Portland Visitor Guide
Portland in Dorset, a brief insight into its history.
Portland is south of Weymouth, forming the southernmost point of the county of Dorset. Chesil Beach connects it to the mainland, and a road bridge links it to Weymouth.
Portland has been inhabited since at least the Middle Stone Age - there is archaeological evidence of inhabitants near Portland Bill. The Romans occupied Portland, allegedly calling it Vindelis. Some believe the salt pans on Portland were created by the Romans but evidence suggests they are medieval.
An old fortification is Rufus Castle, also known as Bow and Arrow Castle, which is a Norman castle built on a rocky promontory overlooking Church Ope Cove. The castle is named after William II, called 'Rufus' for his red hair. Up in the hills above the cove lies the ruined church of St Andrews. Once the chief place of worship for Portlanders and built in the 13th century, it has been ruined by landslips and attacks by French pirates.
In 1539 King Henry VIII ordered the construction of Portland Castle to defend from attacks by the French; the castle cost the king nearly £5000. During the English Civil War it was seized by both Royalists and Parliamentarians. During the First World War it was used as a seaplane station.
Sir Christopher Wren, the architect and Member of Parliament for Weymouth, used six million tons of white Portland limestone to rebuild destroyed parts of London after the Great Fire of 1666. The stone was also used to make hundreds of thousands of gravestones for those who fell on the Western Front during the Second World War. The Whitehall Cenotaph itself is also made of Portland Stone.
Railway branch lines have run on Portland since the early 19th century. The Merchant's Railway was the earliest - it opened in 1826 and ran from the quarries at the north of Tophill to the docks in Castletown, where Portland stone was shipped around the country.
Thomas Hardy wrote about Portland as ‘The Isle of Slingers’ due to the fact that Portlanders used to throw stones to keep Kimberlins (strangers) away.
The breakwater, which forms one of the largest harbours in the world, was started in 1849. The twenty-three years of construction cost the lives of twenty-two men, most of the building being carried out by convicts.
From 1872 to 1985 Portland Harbour was one of the United Kingdom's major naval bases. A Search and Rescue helicopter service now runs from there.
At the onset of World War I, HMS Hood was sunk in the passage between the southern breakwaters to protect the harbour from torpedo and submarine attack.
During World War II Portland was the object of considerable German bombing because Navy ships were berthed in its harbour.
The coastline around Portland has always been perilous for shipping. There has been a lighthouse on the island’s southern tip, known as Portland Bill, for nearly three hundred years. To the south east lies the Shambles Sandbank, just feet below the surface at low tide and the reason for one of Dorset's most tragic shipwrecks in 1805 when the East Indiaman 'Earl of Abergavenny' struck the Shambles and sank with huge loss of life.
Disclaimer: The information in this Tourist Guide has been researched from a variety of sources including books, articles and online information. While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information the reader should check any specific facts for themselves before making any decisions based upon the said information.
Portland Tourist Information Centre
Last Updated: 28 Apr 2015