Dorset

Portland, Dorset

Joined to the mainland by Chesil beach, this craggy outcrop may be just a few miles long and only one and a half miles wide, but there’s a surprising amount to see and do, from delving into the natural wonders and habitats and getting active with Olympic-standard activities, to uncovering history in the castles and broadening your knowledge in its museums

Take the causeway alongside Chesil Beach and you’ll soon find yourself on the small yet mighty island of Portland, jutting majestically over the water. This formidable outcrop has played a surprisingly important role in history, with evidence of Roman occupation and settlements over the centuries. 

Portland Castle was built by Henry VIII to protect England from French and Spanish invasion, and since has been a major location for the Civil War right up to the First World War.  Its sister castle, Sandsfoot, lies on the mainland and is now just a ruin. Today, the castle is owned by The English Heritage and makes for a fascinating few hours – plus the views are fantastic. There’s another castle on the island (known as Rufus or Bow and Arrow Castle) which is older still, but today lies as a ruin overlooking Church Ope Cove. In addition, Verne Citadel which lies on Portland’s highest point, was built as a siege fortress in the mid-19th century. It’s vantage point was perfect (it was also previously an Iron Age fort) and today is used as a prison.

Image credit ©Historic England Photo Library

Portland Harbour was an important base for ships for over one hundred years, playing an important role during the First and Second World Wars. It eventually closed in the 1990’s due to budget reasons, but recently was reopened for recreational purposes, and more recently became the home of the Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy and the training waters for the Olympic and Paralympic sailing teams. Today, visitors can enjoy the plethora of water sports on offer, such as diving, sailing and windsurfing.

Portland Museum (reopening in 2021) is home to an astonishing collection, documenting the islands’ rich past and is a must-visit for history buffs. Its set within two beautiful 17th century cottages. 

The island’s stone (known as ‘Portland Stone’) was used to build St Paul’s Cathedral, and to rebuild London after the Great Fire – over six million tonnes headed to London via barges up the coast and along the Thames. Today, adventurous visitors might enjoy abseiling and rock climbing the islands craggy cliffs. 

Walkers will enjoy the South West Coastal Path which runs the 9.5-mile-long stretch around the island, taking in the dramatic views and incredible flora and fauna – including rare wildflowers and a vast habitation of butterflies. Portland Bill Observatory is a must if you’re a bird-lover.

Finally, its precarious position along this hazardous stretch of coastline means a lighthouse has been vitally important, with one in position for over three hundred years. Today, ‘Portland Bill’ – with its iconic red stripes – has a visitor centre which is well worth a visit, and the 153 steps to the top of the tower are worth it for the view!

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