
  • Chesil Beach:  N 50° 35.402 W 002° 29.530

Walk #81 Statistics (of which this post forms the sixth part):

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