Naval Attraction

By Train, Melanie | Geographical, August 1998 | Go to article overview

Naval Attraction


Train, Melanie, Geographical


Portland shares few of the characteristics of its neighbour Weymouth, one of Britain's most popular coastal resorts. Yet with its two mainstays -- quarrying and the Navy -- no longer contributing to its economy, this wind-battered and treeless place is relaunching itself as Britain's newest holiday hotspot. Melanie Train tests the waters. Photographs by Andy Baker

Weymouth is the archetypal British seaside resort, smelling of fish and chips swathed in salt and vinegar, its striped deck chairs blustering in the wind on the esplanade. There's the strangely comforting cacophony of children's delighted screams, arcade slot machines churning out coppers, shrieking seagulls being spumed by agitated sunbathers and the burr of ice-cream vans. It is these things, combined with the fact that Weymouth boasts one of the cleanest beaches in Europe, that makes it so popular with tourists of all ages.

Although its south Dorset neighbour, Portland (officially the Isle and Royal Manor of Portland) does not possess any of Weymouth's characteristics, nor does it have its elegant Georgian terraces or white sandy beach, it still hopes to relaunch itself as Britain's newest tourist destination.

To the untrained eye, Portland is a sparse, wind-battered and -- bar a few exceptions -- treeless sort of place, littered with disused quarries.

Strictly speaking, Portland is not even an island. It is connected to the mainland by the great arm of Chesil Beach (page 22), which stretches parallel to the Dorset coastline for 26 kilometres, and, since 1839, by the Ferry Bridge. Home to 30,000 inhabitants, this seven by three kilometre block of limestone is an unusual place.

Portland's recorded history goes back 1,500 years but remains of a Mesolithic settlement are thought to be about 10,000 years old, and there is clear evidence of Iron Age strip field systems.

Over the years, and mainly thanks to Dorset's best known author, Thomas Hardy, the famously insular Portlanders have earned the title "Slingers". The nickname was acquired because they used to defend their land from Kimberlins (the Saxon-influenced colloquial term for strangers) by throwing rocks picked up from Chesil Beach at them. Although farming and fishing have been mainstays of the island's economy for many years, Portland is most famous for its hard white limestone, which has been quarried for centuries.

One of Weymouth's most famous MPs, Christopher Wren, used the stone to rebuild London after the Great Fire of 1666 -- most notably St Paul's Cathedral -- and Portland experienced one of its busiest periods after the Second World War when vast quantities of stone were required to rebuild blitzed English cities.

"After the war there must have been 50 or so quarries in operation and each would turn out about 10,000 cubic feet of stone ready to mason," says Bob Wollage, who has lived on Portland for most of his 86 years. "Today that figure has slumped dramatically. Even in my day stone was expensive, too expensive for today."

The few quarries still operating are kept in business largely by the reconstruction work following IRA bombings, and many disused quarries are now tourist attractions, where visitors can learn about the arts of quarrying and masonry.

The bare, rocky remains of coastal quarries are generally several degrees warmer than elsewhere on Portland. These sites are favoured by a rare and diverse flora and fauna. Tout Quarry, which like many of Portland's disused quarries doubles up as a sculpture park, is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest and is home to three types of orchid: the bee, pyramidal and spot orchids. Broadcroft Quarry is now a butterfly reserve with the largest and only colony of the cretaceus silver-studded blue butterfly in Britain.

Apart from its limestone, Portland is famous for its naval tradition. Henry VIII first recognised its strategic importance in the mid-1500s when he commissioned the construction of Sandsfoot and Portland castles. …

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