Chesil Cove

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Chesil Cove at Chiswell with Chesil Beach stretching off into the distance.
Chesil Cove from West Cliff.

Chesil Cove is a cove situated at the most southerly part of the 29-kilometre (18 mi) long Chesil Beach in Dorset, England. The cove protects the low lying village of Chiswell in Underhill on the Isle of Portland from flooding. Chesil Beach itself is one of three major shingle structures in Britain, extending from West Bay to Portland, the latter acting as a large groyne holding the beach in place. It also provides shelter from the prevailing winds and waves for the town of Weymouth and the village of Chiswell. The name "Chesil" is the old English word for pebble.

Chesil Cove is part of a storm beach and the pebbles slope steeply down towards the water, leading to rocks, reefs and sandbed. The site is sheltered from northern and eastern winds, however any wind above Force 3 from the south or west creates a swell.[1] The size of the pebbles on Chesil Beach increases in size from West Bay's gravel-sized deposit to the larger pebbles at Chesil Cove.[2] Following a storm the beach, particularly at Portland's end, parts can be moulded into ridges and gullies, though these are temporary features.

Further past the cove is West Weares, and a footpath leading to Hallelujah Bay. Above the cove is a land sculpture known as Chiswell Earthworks. It was created by John Maine RA, between 1986 and 1993.[3] Overlooking the cove, at West Weares, are a group of beach huts, essentially garden sheds which have been modified by means of cladding and painting to give them the appearance of an authentic beach hut. These can sell for up to £30,000. Similar types can be found at Church Ope Cove and Portland Bill.[4]


In the age of sail Portland was a barrier preventing the escape of sailing ships, trying to round Portland Bill, from the lee shore; the prevailing wind is from the south west and the cove is deep in the eastern end of the Lyme Bay so many trapped ships came ashore there. Because of this, more wrecks have occurred at the cove, and along the beach, than in most of the British Isles. Chesil Beach became infamously known as "Deadman's Bay", taken after the name Thomas Hardy gave West Bay, including Chesil Cove, in his novel The Well Beloved of 1892. He was referring in particular to the hundreds of bodies washed ashore after a gale wrecked Sir Hugh Cloberry Christian's fleet in 1796. Before the use of rocket-fired lines victims had no escape from the swirling pebbles. Dramatic shipwrecks would continue into the 20th century, and a notable example is the Madeleine Tristan wrecked in 1930.[5] One of the earliest recorded was a Spanish merchant ship wrecked in 1305.[6]

When sailing ships were common, a strong string of coastguards were based along Chesil Beach, with lookouts and cottages at Chiswell, Wyke Regis, Chickerell, Langton Herring, Abbotsbury, East Bexington, Burton Bradstock and West Bay. At present there are no manned stations along the beach, as coverage is provided when required from Portland Coastguard.[7]

By the mid-17th century the disturbing number of ships being wrecked around Portland, particularly on Chesil Beach, was often subject of much debate. This led to the first attempt at constructing a lighthouse at Portland Bill, which Trinity House had initially refused. A pair of lighthouses, working in tandem, would later be built there in 1789. Over the centuries locals on the island had been reputed to purposely wreck ships to obtain valuable cargo, though any reality of this was greatly exaggerated as the folklore spread. Portlanders had become infamous for plundering any ship they could get to, and in some incidents victims in need of rescue would be ignored, as the locals were far too occupied with looting what they could find. However, amongst the looting, the local residents would also be frequently noted for their bravery in the saving of lives.[8]

In 1825 the Dorset Committee for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck, a forerunner of the RNLI, was established. A lifeboat was handed to Portland in February 1826, but it was never put into action as the local fishermen were largely content with their own methods in regards to the rescue of those aboard any foundering ships along Portland's part of the coast. This involved use of their own fishing boats known as lerrets. These vessels were purposely designed for the conditions of Chesil Beach, measuring up to 20 feet long, and also often used for smuggling.[9]

In September 1877, two ships, the SS Avalanche of the Shaw Savill Line and the SS Forest, collided off Portland Bill. As a result of the tragedy, 106 people, including whole families, died. The following dawn saw local fishermen successful in rescuing the few survivors from Chesil Cove. Two lerrets were launched, each crewed by seven men, and set off towards a boat some distance out flying a distress flag. The entire disaster, along with the bravery of the local fishermen, resulted in a national subscription. A suggestion was made to the Rev. J. A. Beazor, the rector of Portland, that there was need of a church in Southwell, and the Avalanche Memorial Church was built in 1879 as a memorial to those who died on both ships.[10]

The 18th-century public house The Cove House Inn remains one of Portland's most popular pubs and has been a Grade II Listed Building since May 1993. During the 19th century, many important meetings were held in the public house, including committees for the relief of suffering for catastrophic storms, for the establishment of a lifeboat in 1870 and for protest against the practice of catching fish by dynamite charges, which had become national news in 1877.[11] During storms watch was kept over the beach, and survivors would be taken in, or fatalities taken to the nearby "Dead House".

Shipwreck list[edit]

Some of the ships wrecked at Chesil Cove include:[12][13][14]

  • John - 1669 - English cargo vessel, crew and cargo saved
  • Angel Guardian - 1681 - cargo vessel, 6,000 oranges recovered
  • Peter - 1685 - French cargo vessel, four hogsheads of French wine saved
  • De Hoop - 1749 - Dutch West Indiaman, all crew saved
  • Johanna Theresa - 22 January 1753 - Dutch craft, the captain and five men drowned
  • Biscaye - 1754 - Spanish cargo vessel
  • Fanny - 1760 - British brigantine involved in slave trade
  • Zenobie - 12 January 1762 - French privateer
  • Le Pelerin - 10 August 1784 - French craft
  • Nancy - 13 August 1793 - British brig, crew and part cargo saved
  • Peggy - 3 June 1796 - American cargo vessel, four of eleven crew saved
  • Rodney - 26 September 1799 - English brigantine vessel, all crew saved
  • Hayward - 26 September 1799 - English brigantine vessel, all crew saved
  • Concord - 26 September 1799 - English brigantine vessel, all crew saved
  • Smith - 26 September 1799 - English brigantine vessel, all crew saved
  • Endeavour - 1800 - British craft, all crew saved
  • Nancy - 24 March 1801 - British craft
  • Le Mercuria - 4 March 1818 - 500-ton French vessel, 20-30 drowned
  • Pollux - 20 October 1820 - brig, one crew lost
  • Iris - 7 November 1823 - Swedish brig, the master and three of six crew men saved
  • Wasster Norland - 26 November 1824 - Swedish sailing vessel, six of ten crew men saved
  • Leonora - 3 December 1824 - Dutch Galliot, all crew and cargo lost
  • Haabets Anker - 11 December 1828 - Norwegian brig, all crew saved
  • Atlas - 9 December 1831 - American brig, nine of eleven crew saved
  • Amyntas - 15 December 1841 - English brig, master and three crew drowned
  • Maria Johanna - April 1852 - Dutch galliot, four of crew of seven lost
  • Amalie - 1 February 1869 - German brig
  • Edwin & Sarah - 5 January 1882 - ketch
  • Sapphire - 9 August 1883 - English schooner, all crew of six saved by coastguard rocket apparatus
  • Christiana - 4 September 1883 - Norwegian barque, eight of crew of ten saved
  • Fannie C - 1 October 1890 - schooner, beached whilst on fire, 10 saved
  • Ora et Labora - 13 October 1891 - Norwegian brig
  • Ran - 1894 - Norwegian barque, six of crew of fourteen saved
  • Emma Maria - 25 October 1903 - Russian schooner
  • Patria - 26 October 1903 - Norwegian barque
  • Dorothea - 14 February 1914 - Dutch cargo steamship
  • Preveza - 15 January 1920 - Greek vessel
  • Ellida - 1920 - salvage tug
  • Madeleine Tristan - 20 September 1930 - French schooner, all crew saved


Portland became infamous for smuggling over the age of sail, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries when more people from Portland were committed for smuggling offences than anywhere else in Dorset. As such Chesil Cove was a popular location for landing contraband, along with Castletown and Church Ope Cove. Despite consistent attempts to control the smuggling, Revenue crews would often struggle to succeed. In 1784 the cutter Diligence landed her contraband onto the beach, when the Revenue lugger Alarm arrived. The crew were fought off by a crowd of locals. Three years later and more than 200 people were involved in attacking the crews of two Revenue cutters who were attempting to seize goods. The goods were often distributed across the island, as many houses had secure cellars. Whenever customs men gained possession of contraband, smugglers would retaliate with desperate measures to retrieve it.[15]

Flooding defences[edit]

Chiswell village was established through the ancient fishing industry, as the village's location was ideally suited alongside Chesil Beach. Despite being vulnerable to storms and flooding from Chesil, it had become the largest settlement on the island by the 18th century. It was during this period that many stone houses were constructed within the village, similar to The Cove House Inn. Some of these strong houses were built on, or against the slope of Chesil Beach. The exposed nature of the village to storms and sea flooding meant Chiswell has had to withstand devastation on many occasions. Such incidents of flooding were not uncommon, particularly during winter storms. A plan was devised to drain the Fleet lagoon as a counter measure, but these plans were abandoned in 1630.[16]

The most notable incident of flooding remains The Great Storm of 1824, which occurred in November, when the village saw destruction beyond anything seen before. The streets of the village saw seawater with a sufficient enough depth to float a vessel of 100 tons. A number of homes were destroyed, approximately 36, and another 100 were left uninhabitable. 27 residents died during the flooding, either buried under their destroyed homes, or by drowning. Several ships were also wrecked on Chesil Beach during the storm. The island's only link with the rest of Britain was the ferry at Ferry Bridge, and this was destroyed in the storm. This caused a delay of four days before supplies could arrive at Chiswell. The village never fully recovered from the event, and traces of the aftermath still exist today. However the storm did revive plans for a bridge to link Portland with the mainland, which was completed in 1839.[17]

The idea of building a sea wall had been put forward since the early 20th century, to combat the flooding that caused havoc within the village. With the rise of unemployment following the First World War, it was suggested in 1920 that 250 local men could be hired to build the sea wall. However the council chose other schemes instead, despite local residents voicing their fears on the increasing likelihood of another potential flooding disaster. In 1935 local residents drew up a petition of 165 signatures, demanding sea defences to be put in place to protect the village. The council agreed to take boreholes, and soon after a £33,000 defence scheme was created. However a lack of funds meant the plans did not come to fruition, as both the government and the Crown Estate refused to contribute. By the 1950s the council decided to make a start on construction of the planned sea defences.[18]

In 1958 work started on the expansive sea wall. Even during construction the wall's strength at holding back high waves was seen to be a successful defence for the village. In efforts to save on construction costs the council decided not to add steel piling to the wall, despite engineers in 1945 stressing that these were essential. However when a 1962 storm left a hole under the foundations, these piling were quickly added. Atop the sea wall a promenade was laid, covering the distance along the beach from The Cove House Inn to West Weares, at the point where Chesil Beach ends. The promenade immediately proved itself a successful attraction, and it quickly became one of Portland's most popular recreational areas. The sea wall was completed in 1965, and not only did the wall protect Chiswell from storms, but it also stablised a landslide at West Weares.[19]

Although the protective measures of the wall were great, particularly violent storms were still successful in breaching the beach beyond the defence. Within this region a large part of the village was still unprotected. In both December 1978 and February 1979, two major floods saw cars "tossed around like toys", and international attention focused on the village, as the flooding effects were shown on televisions across the world. A new look of neglect and dereliction followed within the village, as the damage was extensive. In May 1981 the Government minister appeared on the island, and made the announcement on the beach that a £2 million grant was being put towards new protection works. This joint £5 million Wessex Water Authority, and Weymouth and Portland Borough Council scheme started in 1983. These highly innovative defence works brought further stability and confidence to the Chiswell community. The scheme was completed in 1986 and has been tested several times under the one in five year event, the storm surge. The work featured the raising of Portland's Beach Road by one metre, and a huge drainage system that collects vast amounts of water pouring over the beach, and then carries it out into Portland Harbour in the east.[20] In addition to this wire-mesh baskets filled with pebbles were added to the ridge of the beach during the 1970s, and later in the 1990s. The sea wall was reinforced during the 1980s as a precautionary measure.[21]

In December 1989, the Cove House Inn suffered major damage in a storm, despite the installation of new sea defences shortly beforehand. After the storm, the pub remained forlorn for a short time, but managed to reopen three months later, as the building's basic structure still remained in good condition. In January 1990 another storm hit Chesil Cove and the sea overwhelmed the defensive wall. A great deal of damage was caused and the mainland was cut off from Portland. The violent storms across the south-west of England in early 2014 caused widespread flooding in the village, which received a lot of national and international attention. The residents in the village remained on standby after flood sirens sounded for the first time in 30 years in early January 2014. Following this work commenced on restructuring the beach, while repairs of the flood defences were carried out too.[22]

World War II[edit]

With the importance of Portland's naval base, the island was a natural target for German aircraft during World War II. The island saw many raids during the course of the war, the first of which was on 30 June 1940. The majority of bombs fell into the sea, and the sole bomb that managed to hit land failed to explode. It landed near a set of wooden cafes at Chesil Cove, and is possibly the first bomb of World War II to fall on England.[23]


Chesil Cove is a popular site for scuba divers, who flock from around Britain to dive it. It has become one of the best known shore dives in the UK.[24] The cove being a reasonably shallow (10 to 15 metres, 33 to 50 feet) shore dive, which suffers little from tidal current, is an ideal site for increasing the experience of trainee divers. The cove has an interesting selection of south coast marine life such as nudibranch, dogfish, spider crab, lobster, cuttle fish, pipefish, triggerfish, sandeels, giant wrasse, bass and John Dory. An abundance of flora and fauna, such as kelp forests and snakelock anemone, has flourished by the remains of the many wrecks that now provide natural shelters for marine life.[25] Although there have been many shipwrecks in the cove, few significant divable remains exist close to the beach due to its exposure to strong waves.

One of the few remains of the Preveza is a small section poking out from the pebble seabed. Due to storms over the last few years more of the wreck has become visible.[26] It was wrecked at Chesil Cove in 1920.[27]


Through fishing, the beach provided the main occupation for the villagers of Chiswell and the rest of the islanders. The beach is still used by sea anglers and the British shore-captured rockling record was set there in 1992.[28] A common tradition was that fishermen would never go to sea without a pebble with hole, which would be tied to a lanyard hanging from the stern.

Recreational fishing is a popular pastime at the cove. Various species that can be caught include cod, wrasse, dog fish, whiting, pout conger and huss. During summer evenings float fishing can catch scad, mackerel and garfish.[29]


The Jurassic Coast stretches over a distance of 155 kilometres (96 mi), from Orcombe Point near Exmouth, in the west, to Old Harry Rocks on the Isle of Purbeck, in the east .[30] The coastal exposures along the coastline provide a continuous sequence of Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous rock formations spanning approximately 185 million years of the Earths history. The localities along the Jurassic Coast includes a large range of important fossil zones.

See also[edit]

Media related to Chesil Cove at Wikimedia Commons


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  19. ^ Morris, Stuart (1985). Portland: An Illustrated History. Dovecote Press. p. 144. ISBN 978-0946159345. 
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Coordinates: 50°33′34″N 2°26′54″W / 50.5595°N 2.4482°W / 50.5595; -2.4482