The road link to the Portland Peninsula is only a short distance by way of Ferry Bridge, and although in fact joined to the mainland it is referred to as the Isle of Portland - most famous for the type of stone quarried there. Since the 17th century when Inigo Jones employed Portland Stone as a building material for the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall, there has been a steady demand upon the Portland quarries. St Paul's Cathedral is faced with Portland Stone, and more recently it was used in the construction of the UN building in New York.
Portland is a curious place, virtually treeless, chiselled by quarries, crowded with fortresses and prisons and inhabited by a surprising number of villages - all of this upon a lump of limestone only 4.5 miles long by 1.5 miles wide. Not a pretty place but Portland has its points of interest, and together with Chesil Beach and the village of Abbotsbury, near neighbours to the west, offers a slightly different perspective on the Dorset coastline.
Portland Castle is the best preserved of Henry VIII's chain of defensive fortresses, constructed out of fear of Catholic reprisals for his severance from the Pope; the castle only saw real action during the Civil War of 1642/9 when it changed hands several times. Portland Museum is housed in a pair of thatched cottages, one of which was the home of Avice, the heroine of Thomas Hardy's ‘The Well-Beloved'. The museum was founded in 1930 by Marie Stopes, famous as a pioneer in birth control; it houses displays on geology, history and natural history of Portland. The Marie Stopes Cottage contains displays of shipwrecks and smuggling. Close by is the ruined remains of Rufus Castle (also known as Bow and Arrow Castle), perhaps built by William Rufus but certainly constructed during his reign. Medieval St Andrew's Church also lies in ruins, but St George's Church has withstood the ravages of time better. Situated on a barren and weatherswept site, it was constructed on a grand scale but with some eccentricities - the half dome over the central crossing and the ornate tower.
Portland Harbour, with its huge breakwater, was built by convicts in 1847, prior to transportation to the outback of Australia; the prison that housed them is now the Young Offenders Institution and the Verne, originally constructed as a fortress, is now itself an adult prison. Portland Heights, located in Fortuneswell, the largest of the villages, provides tremendous panoramic views in all directions, while Portland Bill at the extreme tip of the peninsula, accommodates two lighthouses. The older one, dating from 1788, was originally fired by coal, has now closed as a lighthouse and is gainfully employed as a bird observatory. The newer of the two lighthouses is fully functioning but does offer visitors the opportunity to climb to its summit to maximise views of the surrounding scenery. The principal attraction of the headland is Pulpit Rock, an isolated lump of rock protruding into the sea, inviting the most daring to clamber to the top of its precarious position. Beneath Pulpit Rock and around the headland in general runs a very fast and dangerous current, known as the Portland Race, which rips across the Bill and is a constant hazard to shipping.
Chesil Beach, running from Abbotsbury south-east to Portland for some 10 miles is quite extraordinary and unique in Europe. Chesil, old English for shingle, is a fine spot for birdwatchers and fishermen with the roar of the sea on one side of the beach in startling contrast to the calm still waters of the Fleet on the other. The Fleet is the name of the inland lagoon lying directly behind and on the other side of Chesil Beach.
Chesil Beach comprises billions of pebbles rising sometimes to 40ft in height, as at the Portland end, thanks to long-shore drift, and varying in width from 200 to 1000 yards wide. The size and colour of the pebbles change along the length of the beach; this grading of size permitted smugglers to know accurately where they had landed their cargoes at night. In the age of sail, Chesil Beach was the most feared of all local stretches of Dorset coast. Ships sailing up-channel blown too close to the shore had their bottoms torn off by the sharp-edged pebbles. Shipwrecked sailors struggling to gain the beach, which slopes dramatically, could then be caught in the dreadful ‘undertow' that would suck the hapless victim under the water to drown within feet of safety. In 1824, a great gale known locally as 'The Outrage' hurled the sloop Ebenezer onto the beach; the boat itself was refloated the next day but 100 bodies were left drowned on Chesil Beach.
Abbotsbury, lying at the western tip of Chesil Beach, is one of the county's most popular tourist spots. An ancient village, predating the Domesday Book of 1086, it was the site of a thriving Benedictine Abbey until the Dissolution in 1536; all that remains of the abbey is a tithe barn housing the Rural Bygones Museum. Possibly the main attraction of Abbotsbury is the unique Swannery to the south of the village - the only nesting colony of mute swans in the UK, providing a safe habitat for up to 500 in the summer months and twice as many in the winter. Once bred to adorn the Abbot's table, these distinguished birds have nested here for hundreds of years. Close by are the Sub-Tropical Gardens, the original walled gardens of Abbotsbury Castle, containing a massive collection of over 7000 species of exotic plants and trees spread over 20 acres of garden; the castle alas no longer stands.