On the Isle of Portland

25 June 2013
Ben Pentreath

What do you do in Dorset if it’s midsummer and blowing a gale? (yes, yes, enough about the weather).

Mum and Dad were staying this weekend. A huge wind was blowing, grey clouds rolling across the sky, and waves of rain coming in from the west.

We decided to head to Portland Bill.

The Isle of Portland has to be one of the strangest places in Dorset. Strike that – in Britain. Not quite an island, it’s linked to the mainland by a narrow road which only emphasises the otherness. It is famous, of course, for Portland stone, which was shipped around the coast by sailing barge to London, where it became first Inigo Jones’s, and later Wren’s, building material of choice as they created a shining white classical city out of the brick and tile townscape of the old London town.

It’s strange that a material of such beauty derives from a landscape that is in part ravaged, part strange. Portland is not beautiful – at least not in the conventional sense. But I love it.

At the far southern tip is Portland Bill, with its conglomeration of lighthouses, Ministry of Defence buildings (of unknown use), beach huts and cottages… and above all… the cruel sea. Which in a force 8 gale and on a grey cloudy rainy day is about the most oppressive thing you can go and watch. But completely mesmerising.

To me, this looks like a face. But then I find faces everywhere.

Dad inspecting the monumental white-painted obelisk, a shipping marker, perched right on the cliffs.

Sheltering from the gale.

The initials will stand for Trinity House, who own the nation’s lighthouses, but I couldn’t help thinking of my friend Tom Heatherwick, designer of the Olympic cauldron, London bus, and most excitingly of all – maybe a new garden bridge across the Thames?  I’m not sure that Thomas wouldn’t have been building obelisks in impossible places in 1844.

There’s a weird collection of ramshackle beach huts, that remind me of a place I’ve always wanted to visit but have never been… Derek Jarman’s garden at Dungeness…

Dad and I went to go and inspect the Coastguard hut, permanently manned by volunteers who, well, guard the coast.

This crazy thing is a ‘Sword Stick’ – specially designed for probing into sand, to find contraband. We assumed it would be sealed up now.

Wrong. It was extremely sharp.

You couldn’t be better looked after.  Luckily, given the foul weather, there were no boats at sea except heavy shipping far out in the English Channel.

I was very very happy to learn about this aerial. This, it turns out, is what gives the weather conditions from Portland Bill to the Meteorological Office for their nightly and morning Shipping Forecast. Can we have a Shipping Forecast interlude… And now the reports from Coastal Waters…  I have a curious dilemma at this point. Every single English reader of this blog will doubtless know the Shipping Forecast. Not many foreign readers will. So, for them: it goes out on the radio every night 00.48 in the morning, and then again at 5.20am. I think you will understand that I don’t need a lot of sleep, always, when I say that I often listen to the nightly broadcast and to the following morning.

Well, the Wikipedia entry puts it nicely: The unique and distinctive sound of these broadcasts has led to their attracting an audience much wider than that directly interested in maritime weather conditions. Many listeners find the repetition of the names of the sea areas almost hypnotic, particularly during the night-time broadcast at 0048 UK time.

The Forecast has been the subject of poetry and writing. And, in our own little way, of the special edition of the beautiful Letterpress printed poster that we commissioned from the Flowers & Fleuron Press, available from the shop. We had it printed in special colours, and the sharp-eyed will note the existence of the sea-area Finisterre, which was replaced in 2002 by FitzRoy (in honour of the founder of the shipping forecast). So ours is called the Finisterre Edition. We like to be a bit out of date. Here is mine at home:

You can see Portland just below Wight, about half way down. Well, anyway… it all starts with that little aerial.

which stands next to these rather beautiful white painted 19th century cottages and the upper lighthouse.

We made our way home via the fine, haunting, Portland stone church of St. George Reforne. Now closed for services (except on Christmas and St George’s Day), it is beautifully restored and looked after by the Churches Conservation Trust.

The graveyard is a wild place, surrounded by Industrial sheds.

And with exceptional carving – as you would expect from the Portland stone masons.

My type of building.

The quality of the stonework is incredible. Also, perhaps, as you would expect.

Beautiful Lichen. I became rather obsessive about this lichen (I have been known to obsess about lichen).


We left, and across the road, in the gale and rain, was a cricket match. Just to confirm the weirdness of Portland…

…watched over, in the distance, by the great Victorian Hulk of the Portland Young Offenders Institution.

You see what I mean. We went home for tea… curiously invigorated.

25 comments on this post

Sylvia Barkersays:

Good to hear nice things said about Portland.Unfortunately, I had to sell my home in Oxford due to a court case that went catastrophically wrong from my point of view. However, I had enough money left over to buy a small terraced stone built house and I love it.Although I have family links with Dorset and we spent many summers there, I had never visited Portland before I bought the property during a one day visit.
I could not believe how reasonably priced (in relative terms) houses with sea views are. Portland is a very special and unique place and yet to read the often disparaging blogs about it one, would think it was a benighted eyesore, not a weird and wonderful outpost of Britain, steeped in history

Sharon Rawlingssays:

You must return on a sunny day, a beautiful island that I grew up on. There is a very interesting pirates grave yard and the ruins of St Andrews church in Wakeham well worth a visit, along with Avices Cottage which is now Portland Musuem, some very interesting artifacts can be found here.


Derke Jarman’s cottage.
I have loved Dungeness all my life [I am now over 60], a wild and mysterious place of great and incredible beauty. Alas, now a theme park with designer railway carriage cottages and place for magazine photo shoots.Three years ago I vowed never to return…..

I love odd places such as that as well, but then I fully believe this: “There is no exquisite beauty…without some strangeness in the proportion.” -Edgar Allan Poe

What a lovely poem, Amy! Thank you for that!

Nick Morgansays:

Our favourite shipping forecast reference was Smith’s Knoll Automatic (sadly no longer referred to), it became a family standard, when ever we saw something mysterious in the countryside or a piece of unidentified machinery it was always assumed to be Smith’s Knoll Automatic!


Remember the comedy with Dame Judith Dench & Geoffrey Palmer ” As Time Goes By” in the ’90’s? Lionel’s father had an eccentric housekeeper named Mrs. Bell ( I think that was her name) and she was an avid follower of the shipping forecast. It became a bit of a running gag… Lovely images, thanks for sharing.

Beautiful blog and pics of Portland (I LOVE your book too!). My husband is a lichenologist for Natural England and has created a website where you can learn a bit or just look at a wealth of species.

domestos goddesssays:

It is a face! And it is wolf-whistling at YOU!


I hope there was a good bowl of warming soup at home!!Cheers from Australia.

Ellen Spencersays:

Greetings from Portland, Maine and Portland Head Light, strangely evocative of your Portland!

Love the lichen-encrusted stonework: visually attractive, suggestive of age and also a metaphor for culture-meets-nature.

Great photos of the heavy surf on the rocky coast. What a beautiful place!

I shouldn’t be so attracted to cemeteries but I am. Those gravestones are amazing!


yes, i thought immediately of derek jarman’s garden when i saw those pics of the beach shacks.. what a lovely, evocative place.
i love, love, love the photos of the graveyard. so beautiful.

Ben, thank you for another lovely, evocative post. I could feel the spray from waves crashing over the rocks and hear the graveyard grasses rustling in the wind! The three black huts look like they’re marching a circuit along the rock wall. I expect we Yankees have our version of the Shipping Forecast, but being a land-locked western Pennsylvanian, I’ve never heard it. Might I ask what kind of camera you use?

Diane K

Margaret Powlingsays:

That area is just like Dungeness, and Derek Jarman’s garden. We went there on a very cold day in May a few years ago. Like Portland, it has a beauty of its own, an other-worldliness.

Like you I love the shipping forecast. There are some wonderful books by Peter Collyer and one of them is called Rain Later, Good – Illustrating the Shipping Forecast. How do you do that, you wonder? Well you will have to get the book to find out! It was published before Foinisteer became Fitzroy (Capt, eventually Admiral Robert Fitzroy captained the Beagle for Charles Darwin and he was also Governor of New Zealand, and also responsible for having Fitzroy barometers in most the ports around the coast so that sailors would know when it wasn’t safe to put to sea.) The change from Finisteer to Fitzroy took place at noon on 4th February 2002. There, I’m a mine of useless information!

Other books by Peter Collyer are Encompassing Britain – Painting at the Points of the Compass and also South by Southwest – Painting the Channel Islands.

The graveyard looks a perfect setting for Pip’s encounter with Abel Magwitch – Great Expectations.

What a wonderful looking place! Thanks for the tour. I particularly loved the gravestones in the tall grass.


Have to admire someone who on a windy day takes his parents to someplace even windier!

Jette – your reply made me think of this poem:


Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.

Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.

Pray for us now. Grade 1 piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child’s name as though they named their loss.

Darkness outside. Inside, the radio’s prayer –
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.

Carol Ann Duffy

Oh! I do know the Shipping Forecast. We used to have them in Denmark too.

I loved the names of the various places out in the ocean. Fisher, Dogger, German Bight and so on. In Danish obviously but they still sounded strangely beautiful. Utsira (Utsire) was a particular favourite! 🙂

By chance I was listening to a programme from BBC Radio 4 and when that ended I heard Sailing By for the first time. How lovely that was. But that made me (and my husband who also remembers it well) wonder if the Shipping Forecast was still on Danish radio. We found out that it isn’t.

While I was reading your blog I realized that I know the name Portland Bill – from the Shipping Forecast.

Ben – sorry – in my excitement I put my answer (about bricks in Bellingdon) on the wrong post.

Fantastic – they are a couple of miles away from my house in Hawridge (another ‘Hilltop village’.) I’m so pleased a local material will be making an appearance in a Pentreath project – gives a super fan (!) like myself a sense of connection! Very much looking forward to the blog entry about that please please do keep us posted 🙂

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