Portland Bill Lighthouse

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Portland Bill Lighthouse and the former visitor centre.

Portland Bill Lighthouse is a functioning lighthouse on the Isle of Portland, Dorset, England. The lighthouse is located at the very south of the island, warning coastal traffic off of Portland Bill. The lighthouse and its boundary walls are Grade II Listed and have been since May 1993.[1]

As Portland's largest and most recent lighthouse, the Trinity House operated Portland Bill Lighthouse is distinctively white and red striped, standing at a height of 41 metres (135 ft). The tower is approximately 114 feet, and the lantern section at 21 feet. The foundations are 7 feet deep and 6 feet thick. The lighthouse took two years and three months to build, and was completed by 1906 and first shone out on 11 January 1906.[2]


Portland Bill Lighthouse and the surrounding area from the sea

Both Portland Bill and Chesil Beach are the locations of many wrecks of vessels that failed to reach Weymouth or Portland Roads. Portland Bill Lighthouse guides vessels heading for Portland and Weymouth through these hazardous waters as well as acting as a waymark for ships navigating the English Channel.[3] The rocky promontory of Portland Bill has often been regarded as one of the greatest navigational hazards in the Channel. A treacherous race, which can run at 10 knots in spring tidal streams, is 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 coast has been the graveyard of countless ships from the earliest times, before any lighthouses were built.[4] Originally, both the Old Higher Lighthouse and Old Lower Lighthouse were the two functioning lighthouses on the island, and both were opened in 1716, continuing to warn ships of the dangerous coast until 1906, when both were decommissioned.

On 17 June 1903, Messrs J. Lano, H. Sansom, R. Pearce, F. J. Barnes, and Robert White appointed a Committee 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.[5] The group met in the George Inn to discuss plans for the 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. However the chosen site was common land and so compensation had to be paid for the loss of the local people's common rights. By October that year an agreement was reached and a convoy of contactors' carts and traction engines made their way along the rough road to the remote tip of Portland Bill to start work. The Lighthouse's foundations were dug deep into the rock, commencing in October 1903, and the stone was quarried almost on the spot.[6] The lighthouse was built with stone from surrounding quarries at Portland Bill. The area was quarried for centuries until they were abandoned by the early years of the 20th century, following the lighthouse's construction.[2]

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. The revolving lenses floating on a bath of mercury were designed to send a two and a half metre candlepower beam (from a vapourised oil burner) 18 miles on a clear night. 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. Lighthouse keepers Taylor and Comben moved house from the old Lower Light and they lit the new lamp for the first time on 11 January 1906.[7] A year after the construction of the lighthouse, the contractors Wakeham Brothers erected the Clock Tower of Easton Gardens on Portland.[8] The Old Lower Lighthouse became a bird observatory[9] whilst the Old Higher Lighthouse became the home of Marie Stopes, and today remains a holiday let.[6]

Portland struggled without mains electricity until 1930. Since the turn of the century the Council had resisted all competition to its gas works, hoping that one day it would pay its way. The resistance could be held no longer, and an agreement was made to lay on an electric supply generated at Weymouth. In the £25,000 scheme Underhill and Easton were first to be switched on, on 1 July 1930, and two years later the cables were extended to Weston and Southwell, then the Grove. However Portland Bill and the Lighthouse had to wait until 1938.[10]

The lighthouse was swathed in scaffolding and polythene when undergoing a facelift during 1990.[2] It 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.[3]

Tourist attraction[edit]

Arguably Portland's biggest attraction and most photographed feature, the Portland Bill Lighthouse is open to the public, where tours are operated by Trinity House, and the visitor centre, housed in the former lighthouse keeper's quarters, was also a big part of the lighthouse until it was closed in September 2013 due to lack of funding by Weymouth and Portland Borough Council.[11] The visitor centre was a joint project between The Crown Estate, The Corporation of Trinity House and Weymouth and Portland Borough Council. It was officially opened by HRH The Duke of Edinburgh KG KT on 14 July 1999, although it had been operational since 1997. However in October 2014 it was announced that Trinity House are working alongside The Crown Estate to create a new lighthouse visitor centre at the lighthouse, themed around Trinity House's maritime history and its responsibilities providing aids to navigation, charitable support and educational services to the mariner since 1514. It is due to open in April 2015.[12]

The tours of Portland Bill Lighthouse are organised by The Crown Estate under licence from the Corporation of Trinity House.[13] Often lasting approximately 45 minutes, visitors are able to climb the 153 steps to the top of the lighthouse on a guided tour with a former Lighthouse Keeper, and view both the inside of the lighthouse and its lamp as well as the surrounding Portland coastline.[14]

The original visitor centre was owned and operated independently from the actual tower lighthouse, and past occasions have seen the lighthouse closed to the public, whilst the centre would remain open. It opened from Easter to the end of September each year, and in 2007 was reported to receive 300,000 visitors a year.[15] The centre featured various displays which provides insight and introduction into Portland's environment & heritage - ranging from geology, Portland stone and the Jurassic Coast. It also featured a shop which stocks various local souvenirs.[16] The nearby Trinity House Obelisk and Pulpit Rock are also popular attractions in the area.

The lighthouse received a TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence in 2013.[17]

Lamp and fog signal[edit]

Portland Bill Lighthouse uses a 1 Kw Mbi lamp and 4 Panel 1St Order Catadioptric Fixed Lens. The light flashes four times every 20 seconds and has an intensity of 635,000 candelas, with a range of 25 nautical miles. Also having a fog signal for times of bad weather, the signal uses a four second blast every 30 seconds, with a range of 2 nautical miles.[3] The Type F diaphone was decommissioned in 1996, but restored in 2003 for the benefit of visitors, where it is sounded every Sunday morning as an added attraction on the island but only used in foggy conditions if the lighthouse is out of operation.[18]

The present optic at the lighthouse is unusual due to the arrangement of the panels, where the character gradually changes from one flash to four flashes between the bearings 221°-224° and from four flashes to one flash between bearings 117°-141°.[3]

One of the old lamp holders from Portland Bill lighthouse can be seen at Portland Museum, which is found in the village of Wakeham, close to Church Ope Cove.[2]

In addition to the lamp and fog, in early 2012, the National Coastwatch Institution, at the local Portland Bill Station, had a CCTV camera installed at the top exterior of the lighthouse to monitor the inshore passage around the Bill. The NCI were originally unable to see this area from the station.[19]


  1. ^ "The National Heritage List for England | English Heritage". List.english-heritage.org.uk. 1993-05-17. Retrieved 2013-01-19. 
  2. ^ a b c d "Portland Bill, Portland, Dorset". Geoffkirby.co.uk. Retrieved 2012-11-24. 
  3. ^ a b c d "Portland Bill Lighthouse". Trinityhouse.co.uk. 1996-03-18. Retrieved 2012-11-24. 
  4. ^ Morris, Stuart (1985). Portland: An Illustrated History. Dovecote Press. p. 35. ISBN 978-0946159345. 
  5. ^ http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~pbtyc/Portland/PYB/Chronology.html
  6. ^ a b "Branscombe Lodge Cottage, Old Higher Lighthouse, Portland Bill, Dorset". Old Higher Lighthouse. Retrieved 2012-11-24. 
  7. ^ Morris, Stuart (1985). Portland: An Illustrated History. Dovecote Press. pp. 117, 118. ISBN 978-0946159345. 
  8. ^ Morris, Stuart (1990). Portland Camera. Dovecote Press. pp. Photo 65. ISBN 978-0946159796. 
  9. ^ Keith Pritchard. "Portland Bird Observatory - index". Portlandbirdobs.org.uk. Retrieved 2012-11-24. 
  10. ^ Morris, Stuart (1985). Portland: An Illustrated History. Dovecote Press. p. 129. ISBN 978-0946159345. 
  11. ^ http://www.dorsetecho.co.uk/news/10868078.Tourism_Information_Centre_shuts_at_Portland_Bill_lighthouse/
  12. ^ http://www.dorsetecho.co.uk/news/11543095.Lighthouse_visitor_centre_to_open_at_Portland_Bill_next_Easter/
  13. ^ "Portland Bill Lighthouse Visitors Centre". Trinityhouse.co.uk. Retrieved 2012-11-24. 
  14. ^ "Portland Bill Lighthouse Visitor Centre was just one of many places to visit in Portland Bill Lighthouse Visitor Centre". Resort-guide.co.uk. Retrieved 2012-11-24. 
  15. ^ http://watershedpr.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/PDF-of-brochure-outlining-project-for-the-Old-Engine-Shed.pdf
  16. ^ "Portland Visitor Centre". Visitweymouth.co.uk. Retrieved 2012-11-24. 
  17. ^ http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Attraction_Review-g551714-d1069119-Reviews-Portland_Bill_Lighthouse-Isle_of_Portland_Dorset_England.html
  18. ^ "Blast from the past (From Bournemouth Echo)". Bournemouthecho.co.uk. 2003-08-27. Retrieved 2012-11-24. 
  19. ^ http://www.psimagazine.co.uk/newsdetail.php?newsID=1327

External links[edit]


Coordinates: 50°30′51″N 2°27′23″W / 50.5141°N 2.4563°W / 50.5141; -2.4563