Walk - Portland Castle
Walk information provided with help from Natural England. Map reproduced by permission of Ordnance Survey on behalf of HMSO. © Crown copyright and database right 2022. Ordnance Survey Licence number 100022021.
- Park in one of the car parks on the left on New Ground and turn left to walk along the path towards the end of the road.
One of Portland's many stone quarries, but abandoned as such a century ago, King Barrow on your right has been turned into a nature reserve. With the help of volunteers, the scrub was cut back and the area cleared and then the site was left to regenerate naturally. Plants growing in abundance here include the colourful low-growing creepers kidney vetch and horseshoe vetch, as well as early and autumn gentians, with their vivid blue or purple trumpets. There are many species of lichen, and in summer Adonis and chalkhill blue butterflies flit among the flowers. Birds include whitethroats and linnets, as well as meadow pipits and little owls.
- Turn left here onto Verne Hill Road and take the footpath on the right a moment later across the common to Verne Hill Road. Cross the road and carry on along the footpath, descending along the old Merchants Railway to pass under a low bridge and come out on the road just above a roundabout.
The slopes of The Verne and Old Hill have been strikingly sculpted into gullies, cliffs and terraces by the extensive quarrying that took place here over many centuries. In the nineteenth century railways and tramways were constructed, too, to carry the stone to waiting ships and to the breakwater being built in the water below. The Verne Citadel was built to accommodate the convicts doing all the construction work, and forts and gun emplacements were built to protect the island (see the Portland Plateau Walk). But when all this hectic industry came to an end after the Second World War, nature began to reclaim this area, resulting in it being designated the Verne Local Nature Reserve. Look out for the rare Adonis blue butterfly here, too, and the unique silver-studded blue butterfly (see the Church Ope Cove Walk), as well as nationally scarce plants including early gentian and the starry white-petalled dwarf mouse-ear.
The horse-drawn Merchants Railway was built in 1826. One of the earliest public railways in the world, in 1865 it carried 81,000 tonnes of Portland stone, from Tout and other west-coast quarries, and from Priory Corner to Castletown. The Yeates Incline brought stone from the eastern end of Tillycombe. Two lines of trucks were joined by a chain running over a drum at the top of the incline, and the weight of the laden trucks descending drew the empty ones back up to the top of the railway. Teams of horses were used to transport the stone to and from the trucks.
Across the road at the roundabout is Portland Castle. Built in the early 1940s to protect the island from the possibility of a French and Spanish invasion, Portland Castle is considered one of Henry VIII's finest coastal forts. Following the 1538 Treaty between the two European neighbours, when Henry feared they might join forces against him, he had a series of coastal defences built, ranging from earthen bulwarks and small blockhouses to lavish Italian-style fortresses. Portland Castle was an artillery fortification, but it did not see active service until the seventeenth century, during the English Civil War, when Cavaliers and then Roundheads occupied it. It was armed again during the Napoleonic Wars, and in the First World War, it was used as a seaplane station. In the Second World War, it was a major venue for D-Day preparations.
- Turn left to walk to the roundabout and take the first road on the left (Castle Road). At the cemetery bear right on Victory Road, crossing Queen's Road on the roundabout at the bottom to take the next road on the left. Cross the road to pick up Pebble Lane, on the right after the car park.
The causeway joining Portland to the mainland is the eastern end of Chesil Beach, an 18-mile pebble and shingle tombolo – a ridge formed by wave action and connecting an island to the mainland. The UK's largest tombolo, Chesil Beach is about 12 metres at its highest, and about 160 metres wide. The pebbles – a mix of flint and chert from East Devon, with some quartzite pebbles from the Budleigh Pebble Ridge – are graded in size, with the largest ones at this end the size of a man's fist, while the ones at Bridport are no bigger than peas. It is said that traditionally a local fisherman could tell where he had landed, even at night, by the size of the pebbles.
- Follow Pebble Lane to pick up the South West Coast Path on the right, just before the Cove House Inn, and follow it above Chesil Cove, climbing steeply up the hillside. At the top turn right, ignoring the path leading to the left a moment later, and carry on along the Coast Path, high above the sheer cliff faces towering over the rocky coastline.
Blacknor Fort was built in 1902 to defend the west coast against enemy vessels. During the First World War, it was equipped with 9.2-inch guns, and it was re-equipped again for the Second World War. Gun emplacements can still be seen on the cliff-tops here, as well as launch pads for experimental anti-aircraft rockets. The fort's gunners were helpless witnesses to the 1944 Operation Tiger - the D-Day rehearsal that went tragically wrong when Nazi E-Boats attacked Allied landing crafts, resulting in nearly 1000 deaths (see the Slapton Ley Walk). Orders at Blacknor were not to fire, for fear of sinking Allied craft.
- After about a quarter of a mile, another path leads off to the left, close to one of the stone arches across the Coast Path. Turn left onto this path and follow it into Tout Quarry. Reaching the main path heading through the quarry, turn left to follow it back the way you have come. There will be many diversions as you browse the fascinating carvings in the rocks along the way, but if you return to here and follow this path past the open-air workshop, it will lead you on to the T-junction by the 'Sentimental Arch' sculpture. Turn right and ignore the paths to left and right to walk towards the road. Take the path to the right before you reach the tunnel under the road and make your way to a gap in the wall where you can join the road.
From around 1750, Tout Quarries were worked by hand by gangs from the families who owned the 'lawnshed' strips of land further down the island (see the Portland South Walk). 'Tout' means 'lookout', and the area affords superb views over Lyme Bay. It was also a good place for disposing of waste stone, and much of this was tipped over the edge of the cliffs onto West Weare, below.
The quarry is a haven for wildlife, with its grasslands, scree slopes and sheltered gullies, and the ground is bright and aromatic with creepers and herbs, attracting butterflies. Look out for lizards and slow worms sunbathing on the path.
The Portland Sculpture and Quarry Trust project was born in 1983 after 30,000 tons of boulders had been extracted to build sea defences in West Bay. The quarry became a protected landscape, and national and international artists have carved fascinating designs on rock faces and fashioned inspirational sculptures from boulders and outcrops. Open-air workshops are held here in the summer.
- On the road turn left, carrying on across the roundabout to make your way back to New Ground and the car park at the start of the walk.