If there seems to be a lot of stone in the clues, and in the pictures here, it’s not by accident. If there’s one thing the Isle of Portland is known for more than any other, it’s Portland stone.
True, it’s been a world-class navy base and true, it’s got a history as old as you can imagine, but it’s the stone that put Portland on the map, and shaped its economy.
Congrats, in order of their guesses, for the correct answers from GarryRF, TravelingCanuck, PortMoresby, JonathanL and Roderick Simpson.
Inigo Jones, royal architect and Surveyor-General to James I could be Portland’s patron saint: He’s the one who introduced its attractive and durable limestone to London, where he used it in Whitehall, the Banqueting Hall and for repairs to St. Paul’s Cathedral. After the 1666 Great Fire of London, his successor, Christopher Wren, used 6 million tons of it to rebuild London, including the new St. Paul’s.
Portland's own Cenotaph, a memorial to soldiers and sailors from the Isle.
It’s also provided London’s Cenotaph, the façade of Buckingham Palace, and over a million gravestones for war cemeteries after both world wars. And it’s in New York, at U.N. headquarters. The quarrying is mostly done, now, though remnants of equipment and piles of hewn stone can be found all over.
Because the Isle is at the heart of Dorset’s Jurassic Coast, many of the rocks show signs of early life in the area, with fossils common in walls and steps.
The island is about 4 miles long by nearly 2 miles wide, and connected to the mainland only by a narrow beach highway. Sadly, we didn’t have the time to really explore the heart of the island, seeing only what we could from the double-decker bus that connects nearby Weymouth with Portland Bill, the Isle’s southernmost point, marked by a lighthouse.
There’s been a lighthouse there since 1716, but the present light is from 1906. It’s now automatic and controlled remotely; the keeper’s quarters have become a small museum and visitor center. Visitors (but not us!) can climb the 153 steps to the top.
An earlier lighthouse, decommissioned when the current one was built
Aside from stone, Portland’s greatest fame is as a naval harbor. It forms one side of Weymouth Bay, a wide natural harbor that’s been important since Roman times.
No, this TH is not for either of Dorset's famous Thomas Hardys. It stands for Trinity House, which runs Britain's lighthouse service.
It’s also the site of the first recorded Viking raid on England in 787 AD, when three lost Viking ships landed. A local royal official confronted them and demanded tax payments. Apparently, a bad strategy: they killed him and sailed on.
Portland’s history with the Royal Navy started in the 16th century, when ships were stationed there for defense against cross-Channel attacks. In the mid 19th century, huge stone breakwaters were built to form one of the world’s largest artificial harbors, and Portland became one of the Royal Navy’s biggest bases, until it was closed down after the Cold War. All over the island, many facilities remain—including the prison that was built there so convicts could be used as labor to build the breakwaters.
After the Navy left, the harbor’s continued to be important to Portland, and is a stop for numbers of cruise ships. In 2012, Portland’s rocky heights were among the best viewing points for the sailing events, which were held in Portland Harbor and Weymouth Bay (hence the Olympic rings, marking one of the prime spots).
We spent most of our time at Portland Bill, visiting the lighthouse, wandering among the left-over heaps of stone…and especially, at the small café near the lighthouse, enjoying a Dorset cream tea. Lovely biscuits and freshly-prepared clotted cream. What’s not to like?
If you go: driving from Weymouth is easy, but it’s worth noting that nearly all the small towns along the Dorset coast and just inland from it are connected by buses that start from The King’s Statue in Weymouth. If you can adapt your schedule to theirs, it’s not expensive and lets someone else deal with the often narrow lanes.