Portland Bill

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For the children's television series, see The Adventures of Portland Bill.
Portland Bill

Portland Bill is a narrow promontory (or bill) at the southern end of the Isle of Portland, and the southernmost point of Dorset, England. One of Portland's most popular destinations, the popular attraction Portland Bill Lighthouse is found in the area. Both Portland Bill and Chesil Beach are the locations of many wrecks of vessels that failed to reach Weymouth or Portland Roads. Portland Bill is also noted for its rough coast, and is the only place on Portland where the limestone cliffs rise directly from the sea. As such many landforms including coves, ledges and caves have been formed. One of which is Cave Hole - a large cave with a blow hole.[1]

The Bill is still an important way-point for coastal traffic, and three lighthouses have been built to protect shipping, in particular from its strong tidal race and shallow reef. The lighthouses guided vessels heading for Portland and Weymouth through these hazardous waters as well as acting as a waymark for ships navigating the English Channel.[2] The Bill's three lighthouses are the only built on the island, except for the Portland Breakwater Lighthouse, located at Portland Harbour.

The name "Portland Bill" has its roots in "The Beel" as named on early maps. This derived from the beak shape of Portland Bill. From 1588 onwards, when the area was part of a crucial Armanda invasion-warning network, it was often named "The Beacon".


Portland Bill Lighthouse
Piles of stone at Portland Bill from ex-quarrying in the area

Establishment of original pair of lighthouses[edit]

For centuries Portland Bill, the promontory at Portland's southern-most point, has been considered one of the English Channel's most dangerous hazards. 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 strong currents often break the sea so fiercely that from the shore a continuous disturbance can be seen.[3] 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. As evidence suggests, the Romans would light beacon fires at the Bill, on Branscombe Hill, to warn passing vessels. These beacons would also be lit on Verne Hill, but as both locations suffered from a lack of adequate fuel, they were not always lit.[4] Until after the 16th century, charts of the coast were often misleading and this meant Portland Bill remained a dangerous passage to travel past. The island's two stone windmill towers were important navigational markers around this period.

The first proposal for the construction of a lighthouse at Portland Bill was made by Sir John Clayton, in 1669. At the time Portland Roads was becoming increasingly popular for ships to shelter from gales, while the value of commercial shipping had risen since the Civil War. It was widely agreed that the number of ships being wrecked around Portland was too high. Clayton soon applied for a Crown Patent, to build a lighthouse designed to shine two lights vertically on the same tower. However due to the high financial costs attached to building and maintaining a lighthouse, the idea did not materialise.[5]

In 1702 Charles Langrishe and Captain William Holman began to petition to William III for a lighthouse to be built at Portland Bill. A number of shipowners and the Weymouth Corporation supported the attempt. On 8 March 1702 the king died, and so no patent was granted. Despite Trinity House discarding the idea that Portland needed a lighthouse, Langrishe, Holman and their supporters continued to fight for one for over a decade. The pair finally managed to get Trinity House to concede that Portland Bill was a hazard to shipping, and in 1716 a 61-year lease was agreed upon for the pair to construct "one or more lighthouses with good lights to be kept continually there in the night season". The construction work began immediately, even before a patent had been granted in May 1716. With the twin lighthouses completed, the first lights shone on 29 September 1716.[6] It had been decided to build two lighthouses, as this would give clear bearing at all times of day and night.[7] The two original lighthouses later became known as Old Higher Lighthouse and Old Lower Lighthouse.

One of the first lighthouse keepers was a local man Christopher Comben, who began this line of work in 1721. The Comben family continued to be involved with the lighthouses until 1906. One of the most difficult task faced by the early operators was the transportation of coal from Easton village to the Bill. The coal had to be taken along the eastern side of the island, and across fields as there was no road link to the Bill, where it was piled into a field which became known as Coal Lands.[8]

The benefit to vessels with the aid of the lighthouses was seen immediately. However in general the lights were poorly maintained, and frequently unlit. Trinity House received reports of this, and an inspection was carried out in 1752. The two Board of Trinity House members approached the Bill by sea, and found "it was nigh two hours after sunset before any light appeared in either of the lighthouses". It was decided to terminate the original lease, and with this Trinity House were given total control of the two lighthouses.[9]

Rebuilding of lighthouses, lens installation and establishment of lightship[edit]

In 1788, having operated the lights themselves for 36 years, Trinity House found both lighthouses were no longer sufficient enough. The Weymouth builder William Johns was tasked with rebuilding the Lower Lighthouse in 1789, though it was decided that the Higher Lighthouse was not in need of being rebuilt. Instead the lighthouse ceased using coal and was fitted with oil lamps invented by the Frenchman Aimé Argand. As a result the lighthouse became the first in Britain to be fitted with Argand Lens, and these would soon become a standard for lighthouses across the world. The new design for the Lower Lighthouse consisted of a 63-foot slender tower, with Gothic style doors and windows. During the same year of 1789, Trinity House agreed to use the Lower Lighthouse for an experiment, by adding special lens for direct glazing into lantern windows. This had been developed by Thomas Rogers. The initial group of low-light tests were successful, and so Trinity House agreed to have them permanently installed in copper frames around the lantern house, alternating with glass panels. This upgraded light, powered by 6 Argand lamps, had a powerful enough beam to each 18 miles out to sea in clear conditions. The entire project meant that the Lower Lighthouse became the first lighthouse in the world to use a true lens.[10]

During the early 19th century the Higher Lighthouse was the location for a group of 18-pounder guns, as a precaution over feared French invasions. In addition two mounted cannons were also placed at the Lower Lighthouse. The island's major smuggling operations saw a signal house built at Portland Bill for the Preventive Service in 1825. This building would keep watch over passing vessels, and signal their location, so that this could be relayed into Weymouth. In 1836 the Higher Lighthouse was fitted with a new light. An enclosed harbour of refuge had initially been suggested for Portland in 1794, however parliamentary approval was not granted until 1844. Once the stupendous task of constructing the breakwaters was completed in 1872, the number of vessels passing the Bill naturally increased. As a result lighthouse dues from passing ships tripled from the 1830 level of £3043.[11]

In 1844 Trinity House erected the Trinity House Obelisk to warn ships of the low shelf of rock extending 30 metres south into the sea. The obelisk was saved from threatened demolition in 2002.[12] By the mid-19th century Trinity House felt that both lighthouses had once again become inadequate. In 1856 the Higher Lighthouse was raised by 15 feet to increase its range, while the Lower Lighthouse was given new equipment and keepers' accommodation. The Shambles sandbank still proved to be a danger to shipping, despite being marked by two buoys since 1824. It was decided in 1859 to station a lightship there. By 1866, Trinity House were still unhappy about both lighthouses, and in 1866 the decision was made to demolish both, and completely rebuild them. This was achieved in 1869. In 1883 a new, unpowered 180 ton vessel replaced the original Shambles lightship. The ship had eight oil lamps, and the crew consisted of the master, one mate, four seamen and three lamplighters. The crew would often spend two months on the ship, and one month ashore. During the same time the newly built convict establishment, HM Prison Portland, at the Grove village, was causing confusion to vessels passing the eastern side of the island. A decision was made to black the prison's east-facing lights out.[13]

Construction of new lighthouse[edit]

By the beginning of the 20th century both lighthouses had become obsolete, and were not able to accommodate the latest equipment necessary. Trinity House decided to build a new, single lighthouse at Bill Point. On 17 June 1903, a Committee was appointed by a meeting of Commoners to treat with the Corporation of Trinity House for the acquisition of one acre, 66 poles of land at the Bill, for a new lighthouse.[14] A meeting was soon organised at the George Inn to discuss the plans for the lighthouse. One issue with the selected location for the lighthouse was that it was common land. By October 1903 an agreement with compensation was made, and the lighthouse's foundations were dug deep into the rock. The stone to provide building material for the lighthouse was quarried almost on the spot.[15]

The builders contracted to construct the lighthouse was Wakeham Bros of Plymouth. By the middle of 1905 their work was finished, with the completion of the high tower. Afterwards Chance & Co of Birmingham arrived with the lantern, and this was hoisted to the top of the tower. The revolving lenses were set-up to float on mercury. This resulted in a two and a half metre candlepower beam, from a vapourised oil burner, which was able to reach a distance of 18 miles on a clear night. The tower's stonework was rendered, and then painted in red and white livery, while the scaffolding was gradually removed. The bright design of the lighthouse has remained the tourist symbol of Portland ever since. In total the cost of the lighthouse reached £13,000, including coastguard accommodation. The two keepers Taylor and Comben moved from the old Lower Lighthouse to the new lighthouse at this time. From that point the Old Lower and Old Higher Lighthouses became disused. The new lamp shone for the first time on 11 January 1906. The 1906 lighthouse quickly became a popular tourist attraction, and tours of the lighthouse continue to be operated by Trinity House today. The two former lighthouses were auctioned at the George Inn in 1907.[16]

The surrounding quarries at Portland Bill had been quarried for centuries until they were abandoned by the early years of the 20th century, following the lighthouse's construction. There is still evidence of quarrying tramways, and in the storms of January 1990, a ripped out area of cliff top revealed old rails from the Victorian tramway where it curved round to meet Portland Bill's Red Crane. The advantage of quarrying at Portland Bill was that the stone beds were often close to the surface, although the quality was not as good as locations where the stone beds were deeper into the rock. When a small selection of quarries were reopened around the west side of Portland Bill during the 1840s, a great natural arch of rock at White Hole was partially removed, which left the famous stack Pulpit Rock in 1875. The rock remains a popular tourist attraction. The quarries were again reopened in 1890, and this saw a number of derricks erected to load the stone onto barges. More of these would be added as the quarrying expanded along the cliffs towards Southwell village.[17]

Establishment of Portland Bill as a tourist attraction[edit]

A proper road, as opposed to a simple track, to Portland Bill, was laid in 1922, and this opened the formerly isolated part of Portland to flocks of visitors. The Bill quickly became a popular tourist destination. In attempt to captalise on this, the Lower Lighthouse became the Longstone Ope Tea Rooms and Gardens. It was not the only business of its type to establish itself at the Bill, as a number of wooden huts were also built as cafes close to the new lighthouse. In 1923 the lighthouse was purchased by the doctor, pioneer of birth control and Portland Museum founder Marie Stopes. She had chosen the building as a summer residence, and would stay in the lighthouse until her death thirty-five years later in 1958.[18]

A coastguard lookout at Portland Bill was first built in 1934, where it was ran by the coastguard up towards the end of the 20th century, until most stations across the UK were closed in 1994 by the government to save costs. The station was soon taken over by the National Coastwatch Institution, who rebuilt the station later in the 21st century. The NCI Portland Bill Lookout Station is located half a mile north of the tip of the Bill, close to the Old Higher Lighthouse.[19] The Old Lower Lighthouse became a bird observatory in 1961, and has remained active since. During the 1960s the Ministry of Defence Magnetic Range was built at the Bill, where testing could be performed away from stray electric and magnetic fields. In 1976, the Shambles lightship was permanently withdrawn and replaced by automatic buoys carrying lights, radio and fog signals.[20] The lighthouse was demanned on 18 March 1996, and all monitoring and control of the station was then transferred to the Trinity House Operations & Planning Centre in Harwich.[21] The Old Higher Lighthouse is now a holiday let.


Close to the MOD range at the Bill is Portland's main Raised Beach, created during a warm inter-glacial period 200,000 years ago when sea levels were about 15 metres above present levels.[8]

An old wooden crane, known as Red Crane, was once on the cliff edge at Portland Bill, where it was often used to lower fisherman and their boats into the sea. After being destroyed by vandals, the crane was replaced by a steel crane.[22] Another crane, the Broad Ope Crane, is located further east of Portland Bill, near Cave Hole. Both were first erected as part of the quarrying operations at Portland Bill.

A few houses are found in the area, largely around the Old Lower Lighthouse. This is one of the most remote settlements in South Dorset. The area also holds many beach huts, which is due to modern planning regulations being introduced after the huts were built.[23] The huts often sell for prices around £30,000.[24] During the Second World War, many soldiers were billeted on Portland by mid-1941, and marines took over the fields filled with these huts.

Aside from the Portland Bill Lighthouse gift shop and lighthouse tours, there are a few commercial businesses in the area, including a restaurant, a pub and a B&B. The Pulpit Inn, overlooking the Bill, was built in 1954. It was originally named Devenish Arms, after the Weymouth brewery that built it.[25] The Lobster Pot Restaurant lies close to the lighthouse, and was established in 1952. In 2011, 2CR fm (now Heart fm) voted the restaurant's scones the best in the South region.[26] The Cosy Cafe once sat next to the restaurant, where it was a familiar landmark at Portland Bill. In October 2002 a planning application was submitted to demolish the cafe and by early next year it was gone.[27]

During the mid-1980s, plans were submitted to build Lobster World close to the coastguard cottages. The plan was strongly opposed by local people, but despite this, the tourist attraction opened in 1986. Lobster World was a breeding centre for lobsters to be released into the wild. The attraction was not a commercial success, and in 1989 it was converted into a luxury four-bedroom house and put on the market for £180,000.[8]

Grade listed features[edit]

Portland Bill has a number of buildings which are Grade Listed.

The current Portland Bill Lighthouse, along with its boundary walls, have been Grade II Listed since May 1993.[28] The Old Lower Lighthouse, now the Bird Observatory, including its boundary walls and coastguard house, became Grade II Listed in September 1978.[29] The Old Higher Lighthouse, its four cottages and boundary walls have been Grade II Listed since September 1978.[30]

Located close to The Lobster Pot, a 19th-century Fisherman's hut was designated Grade II in May 1993. Erected in two units, forming one rectangular unit parallel with coast, it is a rare survival of its kind on the island.[31] Red Crane is part of the now-disused Portland Bill stone loading quay - which has become a scheduled monument under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979, because it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance.[32]

The surrounding fields between the Bill and Southwell are made up of an ancient strip field system, once found all over the island before quarrying continued to destroy them. They date from Saxon times, and examples of similar field systems are now rare. These particular fields make up the open landscape surrounding the single road to Portland Bill, and remain untouched from housing or quarrying. They remain as the same as they did for centuries, and some are still bordered by stone walls or earth lynchets. Each field has an ancient name, such as Harplands, Shoals Meadow and Sturt Corner. Many fields though were merged during World War II to increase production.

The nearby Culverwell Mesolithic Site is a Mesolithic settlement, located along the Portland Bill Road which leads from the village of Southwell to Portland Bill. The site is said to be circa 7500-8500 years old and has also become a scheduled monument under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979. This includes surrounding fields, also relating to the Mesolithic period, and these fields lead across to the coastline. A separate patch is also included a little further north.[33] Aside from the fields attached to the Culverwell Site, two separate open fields have been also been scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979. One field is found just south of Southwell village along the Portland Bill Road, and another is located around the Old Higher Lighthouse, heading inland.[34] Other ancient discoveries that no longer exist have been found around Portland Bill. Between Southwell and Portland Bill was once a monolith which gave its name to Long Stone Ope.

World War II[edit]

In close proximity to the Old Higher Lighthouse is Lloyd's Cottage. This was the site of a World War II or later radar station.[35] On the cliff-edge, between the Lobster Pot restaurant and Red Crane were three Second World War light anti-aircraft gun emplacements. However no traces of these remain today.[36][37][38] Further along, past the Old Lower Lighthouse and around Cave Hole area, was a World War II emergency coast defence battery on the cliff-edge. The battery was constructed in 1940-41 and consisted of three 6-inch guns. It was manned by the Mobile Naval Base Defence Organisation (Royal Marines). The structure has since been demolished.[39]

At a field known as Sturt Common, which is located between The Pulpit Inn and the Old Lower Lighthouse, was a World War II anti landing obstacle. This structure consisted of stone boulders placed at intervals across the common, which were laid out in 1940-41. A field visit in 1997 found the structure had been demolished, and no traces remain.[40]

One field along the Portland Bill Road contains the remains of an air raid shelter from the Second World War.[41] Another two are both located within the Portland Bill's main area of settlement.[42][43]

Along the Portland Bill Road, around the Culverwell area, a World War II check point was constructed in 1940-1941 and comprised a barbed wire and wood barrier. The check point required that passes/identity cards were to be shown. The barrier had been removed before the end on the war, and today there remains no traces of the structure.[44]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Morris, Stuart (1985). Portland: An Illustrated History. Dovecote Press. p. 35. ISBN 978-0946159345. 
  2. ^ "Portland Bill Lighthouse". Trinityhouse.co.uk. 1996-03-18. Retrieved 2012-11-25. 
  3. ^ "Portland Bill Lighthouse". Trinityhouse.co.uk. 1996-03-18. Retrieved 2012-11-25. 
  4. ^ Morris, Stuart (1985). Portland: An Illustrated History. Dovecote Press. p. 35. ISBN 978-0946159345. 
  5. ^ Morris, Stuart (1985). Portland: An Illustrated History. Dovecote Press. p. 35. ISBN 978-0946159345. 
  6. ^ Morris, Stuart (1985). Portland: An Illustrated History. Dovecote Press. p. 37. ISBN 978-0946159345. 
  7. ^ Morris, Stuart (1985). Portland: An Illustrated History. Dovecote Press. p. 38. ISBN 978-0946159345. 
  8. ^ a b c "The Higher Lighthouse, Portland, Dorset". Geoffkirby.co.uk. Retrieved 2012-11-16. 
  9. ^ "Lighthouse: Portland Bill Lighthouse". Photographers-resource.co.uk. 1996-03-18. Retrieved 2012-11-16. 
  10. ^ Morris, Stuart (1985). Portland: An Illustrated History. Dovecote Press. p. 39. ISBN 978-0946159345. 
  11. ^ Morris, Stuart (1985). Portland: An Illustrated History. Dovecote Press. p. 60. ISBN 978-0946159345. 
  12. ^ http://www.geoffkirby.co.uk/Portland/675680/
  13. ^ Morris, Stuart (1985). Portland: An Illustrated History. Dovecote Press. p. 80. ISBN 978-0946159345. 
  14. ^ http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~pbtyc/Portland/PYB/Chronology.html
  15. ^ "Branscombe Lodge Cottage, Old Higher Lighthouse, Portland Bill, Dorset". Old Higher Lighthouse. Retrieved 2012-11-24. 
  16. ^ Morris, Stuart (1985). Portland: An Illustrated History. Dovecote Press. pp. 117, 118. ISBN 978-0946159345. 
  17. ^ Morris, Stuart (1985). Portland: An Illustrated History. Dovecote Press. p. 102. ISBN 978-0946159345. 
  18. ^ Morris, Stuart (1985). Portland: An Illustrated History. Dovecote Press. p. 121. ISBN 978-0946159345. 
  19. ^ http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/1702400
  20. ^ http://www.pbenyon.plus.com/Portland/P_Bill/LHouse_2/LH2.html
  21. ^ http://www.trinityhouse.co.uk/lighthouses/lighthouse_list/portland_bill.html
  22. ^ http://www.geoffkirby.co.uk/Portland/675680/
  23. ^ "Lower Lighthouse, Portland, Dorset". Geoffkirby.co.uk. Retrieved 2012-11-25. 
  24. ^ "beach huts at Portland Bill". Nicktadd.com. 2010-04-04. Retrieved 2012-11-25. 
  25. ^ http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=y2eIAwAAQBAJ&pg=PT102&lpg=PT102&dq=pulpit+inn+devenish&source=bl&ots=7NwMDkgLt0&sig=8KKawRDbhpVVT8HIoJVvYHmHwW8&hl=en&sa=X&ei=ttPjU93WMcfXPO2hgNAE&ved=0CCAQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=pulpit%20inn%20devenish&f=false
  26. ^ "The Lobster Pot". Lobsterpotrestaurantportland.co.uk. Retrieved 2012-11-25. 
  27. ^ "Portland Bill, Portland, Dorset". Geoffkirby.co.uk. Retrieved 2014-06-26. 
  28. ^ "1280498 - The National Heritage List for England | English Heritage". List.english-heritage.org.uk. 1993-05-17. Retrieved 2014-06-26. 
  29. ^ "1280466 - The National Heritage List for England | English Heritage". List.english-heritage.org.uk. 1978-09-21. Retrieved 2014-06-26. 
  30. ^ "1203104 - The National Heritage List for England | English Heritage". List.english-heritage.org.uk. Retrieved 2014-06-26. 
  31. ^ "1280495 - The National Heritage List for England | English Heritage". List.english-heritage.org.uk. 1993-05-17. Retrieved 2014-06-26. 
  32. ^ "1002388 - The National Heritage List for England | English Heritage". List.english-heritage.org.uk. Retrieved 2014-06-26. 
  33. ^ "1002406 - The National Heritage List for England | English Heritage". List.english-heritage.org.uk. Retrieved 2014-06-26. 
  34. ^ "1002729 - The National Heritage List for England | English Heritage". List.english-heritage.org.uk. Retrieved 2014-06-26. 
  35. ^ "Detailed Result: MONUMENT NO. 1413237". Pastscape. Retrieved 2014-08-03. 
  36. ^ "Detailed Result: MONUMENT NO. 1413282". Pastscape. Retrieved 2014-08-03. 
  37. ^ "Detailed Result: MONUMENT NO. 1413283". Pastscape. Retrieved 2014-08-03. 
  38. ^ "Detailed Result: MONUMENT NO. 1413284". Pastscape. Retrieved 2014-08-03. 
  39. ^ "Detailed Result: PORTLAND BILL BATTERY". Pastscape. Retrieved 2014-08-03. 
  40. ^ "Detailed Result: MONUMENT NO. 1420318". Pastscape. Retrieved 2014-08-03. 
  41. ^ "Detailed Result: MONUMENT NO. 1413184". Pastscape. Retrieved 2014-08-03. 
  42. ^ "Detailed Result: MONUMENT NO. 1413185". Pastscape. Retrieved 2014-08-03. 
  43. ^ "Detailed Result: MONUMENT NO. 1413238". Pastscape. Retrieved 2014-08-03. 
  44. ^ "Detailed Result: MONUMENT NO. 1420408". Pastscape. Retrieved 2014-08-03. 

External links[edit]


Coordinates: 50°30′52″N 2°27′26″W / 50.51444°N 2.45722°W / 50.51444; -2.45722