THURSDAY 7TH SEPTEMBER 2017
I am not optimistic about the Island of Portland. Its flat cliffs have looked grey and uninspiring rising ahead of us as we neared Wyke Regis, and the Ordnance Survey map shows denser population around (largely abandoned) quarries. But to complete the South West Coastal Path in its entirety, we have to navigate its circumference. I fear it is one of the very rare sections of the SWCP that I won’t particularly enjoy.
The first hour is absorbed by trekking back down to the Coastal Path and then east to the end of Chesil Bank to Ferrybridge, which is followed by a long, straight road – the one route on and off the island. The only remarkable element of this stretch is the dawning realisation of the vastness of Portland Harbour; it’s no wonder it provided the venue for the sailing events of the 2012 Olympics.
We follow the guide book’s advice to walk clockwise round the island, so that – for a change – the sea is on our left. This takes us through the modernised Ocean Quay, past Henry VIII’s Portland Castle and up around the outskirts of the forbidding Verne Prison, built in the 19th century as an army barracks against French pretensions. The path is unpromising as it passes tall wire fences protecting quarries for the famous white Portland stone, but a steep descent brings the sea back into view while also bringing the cliffs into imposing perspective.
A gentle, consistent climb takes us to the remains of Rufus Castle, with a fabulous spiralling sculpture in the ground, and the delightful Church Ope Cove. A short climb puts us back on the cliff tops for an easy trek to the southernmost tip, Portland Bill. The wind picks up considerably as we near the headland, as do the currents; the water is noticeably choppier as it meets in front of the lighthouses.
After a cup of tea, we resume the easy cliff-top walk, past the houses of Southwell and Weston and more quarries until we come to a forbidding path diversion notice. On reading the detail though, it says that the path is to be closed for 15 days from the date of the notice – two years ago. We decide it is therefore safe and plough on. We make the same decision over the next closed section, only to discover the path come to an abrupt end where some of the cliffs have been chiselled away. We follow tracks made by other walkers who have clearly made the same mistake as us, and clamber over rocks looking for a shortcut back to the diversion. Catherine thinks she has found it when I point to an ornate rock carving below us, that looks like a formal Elizabethan garden oddly transplanted among the rough boulders all around. We are intrigued and perplexed by it, when a passing couple explain that we have stumbled into a sculpture park in a disused quarry. We explore some of the other sculptures as we weave our way out of the park to pick up the coastal path towards Chiswell and back towards Ferrybridge, with the impressive sweep of Chesil Beach arcing before us.
By the time we have walked back to our B&B in Wyke Regis, we have clocked up 14 or so miles – 14 miles that I thought would be tedious ones to tick off, rather than enjoy. The Island of Portland has surprised me – in a good way; it has more variety and native beauty than the Ordnance Survey map suggests.
We round off a surprisingly enjoyable day with dinner at the Crab House Café, a restaurant with a reputation that has spread far beyond this corner of Dorset. As I am allergic to shellfish, I had dismissed it, but Catherine’s husband has looked up the menu and messaged to say that they have fish dishes without shellfish. I am glad he persevered in persuading us to eat there; all I can say is, if you are in the area, make sure you book a table, because you are unlikely to get in if you don’t – and you will be missing out.
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