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. 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.
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".
The rocky promontory of Portland Bill is regarded as one of the greatest navigational hazards in the Channel. A treacherous race, which can run at 10 knots in spring tidal streams, are created as tide and current clash as they round it. The dangers are worsened by the Shambles, which is a two mile long sandbank that lies south-east of Portland Bill and whose depth reaches a mere 11 feet in two places at low tide. It is likely that the Romans would light beacon fires on Branscombe Hill above Bill Point to warn sailors, as well as on Verne Hill, but the lack of local fuel prevented any regular light being established. Ancient fires probably served more as signals than as general lights. As a result the island's coast has been the graveyard of countless ships from the earliest times, before any lighthouses were built.
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. Both Portland Bill and Chesil Beach are the location of many sunken vessels that failed to reach Weymouth or Portland Roads. The "Portland Race" is caused by the meeting of the tides between the Bill and the Shambles sandbank about 3 miles south-east, and strong currents often break the sea so fiercely that from the shore a continuous disturbance can be seen. 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. The Bill's three lighthouses are the only built on the island, except for the Portland Breakwater Lighthouse, located at Portland Harbour. Even in the 16th century the passage was feared as charts and maps of the coast were usually inaccurate. Portland's two stone windmill towers were the only hint of the southern part of Portland, and were therefore important navigational markers.
In 1669, Sir John Clayton, a London speculator, made the first recorded proposal for a lighthouse at Portland Bill. This linked to a time when the value of commercial shipping rose after the Civil War, and the loss of many ships on Portland's coastline was causing further alarm. However a lighthouse at the Bill was not purely to save vessels, as profits could be made from the light dues levied on passing vessels. At the time any private individual was able to apply to the Crown Estate to build a lighthouse, and Clayton applied for a Crown Patent for a building which was to show one light above another in the same tower. However the construction and maintenance of a lighthouse in remote locations was expansive, and so Clayton's proposal was abandoned.
In 1702 Charles Langrishe acquired the keys of Portland Castle, which was now in a poor state and unable to defend trading ships in the area from foreign pirates. Both Langrishe and Captain William Holman, a successful Weymouth privateersman, saw the opportunity to raise funds for the area, and at the same time protect shipping from natural hazards along the coast. With support from various shipowners and the Weymouth Corporation, they petitioned William III for a lighthouse that year. However the King died before any Patent was granted. Trinity House had rejected the petition initially, as they did not believe a light at the Bill was needed, however Langrishe and co continued to push for a lighthouse for several years, with support of the first Lord Weymouth. A revived petition to Queen Anne detailed the reasons for action, with a lighthouse offering the solution to the Portland Race, the Shambles Sandbank, and the danger of Chesil Beach. An idea suggested that profits from the lighthouse could be used to dredge Weymouth Harbour and repair Portland Castle.
It took 14 years for Langrishe and Holman to get Trinity House to concede that Portland Bill posed a threat to vessels. In 1716, at a rental of £100 a year, a 61 year lease was signed entitling them to erect "one or more lighthouses with good lights to be kept continually there in the night season". The Patent was not granted till 26 May 1716, but construction had already commenced before then. The first coal-fired lights shone on 29 September 1716. Langrishe, who became one of the Patentees, built the twin lighthouses at the Bill. The reason for the two separate towers was to give a clear bearing by day and by night for passage past Bill Point and the Shambles Sandbank. The two original lighthouses became known as Old Higher Lighthouse and Old Lower Lighthouse.
Christopher Comben, a Portlander, became one of the lighthouse keepers in 1721, and this was the start of a family connection with the lighthouses that lasted until 1906. The various generations of Combens would become keepers themselves. However operation of the lighthouses was not an easy task, and coal had to be hauled from the east side of the island, made further difficult as there were no tracks to the Bill. It was stockpiled into a near field, which became known as Coal Lands. The new lights greatly aided vessels around the Bill, however reports had been made to Trinity House that the lighthouses were not always lit. In 1752 two experienced staff of Trinity House sailed to the island to inspect both lighthouses, and found that no light appeared from either two hours after sunset. Trinity House terminated the lease, and took over operations of both lighthouses themselves.
In 1788 Trinity House decided that both lighthouses were no longer adequate, and hired Weymouth builder William Johns to rebuilt the Lower Lighthouse. At the same time the Higher Lighthouse was fitted with oil lamps invented by the Frenchman Aimé Argand. This was the first lighthouse in Britain to be fitted with Argand Lens. The new Lower Lighthouse was a very elegant structure, with a 63 foot high tower, slender in design. The Lower Lighthouse was soon the chosen subject of an experiment by Trinity House, to house a special lens for direct glazing into lantern windows, which was being developed by Thomas Rogers. Following a string of successful low-light tests, the new lens were installed, reaching 18 miles on a clear night. This successful project meant that Portland in 1789 was the first lighthouse in the world to use a true lens.
With the fear of French invasion during the late 18th century, the success of Admiral Nelson at the Battle of the Nile was received with much relief. However the threat of invasion still continued across the English Channel, and this set the course of Portland's development over the next century. The county MP William Morton Pitt was alarmed at the lack of local defences, and his own survey in 1798 revealed that the old gun batteries around Portland were unserviceable. 18 pounders were situated at a number of places across Portland, including the Higher Lighthouse, while 6 pounders, again found across the island, were also positioned at the Bill. New artillery was ordered. Around the start of the 19th century the Lower Lighthouse was the location of two mounted cannons. With Portland infamous for smuggling, a signal house was erected in 1825 at Portland Bill for the Preventive Service. Whenever a vessel was sited off the coat a flag would be raised to signal its location, and the ship then relayed into Weymouth. However the signal had to be constantly changed as the smugglers were usually rather deceptive.
Portland Bill had partly inspired the decision to create a harbour of refuge with the construction of Portland Harbour's breakwaters. When the project commenced during the Victorian period sand for concrete was dug from the Bill, at a place known as Sand Holes. Through the period that followed, once the harbour was created, shipping movements past Portland Bill naturally increased, and dues from vessels passing the lighthouses tripled from the 1830 level of £3043. Despite new equipment and other expansions Trinity House were no longer satisfied with the two lighthouses and decided in 1866 to completely rebuild both, which was successful done in 1869. By this point oil for the lamps were brought over land from Castletown, as the sea conditions at the Bill had only allowed the Trinity House steamer to land supplies directly at the Bill twice in 20 years. 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 and once had a viewing platform which is now demolished.
The Shambles Sandbank was still a major hazard, and had only been marked by two buoys since 1824. In 1859 Trinity House stationed the first lightship there, and a new unpowered 180 ton vessel would replace it in 1883. The master had one mate, four able seamen and three lamplighters to tend the eight oil lamps. The usual system meant that the crew would spend two months aboard the ship, and one month ashore. Around the same time the adult convict establishment of HM Prison Portland at the Grove had also added confusion to vessels navigating their way past the east side of Portland, and so the prison's east-facing lights had to be blacked out.
On 17 June 1903, a Committee was formed to discuss plans for a new lighthouse. The Higher and Lower Lighthouses could not be adapted to take on the latest apparatus, and so Trinity House made plans to build a single lighthouse on Bill Point. Additionally a storm of 1901 caused the loss of 14 ships in the area, and this added to the need for a new lighthouse. By October that year an agreement was reached and worked started. The Lighthouse's foundations were dug deep into the rock, and the stone was quarried almost on the spot. The lighthouse was built with stone from surrounding quarries at Portland Bill. By mid-1905 the builders, Wakeham Bros of Plymouth, had completed the high masonry tower, when Chance & Co of Birmingham arrived to hoist their great lantern to the top. As the scaffolding was taken down, the stonework was rendered, and the whole was painted in bright red and white livery, which has remained the tourist symbol of Portland ever since. The new lighthouse cost a total of £13,000, and included coastguard accommodation. The lamp was lit for the first time on 11 January 1906.
The quarrying around Portland Bill lasted from the 19th century until the early 20th century, when the lighthouse was completed. 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 Bill had been the location of cliff-side quarrying for a few centuries as the advantage at this location was that the stone beds were very close to the surface. However the quality was not great, and stone could only be shipped in calm weather. A number of small stone quarries were reopened during the 1840s around the west side of Portland Bill, and in 1875 a great natural arch of rock at White Hole was partially removed, which left the famous stack Pulpit Rock. The rock remains a popular tourist attraction to date. John Pearce of Wakeham reopened the Bill quarries in 1890, and he employed 40 men, as well as erecting five derricks to load the stone onto barges. Further derricks would be added as the quarrying expanded along the cliffs towards Southwell village.
Marconi's wireless station, set up on Branscombe Hill at the Bill, near to the Higher Lighthouse, was making contact with Gibraltar for the first time in 1907. The same year saw the two disused lighthouses auctioned at the George Inn. They were advertised as "Wonderfully suited for consumptives in winter, and convalescents in other seasons. In the fertile garden of the Lower Lighthouse potatoes are dug when people elsewhere are thinking of planting." In the end the Higher Light sold for £405, and the Lower Light was withdrawn at £400.
Portland Bill was not a major tourist attraction until the road was laid out. The work on Portland Bill Road commenced in 1922, and soon the once isolated part of Portland was accessible to visitors. Beforehand a rough cart track was the only means of visitors and traders reaching the area. The Bill soon became a popular tourist destination, and the Lower Lighthouse became the Longstone Ope Tea Gardens, while a number of wooden huts were erected as cafes close to the new lighthouse. The famous pioneer of birth control, Marie Stopes, took over the Higher Lighthouse in the 1920s for a summer residence. She became a benefactor to Portland, and from the lighthouse she was able to witness with dismay the gradual destruction of the orchid-strewn grass and the solitude of Portland Bill as the popularity of the area increased. The lighthouse quickly became a popular tourist attraction, and tours of the lighthouse continue to be operated by Trinity House today. The Old Lower Lighthouse became a bird observatory in 1961, while the Old Higher Lighthouse became the home of Marie Stopes during the 1920s until 1958, and today is a holiday let.
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.
During the 1960s the Ministry of Defence Magnetic Range was built at the Bill, where testing can be performed away from stray electric and magnetic fields. Close to this range 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.
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. 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. The huts often sell for prices around £30,000. 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. 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. 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.
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.
Grade listed features
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. The Old Lower Lighthouse, now the Bird Observatory, including its boundary walls and coastguard house, became Grade II Listed in September 1978. The Old Higher Lighthouse, its four cottages and boundary walls have been Grade II Listed since September 1978.
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. 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.
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. 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. 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
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. 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. 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.
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.
One field along the Portland Bill Road contains the remains of an air raid shelter from the Second World War. Another two are both located within the Portland Bill's main area of settlement.
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.
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- Portland Bill Lighthouse - official site
- Portland Bill photographs
- National Coastwatch Institution, Portland Bill
- Portland Bill Lighthouse
- Exploring Portland