Portland is not really an island but is reached over a narrow causeway from Chesil Beach. It is a huge block of limestone, measuring 4.5 miles by 1.75 miles and rising to a height of 400 feet above sea level in the north. The famous Portland Stone quarried here has been used for many well-known buildings. These include both our own St Paul’s Cathedral and the United Nations Building in New York. Many of the quarries here are owned by the crown as Portland is a Royal Manor.
In the second half of the 17th century, Sir Christopher Wren, who was at one time MP for nearby Weymouth, used Portland Stone to rebuild London after the Great Fire. Over six million tons were used to rebuild around fifty churches and other buildings. The stone was taken by barges along the coast to the River Thames. The stone was also used to produce hundreds of thousands of gravestones for those who fell on the Western Front during the Second World War. These were shipped to France and Belgium to the huge war cemeteries. There were also half a million headstones for the Commonwealth war cemeteries in the same area. The Whitehall Cenotaph itself is also Portland Stone.
There is evidence that the occupation of Portland dates back for thousands of years. It was called Vindilis by the Romans and there is evidence of successive settlements of the island. Much later, Thomas Hardy described it as ‘The Isle of Slingers’. This was because the inhospitable Portlanders used to throw stones to keep strangers away.
Portland Castle was built at Castletown in 1539 following attacks by the French. (There was originally another castle opposite, at Sandsfoot in Wyke Regis, but this is now a ruin.) The fortress, overlooking Portland harbour, was built by Henry VIII to defend Weymouth against further attempt of invasion from France and Spain. It has survived largely in its original form. During the Civil War, it was seized by both sides, so witnessed a great deal of fighting. During the First World War it was a seaplane station.
The Verne was originally constructed as a citadel and could accommodate as many as two thousand troops in war time. Today it is a prison. Prisoners from here constructed the breakwaters in Portland Harbour, to form one of the largest harbours in the world. Work was started in 1849, when Prince Albert laid the foundation stone, and completed 1872. It cost the lives of twenty two men.
The Governor’s Garden contains an impressive circular amphitheatre, which can accommodate around 200 people and is made from the local stone. This is a sheltered spot from which there are dramatic views of the sea and the harbour. The local Portland Museum, housed in a traditional stone cottage, tells the history of the island. The displays include information about shipwrecks and smuggling, in addition to the history of quarrying. There are also geological exhibits and numerous fossils.
For more than 100 years, from its completion in 1872, Portland Harbour was one of the main naval bases of the United Kingdom. This base has now closed, due to reductions of military forces following the end of the Cold War, and the harbour is being redeveloped. The Search and Rescue helicopter service still operates from here.
The coastline around Portland has always been hazardous for shipping, especially in foggy weather or at night. There has been a lighthouse on the southern tip of the island for almost three hundred years, to warn vessels navigating the English Channel. The large automatic lighthouse warns mariners of the Shambles Bank, which lies three miles offshore. It is open to visitors at certain times during the season. An older lighthouse stands nearby and is now used by birdwatchers.