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. The surrounding coast of Portland, namely Portland Bill and Chesil Beach, have been notorious for the many vessels that became shipwrecked in the area over the centuries. The dangerous coastline, which features shallow reefs and the Shambles sandbank, was proven more hazardous due to the strong tidal race known as the Portland Race. The race is caused by tides clashing between the Bill and the Shambles sandbank.
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 original two lighthouses guided vessels around the coast from 1716, until they were replaced in 1906 by the current lighthouse. The Bill's three lighthouses are not the only lighthouses on the island, as the Portland Breakwater Lighthouse is situated 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".
From Roman times, and before any lighthouses were erected, beacon fires would be lit on Branscombe Hill above Portland Bill as an attempt to warn passing ships of the danger. Portland's two windmills further north of the Bill also provided a form of daytime navigation. In 1588, the second battle between the English Fleet and the Spanish Armada was fought off the coast of Portland Bill.
In 1669, Sir John Clayton was successful in obtaining a patent for the erection of a lighthouse with two lights at Portland Bill. However the scheme proved to be too costly and no construction commenced. During the early 18th-century, a petition to Trinity House had been put forward by Captain William Holman, for a lighthouse. The demand from Weymouth and Portland continued for over a decade until Trinity House finally conceded that a lighthouse at the Bill was necessary. George I granted Trinity House's patent on 26 May 1716, for the erection of two lighthouses, to have enclosed lanterns and coal fires. Trinity House then issued a 61-year lease to William Barrett and Francis Browne at a price of £100, to build and maintain "one or more convenient lighthouses with good and visible lights to be kept continually there in the night season, so as ships might the better come to their ports without peril."
One lighthouse was built at the top of Branscombe Hill, while the other was situated on lower land near the cliff-edge. The two lighthouses shone out for the first time on 29 September 1716, after Charles Langridge stoked the coals to illuminate the glazed lanterns. The Customs Office in London was left in charge of collecting dues from all ships passing the Bill, which was a halfpenny per ton from English ships, and a penny a ton from all foreign ships. However over time Trinity House were made aware that the lights were being poorly maintained, and frequently would not be lit at all. Trinity House carried out an inspection during 1752, and the report of the two inspectors noted that "it was nigh two hours after sunset before any light appeared in either of the lighthouses". This led to the termination of the lease, and all responsibilities of the lighthouses were reverted back to Trinity House.
By the late 18th-century, Trinity House decided to demolish and rebuild the lower lighthouse, and in 1789 hired the Weymouth builder William Johns for the job. In 1844 Trinity House erected a 7-metre tall white stone obelisk at the southern tip of the Bill as an extra precaution, warning ships of the low shelf of rock extending 30 metres southwards into the sea. In 1859 the authority also placed the first lightship at the Shambles sandbank.
By the mid-19th century Trinity House began to express dissatisfaction with the current lighthouses. The two lighthouses were rebuilt and completed in 1869. The cliffs at Portland Bill have been quarried for centuries, until the early 20th-century. A reminder of this industry is Pulpit Rock, an artificial stack of rock was left in the 1870s after a natural arch was cut away by quarrymen at the Bill Quarry. Today it has become a popular attraction. At the turn of the 20th-century, Trinity House put forward plans for the building of a new lighthouse at the southern extremity of Bill Point, to replace both of the current lighthouses. A committee was formed in 1903 to work alongside Trinity House for the acquisition of the land at the Bill. In October 1903 the builders Wakeham Bros. of Plymouth began work on the foundations, and the lighthouse was completed in 1905, at a cost of £13,000, and with the lamp being first lit on 11 January 1906.
The two original lighthouses were auctioned shortly after. After various changes in ownership, the Old Lower Lighthouse became a bird observatory in 1961, while the Old Higher Lighthouse was the home of Marie Stopes from 1923 to 1958, and today has become a holiday let. A proper road, as opposed to a simple track, to Portland Bill, was laid in 1922, and this helped the Bill become a popular tourist destination. 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 could be performed away from stray electric and magnetic fields. Further up the hill at Branscombe was also the Royal Navy Portland Bill W/T Station, which was established during the early 20th-century, and remained active for wireless communications until the 1990s. In 1976, the Shambles lightship was permanently withdrawn and replaced by automatic buoys carrying lights, radio and fog signals. 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. The lighthouse has a visitor centre open to the public, while tours are conducted to take visitors to the top of the lighthouse.
Aside from the lighthouses, Pulpit Rock and the Trinity House Obelisk as Portland Bill's key attractions, there are other features in the area. 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. 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 visitor centre 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