NCI Portland Bill

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NCI Portland Bill in 2011.

NCI Portland Bill is a National Coastwatch Institution (NCI) lookout station on the Isle of Portland, Dorset, England. The station is situated 50 metres above sea level on the cliff edge, half a mile north of the tip of Portland Bill.[1] It lies close to the Old Higher Lighthouse, which was operational from 1716 until 1906, when the main lighthouse took over duties at the Bill.


NCI Portland Bill in 2007.
NCI Portland Bill in 2011.

The lookout at Portland Bill was first built in 1934, where it was ran by the coastguard up towards the end of the 20th century, as a look-out and signal station, which had been on constant watch by night and day. In 1994, HM Coastguard stations across the UK were shut down by the government in effort to save costs. Portland Bill was one of the last lookouts to close in 1997 though, as the station was considered to be vital due to the treacherous sea area. This was largely related to the infamous 'Portland Race'.[2] For centuries Portland Bill, the promontory at Portland's southern-most point, has been considered one of the English Channel's most dangerous hazards. Both Portland Bill and Chesil Beach are the locations of many wrecks of vessels, from the earliest times. Aside from the promontory jutting out into the channel, the Portland Race and Shambles sandbank make the conditions around the Bill even more hazardous. The Portland race can run up to 10 knots in spring tidal streams, and are created when the tide and current clash round the Bill Point. The Shambles is a sandbank situated south-east of the Bill, which extends across two miles. The depth of the sandbank has been recorded as reaching as little as 11 feet in two places during low tide. It wasn't until the early 18th century that the first two lighthouses were built; Old Higher Lighthouse and Old Lower Lighthouse.[3]

Shortly after the coastguard stations were closed a group of mariners, lead by Captain Starling Lark, formed a group to re-open the closed lookouts, following the deaths of two young fishermen directly in front of the lookout at Bass Point in Cornwall.[4] As of 2014, 46 stations have been successfully re-opened, with each being run independently, with all having their own management responsible for their own lookout. However by the time the Portland Bill lookout was chosen to be reopened, it was in desperate need of repair. In May 1996 a small band of enthusiasts were led the first Station Manager Dave Crabb, and together undertook the task of refurbishing the dilapidated station. The initial refurbishment was completed by early 1997, and on 27 May 1997 the station was declared officially open.

However, the station was still inadequte, largely as the watch room had just enough room for 2 watchkeepers. After a large fundraising campaign was started by the station manager Geoff Peters, the station was successfully and totally rebuilt in 2004, which allowed the watch room to be extended to almost twice its original size. The construction work increased the watch room size from 7" x 9" to 12" 9" x 16" and also allowed extra space below for storage, a meeting room and a sewing room for the flag maker's industrial sewing machine. The original building held a 50 ft Canadian Pine mast, which was replaced by a new steel reinforced fibre glass mast with yard arm. The remaining good wood from the original mast was used to make various items such as door stops and fruit bowls, which were sold at fund-raising events. The recommencing of operations within the newly rebuilt station, on 27 July 2004, was marked with a service of blessing conducted by the Reverend Anita Thorne, which was attended by 100 guests. Whiskey Bravo (the Coastguard SAR Helicopter) also flew past in honour of the occasion.[5]

The official opening was carried out soon after by HRH The Princess Royal.[6] On the day of this opening, bad weather consisted of rain and a force 9 gale. During the day the Princess Royal observed the rescue of a 40 ft yacht "Jakinda" which found itself in difficulty within the heavy seas off the bill, and she manned the high powered binoculars during the incident, monitoring the situation until the yacht reached slightly calmer waters. The event was successful in demonstrating the work the station handles. The lookout was the first ashore to spot the troubled yacht, which was then reported to the HM Coastguard in Weymouth, also relaying the May Day when it was transmitted by the yacht, a short time afterwards. A planned tea party for the visit was moved to the local inn afterwards. Following a visit, the Mayor of Portland, Tim Woodcock, was so impressed with the work of the watch that he inquired if he could join the team, and he started training in January 2006 along with seven other recruits. In 2007, thanks to generosity of the local Dorchester company Maiden Windows, an extended storm porch was fitted at the top of the stairs, with a door opening onto a balcony on three sides. This allowed extra space and access, as well as providing much needed safety for watchkeepers.[5]

Operational details[edit]

A watchkeeper inside the lookout station in 2003, before it was rebuilt.

The station is equipped with all the very latest technology, state of the art radar, AIS (Automatic Identification System) for identifying shipping, up to the minute weather monitoring system and very high powered binoculars. In early 2012 a CCTV camera was installed at the top of the Portland Bill Lighthouse to allow the station to monitor the inshore passage around the Bill, which was previously unable to be seen from the lookout.[7] This passage is often used by numerous smaller vessels avoiding the 'Portland Race', and this monitoring is in addition to the 640 square miles of sea previously monitored. Aside from monitoring all shipping, leisure and commercial craft using the waters around the Bill, the station watches for walkers, climbers, horse riders, and anyone else using the land and sea areas around Portland Bill. In 2013, the station logged 15,962 vessels, with involvement in over 160 incidents.[6]

The lookout is run entirely on public donations, and this is partly achieved with local fundraising. The lookout costs £8,000 a year to keep active. It is manned in four hour shifts, usually by 3 watchkeepers, from 07:00–19:00, 364 days each year, with volunteers also on standby throughout the hours of closure, including Christmas Day. The station has 65 highly trained volunteers of all ages and backgrounds, who give their time for free, buy their own uniforms and claim no expenses whatsoever. NCI watchkeepers monitor radio channels, provide a listening watch in poor visibility, and are trained to deal with emergencies, offering a variety of skills and experience and full training by the NCI ensures that high standards are met.[8] Overall, the team donate 9,417 man hours to the community each year, which excludes time 'on call', as well as administration work and training.[6]

The station is officially part of the Dorset Search and Rescue, also working with HM Coastguards, the Search and Rescue Helicopter, the RNLI, UK Border Agencies, Immigration, Drug Alliance, Dorset Police, and the Marine Police. Additionally the station gives regular weather reports to HM Coastguards at Weymouth.[6]

Training centre[edit]

In 2012, the station had opened a recently built training centre as part of the station, which was funded entirely by donations.[6][9] With the announcement of the HM Coastguard moving away from Weymouth – the training centre was built to replace the training facility used by the station at Weymouth and Portland Coastguard Headquarters. The centre was built on site during the earlier part of 2012. The timber frame construction was built with celotex insulation, composite external cladding with a one piece EPDM rubber membrane roof covering. The unit features double glazed doors and windows, and is monitored and recorded by CCTV and intruder alarm 24/7. The room itself has seating for over 40 people in a theatre style, and holds two large conference tables, leaving ample room for the lecturer to conduct training sessions from the revolving whiteboard or from a laptop via the ceiling mounted projector on to the large remote controlled drop down screen.[8]

The centre holds training courses together with VHF qualification and First Aid courses. There are also plans to hold more public open days, and by having additional space for visiting groups, the first class training centre provides space for group talks, lectures, and a display/information centre. On varying dates, exhibitions linked with Portland, the Jurrassic Coast and various other educational agencies benefiting the community, are held. During summer months, a series of open days are held to attract income for the lookout.[8]


In 2009 NCI Portland Bill was the winner of The Wessex Charity Award (Volunteers of the year). This award had 200 applicants. A gala event presentation was held at the Rosebowl, Hampshire in February 2010, where the Awards were organised by PAS Consultants from Winchester. Following the recognition, Meridian Television decided to create a 10 minute feature at the lookout, and this was first screened throughout the region then sold onto Westward Television.[5]

During the Queen's Diamond Jubilee year (2012), the station was presented with The Queen's Award for Voluntary Service - the highest recognition possible for volunteers, and the equivalent of an MBE. That same year in August HRH The Princess Royal returned, together with Vice Admiral Sir Tim Laurence, to present the prestigious award, which the Princess Royal had purposely asked to perform herself.[10] The Princess Royal was welcomed by the Lord Lieutenant of Dorset Mrs Anthony Pitt-Rivers who presented a line-up of guests including the vice-chairman of Dorset County Council, David Crowhurst, Borough mayor councillor, Margaret Leicester, Portland deputy mayor councillor, Les Ames, NCI chairman, Alan Richards, Portland station manager, Geoff Peters, Commander Rupert Best, Philip George, court leet agent and Bailiff and Andy Sargent, coxwain of Weymouth Lifeboat.[11] Pitt-Rivers gave a brief account of the work of the NCI before inviting the Princess Royal to present the Queen's Award. Princess Anne praised the NCI volunteers which the organisation depends and she passed on "a very big thank you" on behalf of all who use the sea and cliffs of the area. On the same day she officially opened the recently completed training centre and to view a new CCTV camera mounted on the lighthouse for the station. The Princess Royal also presented the QAVS award to the four Dorset NCI Station Managers on the same day. Before their departure, the Princess made time to have a word with everyone present at the Queen's Award Ceremony.[11]

Following their appearance, both the Princess and Vice Admiral wrote letters to the station, and officially joined the team at Portland Bill by becoming Honorary Watchkeepers, which was a further endorsement of the importance of the work carried out at the lookout.[6][12][13] It was during their visit for the ceremony that they intimated that they would be willing to become Honorary Watchkeepers.[11][14]


  1. ^ "NCI Portland Bill – QAVS | ……..eyes along the coast". Retrieved 2014-02-09. 
  2. ^ "Portland Race & Rounding the Bill via the inshore passage". 2011-02-21. Retrieved 2014-02-09. 
  3. ^ Morris, Stuart (1985). Portland: An Illustrated History. Dovecote Press. p. 35. ISBN 978-0946159345. 
  4. ^ "Portland Bill - Walk". South West Coast Path. Retrieved 2014-02-09. 
  5. ^ a b c "History | NCI Portland Bill – QAVS". 2004-07-27. Retrieved 2014-02-09. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f "Who We Are | NCI Portland Bill – QAVS". Retrieved 2014-02-09. 
  7. ^ "Portland Bill CCTV keeps eye on Dorset coast (From Dorset Echo)". 2012-03-07. Retrieved 2014-02-09. 
  8. ^ a b c "Training Centre | NCI Portland Bill – QAVS". Retrieved 2014-02-09. 
  9. ^ "CIVIC LEADERS VISIT NEW TRAINING CENTRE AT PORTLAND BILL | National Coastwatch Institution". 2012-11-07. Retrieved 2014-02-09. 
  10. ^ "Princess Anne is greeted by 100 guests at Portland Bill lookout station (From Dorset Echo)". 2012-08-08. Retrieved 2014-02-09. 
  11. ^ a b c "The Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service | NCI Portland Bill – QAVS". Retrieved 2014-02-09. 
  12. ^ "ROYAL SEAL OF APPROVAL FOR PORTLAND BILL | National Coastwatch Institution". Retrieved 2014-02-09. 
  13. ^ "Princess Anne and husband Vice Admiral Sir Tim Laurence join Portland Bill's National Coast-watch team (From Bournemouth Echo)". 2012-12-03. Retrieved 2014-02-09. 
  14. ^ "Royal Seal of Approval | NCI Portland Bill – QAVS". Retrieved 2014-02-09. 

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 50°31′18″N 2°27′26″W / 50.5217°N 2.4573°W / 50.5217; -2.4573