SOUTH WEST COAST PATH NATIONAL TRAIL
Stage 5: Isle of Portland Loop
Tuesday, April 30, 2013
This stage of the South West Coast Path is unique, being the only one that starts and ends at the same place -- opposite the Ferry Bridge pub at the southernmost point in Weymouth, looking towards the Isle of Portland (picture 1).
The stage began with a long stretch of walking beside the A354, which crosses a bridge over the narrow channel that connects the Fleet Lagoon to Portland Harbour. The lagoon (picture 2) separates the eastern third of the shingle bank of Chesil Beach from the mainland. As the lagoon is a good deal less salty than the open sea, it is home to rare wildlife and plants.
Chesil Beach runs to the west for 29 kilometres from the northwest corner of the Isle of Portland and is composed of flint pebbles washed along the coast from eroding chalk cliffs. Interestingly, the motion of the tides has sorted the pebbles so that the largest ones are on the eastern end of the beach and the smallest ones are at the western end.
The road runs along a narrow sandbank, which soon converges with the back of the beach. On the left-hand side of the road, the Coast Path runs along the middle of the narrow Portland Common (picture 3) for nearly a kilometre to reach a roundabout at the northern tip of the Isle of Portland. Here the Coast Path turns left, following Hamm Beach Road through an area known as Osprey Quay to reach the waterside at the Portland Marina (picture 4). Most of this area was redeveloped before the 2012 Olympics, as the sailing events were held here.
The Coast Path follows a waterside path around the Marina Office, passing "Tom" the Torpedo, a relic of World War II that recalls the former use of this site for torpedo research and manufacturing between the 1860's and 1960's.
A couple of minutes walk along the waterfront the path bears inland around the small but sturdy Portland Castle (picture 5), another of the Tudor castles built to protect Portland Harbour. The Coast Path follows the streets around three sides of the castle to reach a mini-roundabout, then just beyond the rightmost exit, a milestone points along a sunken, unsealed footpath that passes under a low bridge and then starts a long climb up through a residential part of Fortuneswell, the main town on Portland. This path is the former Merchant's Railway, which was used to transport stone from the quarries up the hill down to the harbour, from which it was shipped all over the UK, including to London, where it was the main building material for St Paul's Cathedral.
As the path climbs higher, there are views back over the harbour to Weymouth and along the great arc of Chesil Beach (picture 6). When the path levels out, it curves left beside a high bank, with views over the western half of Fortuneswell (picture 7). The bank turns out to be a rampart around the outside of the dry moat of the Verne Citadel, built using convict labour between 1860 and 1872 and used as a military fortress and barracks until 1948. Since 1949 the citadel has been a medium security prison housing up to 600 inmates.
The citadel is mostly hidden behind the rampart and the only thing you get to see is a gatehouse that extends out into a corner of the moat where the Coast Path squeezes between a fence and stone wall to climb steps up to a little footbridge that crosses to the gatehouse (picture 8).
Fortunately, the path doesn't cross the bridge into the prison, but instead continues another fifty metres beyond it to turn right onto a rough track that runs southwards past Fancy's Farm and the large King Barrow Quarry (picture 9) before bearing right between two large boulders and following the track up to an old engine shed (picture 10). All along the track are large chunks of stone that have been presumably discarded in the course of centuries of quarrying operations.
The route bears right again to pass by the engine shed and through a gap in the high stone wall surrounding a Young Offenders Institution. The Coast Path follows a clifftop road outside an even taller metal fence along the edge of the institution, with views across the undercliff and across Weymouth Bay towards the coastline I had covered on the previous few days of the walk (picture 11).
Eventually a signpost on the left points down a narrow path that winds its way down into the undercliff to join a broader path that runs southwards parallel to the sheer cliffs (picture 12). Along this path I passed by a couple of groups of rock climbers attempting to scale some of the higher rock faces.
Eventually the path passes behind a tall outcrop standing in front of the cliff and starts to climb steadily up to the ruins of Rufus Castle (picture 13), which stands above the sheltered little Church Ope Cove (picture 14).
A very long flight of rough steps descends down into the cove, passing behind its collection of beach huts (picture 15) before climbing steeply back up again. The path has barely finished climbing when it descends again, running through a landscape of huge boulders and cut stone blocks (picture 16) for about 600 metres until a path winds its way steeply up from the undercliff to meet Southwell Road, which runs along the edge of the massive Coombefield quarry.
About 500 metres down the road, the Coast Path bears left to follow a track past a large terraced quarry called Cheyne Weares (picture 17) and down into the undercliff once again, where the remnants of disused quarries are all around (picture 18), including one of the primitive cranes that were used to lower stone over the cliff into boats (picture 19). After a kilometre the quarries start to thin out and the lighthouses at Portland Bill, the southern tip of the island come into view (picture 20).
The path soon passes by the Old Lower Lighthouse (picture 21), one of a pair of coal-fired lights built in 1869 and designed to work together. For the next kilometre the path follows the coast past a large complex of beach huts, skirting around several large bites out of the coast made by yet more old quarries.
Finally reaching Portland Bill, the path passes the 41 metre high striped Portland Lighthouse (picture 22), which superceded the original lights in 1905. In front of the Lighthouse, at the southern tip of Portland, stands a tall stone obelisk, dated 1844 (picture 23). This a daymark, similar to the one I had passed on top of the chalk cliffs on the other side of Weymouth Bay during the previous day's walk.
Nearby, a Coast Path milestone shows 49 miles (79 kilometres) from Poole and 581 miles (935 kilometres) to the end of the Coast Path at Minehead.
From the daymark, the path turns westward along the rocky coast for 100 metres into another disused quarry (picture 24) then turns right to skirt around the inland side of the razorwire-topped fence of a Ministry of Defence facility.
The path eventually returns to the coast on a grassy clifftop, now heading northwards with views ahead along the west coast of Portland (picture 25). Climbing a little, the path passes by a coastguard lookout station and the Old Upper Lighthouse (picture 26).
For the next couple of kilometres the Coast Path follows the clifftop path, passing a business park on the western edge of Southwell, but otherwise running alongside open meadows until the path reaches the edge of the town of Weston (picture 27). A few hundred metres further along the clifftop, the way is blocked by a wall and the path is forced to descend onto a ledge a little below the clifftop (picture 28).
The path runs along the ledge for the next kilometre, heading through another quarrying area and through a stone arch built from some of the massive blocks of stone that are strewn all over the landscape (picture 29). Just after a second arch that has lost its roof, the path was closed due to a cliff fall and a diversion was signposted through the Tout Quarry, which is now a nature reserve and sculpture park, with all kinds of creations waiting to be discovered (picture 30).
The diversion rejoined the Coast Path overlooking the end of Chesil Beach and the town of Fortuneswell (picture 31). A path leads downhill with a residential area to the right and the grassy terraces of West Weare to the left (picture 32).
The path eventually meets a beachside promenade (picture 33), following it past the Cove House Inn, where the path drops down behind the shingle bank and follows Pebble Lane out to the main road. The footpath beside the busy road is followed along the back of Chesil Beach (picture 34) for almost three kilometres, all the way back across to the Fleet Lagoon (picture 35) and the Ferry Bridge pub (picture 36), which I had last seen 23.5 kilometres earlier.