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Isle of Portland, Dorset    
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Chesil Beach

Legend has it that Chesil Beach was created in the space of a single long night by a mighty storm, the likes of which has not been witnessed since. The sea threw up the shingle bar so fast that it trapped a portion of itself behind it, the Fleet, and lost the Isle of Portland.

There may be some substance, at least partial to the legend - the severity of the storms along this exposed coast is notorious and the waves have frequently crashed over the shingle bar. Vast quantities of shingle are moved by the storms and the legend may be the remnant of the folk memory of a particularly vicious storm which piled up the material where it had previously been absent.

The Beating of the Bounds ceremony is performed on the beach every seven years.

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Traces of the occupation of the peninsula have been found throughout the 'Isle. At Portland Bill on the southern extremity are middens (deposits of animal bones, shells, and other refuse produced by human activity) from the Stone Age.

Iron Age tools and barrows have been found elsewhere.

The prison at the north end of Portland in the former Verne Fort was constructed on a site which was occupied during prehistoric and, later, Roman times.

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The Romans chose the highest point on Portland, on Verne Hill overlooking the sheltered anchorage. They erected massive earthwork defences of ramparts and ditches with commanding views of the Dorset coast and the sea.

The Romans were also the first to quarry the local stone on a large scale and many of their stone sarcophagi have been found on the peninsula.

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The Saxons were invaders against whome the The Romans were vigilant to the point where they had a military officer known as the "Count of the Saxon Shore" to command the defense of the south and east coasts of England. Having driven the Romanised Britons westwards into Devon and Cornwall, they had secured a measure of peace until the raids of the Danes began in the 8th century.

Exposed Portland, with its easy access from the sea, was one of first places in England to be raided by the Danes. The raid, vivdly preserved in the folk-memory of the "islanders", was of the sort for which the Danes became reknowned; ransacking the island, they murdered the reeve and made off with Portland's young maidens.

The banished but powerful Earl Godwin led an attack on the island in 1052, recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle;-

When Earl Godwin . . . he drew up his sail and his ship: and they went west at once to the Isle of Wight; and landing there, they plundered so long that the people gave them as much as they required of them. Then proceeded they westward until they came to Portland, where they landed and did as much harm as they could possibly do. Meanwhile Harold had gone out from Ireland with nine ships, and came up at Potlock with his ships to the mouth of the Severn, near the boundaries of Somerset and Devonshire, and there plundered much.

Raiders and political warfare apart, however, the location made it inevitable that the Saxon Portlanders should be fishermen and farmers.

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Although Canute ravaged Dorset before he became King, he tried to rule England very much as a Saxon king. By-and-large, England prospered under the Confessor but the invasion of the Normans brought about foreign masters and customs.

The Conqueror's "Domesday Book", a survey of the taxable property of the realm compiled in 1087, records the pastoral nature of the manor with no less than 900 sheep. Portland is the first Dorsetshire manor to be recorded in the book;-

The King holds the island of Portland. King Edward held it in his lifetime. There are eight acres of meadow and this manor with its appurtenances of Wyke and Waymouth renders 65 shillings to blanch money. Here are 900 sheep, 3 horses of burden, 14 beast and 27 hogs.

The Portland breed of sheep were small, tan-faced animals with both males and females bearing horns. As with other breeds from exposed places such as the Romney, these sure-footed animals are very hardy.

A handfull of the breed are kept in the grounds of the Museum.

Long before Portland Stone was 'discovered' as a building material by Inigo Jones in the early 17th century, Portland was an island of farmers and fishermen. In William I's Domesday Book of 1086, nine hundred sheep are recorded on Portland.

Portland mutton was famed throughout England.

Attempts were made to ban the early pleasure fair at Chiswell because of the "freaks and monstrosities" which were on display.

The Manor of Portland was in the possession of Edward the Confessor before the Norman conquest and afterwards in that of the Conqueror, and continues in the possession of the present monarch, HRH Queen Elizabeth II.

A sheep and cattle fair was held on Portland on November 5th. Considering the difficulty of moving sheep and cattle over the Smallmouth Ferry (now Ferrybridge), it is surprising that the fair existed at all. When the fair started is not known but it was established by the 13th century. With the demise of livestock sales on the slopes of Furtuneswell shortly after the turn of the 20th century, the pleasure fair became the annual funfair now held at Chiswell.

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 Portland castle from the Harbour
Portland's great natural harbour, to the north of the headland, is part of Weymouth Bay. To protect this anchorage during Tudor times, Henry VIII built two castles in 1539;
 Sandsford Castle on the Weymouth Shore
Portland Castle, near the entrance to the Naval Base, is still in use but Sandsfoot Castle on the
Weymouth shore has long been a ruin. Portland Castle cost less than £5;,000 to build and was designed for ordnance in times when archers were still important in warfare. It comprises a two-storey tower, a casement for the main battery and wings for garrison quarters. The castle is open to the public during the summer months.

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The Eastern Massacre

The appearance of a man o'war off any maritime town or village was sure to be accompanied, sooner or later, by the landing of the press-gang to feed the ever man-hungry navy - and Portland was no exception.

So it was that Capt. Geroge Wolfe led a party of marines ashore on April 1st, 1803, to impress the reluctant men of Portland into the cruel naval service. A pitched and bloody battle at the top of the promontory ensued, the Portlanders defending themselves with a variety of weapons, many of these washed ashore on Chesil Beach when troop transports floundered on the gravel.

Four of the Portlanders, including Mary Way who was aged 21, were killed and only three were captured. The battle left nine of the raiding party so mutilated that they never served again.

 Verne Fort from the west (Fortuneswell)
The former fortification atop verne Hill (about 500 feet high), overlooking Fortuneswell, used to guard West Bay. It is now a prison built in to the hillside from which thausands of tons of earth and stone were removed to quarry the stone used in the construction of the breakwaters for the harbour.

The building of the breakwaters which shelter Portland Harbour at the beggining of the 19th century when Britain was threatened by Napoleonic invasion was a huge engineering feat. Thausands of tons of earth and stone were removed to quarry the stone used in the construction of the breakwaters from the top of Verne Hill where
Verne Fort, now a prison, was built into the rock. To move the vast quantities of stone to sea level, a three stage inclined railway was built.

Plans for the construction of the harbour were proposed by the engineer John Harvey in 1794 but thirty years elapsed before the Admiralty undertook the project to build the enormous breakwater.

To facilitate the huge project, a large area of common grazing land had to be purchased by the Crown amidst a great deal of protest from the Portlanders. Eventually a figure of £20,000 was settled upon; £10,000 being shared amongst the land-owning tenants and the remainder being used to build waterworks, a dispensary, new schools and to eliminate the Ferry Bridge tolls.

Prince Albert took an interest in the construction of the harbour. The Royal Yacht had sheltered in Portland Roads during a storm in 1846 but it had been too rough for Queen Victoria to land. Prince Albert laid the foundation stone 1849 and regularly visited the breakwater and Verne Fort during their building. Doubtless he would have laid the last stone in 1872. Instead it was done by the Prince of Wales.

It is estimated that the breakwater contains about 20 million tons of Purbeck stone - stone from the top of the hill which was unsuitable for masonry and had accumulated during some two hundred years of quarrying operations. A prison was built nearby at grove (now the Borstal Institution) for the many convicts who were brought to Portland to transport the stone down to the harbour - many of these who had 'volunteered ' were relieved of transportation to penal servitude in the colonies. 23 years after the task had commenced, the mile-and-a-half long breakwater with an entrance at its southern end was completed.

A form of arrowroot was prepared from the roots of the Cuckoo-Pint which grew abundantly on the fallow fields at the top of the peninsula. This was sold as a cash-crop in Weymouth.

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By 1906, two breakwaters and entrances to the harbour were completed and, with the original Victorian structure, joined Purbeck to the mainland at
Weymouth to create the largest artificial harbour in the world.

What could not have been forseen by the designers and builders of the original breakwater with its southern entrance was the vulnerability of ships in the harbour to the submarine warfare of World War I which errupted in 1914. It was decided to block the southern entrance which was so vulnerable to torpedo attack from the Channel by sinking an aged battleship and removing it after hostilities ended. HMS Hood was chosen for the task but she refused to sink quickly enough and started to turn with the tide. Holes were blown in the bottom of the old ship which obliged by turning upside-down and sinking to the bottom. With the battleship, any plans for raising her after the war was over were scuppered as well and HMS Hood still lies on the sea bed providing a popular fishing ground.

Portland Harbour served as a naval base through two world wars, saw many tragedies, and practically every major naval vessel visited the port. It was also visited by monarchs and the leaders of many nations.

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 Portland Stone blocks at the entrance to a quarry
 Quarry Waste at Portland Bill
Portland Stone was 'discovered ' by Inigo Jones in the early 17th century. Many of the capitals famous buildings and cathedrals (St Paul's amongst them) are built of the stone.

Thousands of tons of stone blocks unsuitable for masonry were removed from the top of the hill by the Victorian convicts to build the breakwater for the harbour. Thousands of waste blocks, heaped and scattered, still litter the whole of Portland.

Much less of the stone is quarried today than in historic times and many of the smaller quarries have been closed. Modern mechanised techniques have led to the demise of the hundreds of stiff-legged derricks which covered the island.


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Despite frequently being referred to as the 'Isle' of Portland, the hill is not an island at all but connected to the mainland by the eight mile length of Chesil Beach which joins Dorset at Abbotsbury. The more direct connection to Wyke Regis and Weymouth is interrupted by Small Mouth, the narrow outlet to the Fleet lagoon behind Chesil Beach.

The ferry, the only way of crossing Small Mouth for many centuries, was replaced by Ferry Bridge, the tools on which were abolished as part of the compensation settlement made by the Crown when the first breakwater of Portland harbour was built.

A strange local tradition is that the rabbit is never named on Portland as this is believed to cause bad luck.

The Portlanders have always been insular folk, frequently unfriendly, and very superstitious. The small population rarely married mainlanders and an unusual courtship custom prevailed on Portland to ensure fertility; the girl had to report that she was pregnant before a marriage would be announced. The girl would tell her mother when she was pregnant, the mother told the father, her father told the boy's father who told his son that the time was right for the marriage. If no pregnancy was produced after a long courtship, it was considered that the couple were not destined for each other by providence and the girl's reputation was in no way tarnished.

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The rugged scenery of Portland has made it the backdrop for many films. In the early 1930's, Hughie Green played Midshipman Easy on Chesil Beach with Harry Tate, the famous music hall commedian. In The Wicked Lady, Margaret Lockwood galloped along the clifftop.

Jack A'Hoy with the commedian Jack Hulbert was filmed off the breakwater in Portland Harbour; a wooden submarine was constructed for the film and Hulbert was a sailor left outside the vessel as it submerged.

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Towns & Villages

Castletown, Easton, Fortuneswell, Grove, Southwell, Weston

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Portland Castle
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Ancient Portland
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Portland, an Illustrated History
  by Stuart Morris, publisher
Dovecote Press

Island of Portland Railways
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The Island and Royal Manor of Portland
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