Portland Bill Lighthouse

Earlier in my travels I toured round Orkney and Shetland, plus the north and west coasts of Scotland and all down the Outer Hebrides and saw such a plethora of lighthouses that their fascination somewhat dimmed.  But not far from Weymouth was the Portland Bill lighthouse, and so it seemed the perfect place to visit  –  It was the name that did it of course  – Portland Bill.

When I was working as a surveyor many years ago what the weather was going to be doing the next day was important, but although I listened most evenings it was very rare that I remembered or possibly even heard anything as the soporific effect of The Shipping Forecast along with their playing of Sleepy Shores had me in the Land of Nod, far too quickly.

But those evocative names have stayed in my mind for all those years so I decided to take a look at Portland Bill.  Also the Isle of Portland was interesting in itself – Portland Stone, Portland Cement (the surveyor in me must be re-surfacing – and perhaps with Portland Stone Flags).

Where lighthouses are concerned I know from past experience that they can be down some pretty narrow roads, and though in fact this one was not too bad there were a few awkward bits on the way.  The trouble with travelling early at this time of year in the UK is that it is invariably dark and so one doesn’t have the chance to appreciate the scenery of the place one is passing through.  Though I find with our current uk traffic that if travelling is left until it is light at this time of year the quantity of vehicles makes total concentration on the road a requirement – so you still don’t get to see the scenery.

I did just get a glimpse of a couple of quarries as we went past, and in fact the Portland Bill light house itself is built on an old quarry.

Arriving at Portland Bill there is an immense carpark, with a pretty stiff pricing policy.  Although it was early in the day and late in the year, and I was the almost the only vehicle around I generally follow rules so got out and paid the fees.  I had considered parking in the coach section, but I know that often seems to cause a problem with any parking attendants, quite why I am not sure, but it is a risk I am loathe to take.  As it was so incredibly windy (Storm Barny was still raging in) I parked longwise, so although I take up two spaces, and paid for two spaces I was crosswise on.

As soon as it was light a car-park attendant appeared, so I immediately checked with him as to what he wanted me to do.  No…. I had to park in the official slots.  Fair enough even though throughout the entire day the carpark was less than 5 percent full, and the storm meant that now the door flung open with such force I found it impossible to close and had to turn round to face the wind, with the result that I could barely open the door.  No matter.  Phoebe and I braved the wind and went for a walk round the lighthouse, though I was careful to keep her away from any cliff edges.

At the base of the stone obelisk – built on the point in 1844 by Trinity House to warn shipping of the rocks – was a little shrine put there when a fishing boat sunk with all hands just off the coast.

IMG_0533Trinity House Obelisk 1844

The photo is of one of the fishermen, and those who knew him drop by to drink his health and reminisce.

IMG_0504.Shrine to drowned fisherman

Then leaving leaving Little Miss Phoebe inside Thebus I popped over to the lovely cafe on the headland which was open for business, and had an excellent large cup of delicious coffee and a big slice of Spiced Dorset Applecake with Clotted Cream.  All so very good, that after my tour of the lighthouse I went back for a Crab Sandwich and that was on a par, and just as delicious as the crab I bought the day before at Weymouth.

The tour of the lighthouse was most interesting.  It was conducted by an ex-lighthouse keeper, who obviously loved the job and was a mine of information on the subject.  I was worried by the idea of 103 steps, but having been round Biddluph Grange gardens which has steps in every direction, and not suffered that badly the next day I felt quite literally ‘up for it’  And in fact saw off a couple of much younger folk who chickened out when they reached the lighthouse keeper’s room and would not venture up the last, exceedingly steep, staircase.  So steep in fact that the handholds were in the step ahead, and those of us who were brave enough to make it to the upper floor had to return down them backwards.


IMG_0541The lighthouse keeper’s living room, although with most of the original furnishings removed.

IMG_0514This is the clockwork mechanism which originally ran the turning mechanism of the light

IMG_0515And this was the enormous key to wind up the weights, taking about twenty minutes.

IMG_0536The huge, and original light of the Portland Lighthouse

The quarry on Portland Bill had been working until just before the lighthouse was built at the beginning of the 20th century, being finally completed in 1906.  Before then two lighthouses now known as the Old Higher Lighthouse and Old Lower Lighthouse operated as a pair at Portland Bill. They were first constructed in 1716, and continued to warn ships off Portland’s coast until the existing lighthouse was built.

I learned several interesting snippets that day –  something I had never heard about was ‘Leading Lights’  which I have always imagined to be a theatrical term.  But no…..this was a system used to help ships navigate – the Leading Light was built higher and a lower following or rear lighthouse behind, if the lights aligned one above another you knew you were on a safe course.  And this is what the Old Higher Lighthouse and Old Lower Lighthouses at Portland Bill were for.  Secondly all lighthouses have their own livery of stripes.  so sailors could identify where they were on the coast by the pattern of stripes on the lighthouse.  Portland Bill has a single thick red band round its middle, Also they had varying light patterns.  This one flashes four times every 20 seconds – and the light is set up so if you were off to the far west of the lighthouse you would would only see one flash, but when due south you would see the entire cycle of four.

The current Portland Bill lighthouse has an intensity of 635,000 candelas, giving a range of 25 nautical miles, and the fog signal – also with a coded blast to help ships identify the lighthouse and hence their position – has a range of 2 nautical miles, though our guide informed us it has been heard unto 25 miles away also.

All in all a worthwhile day, and I even got a badge, well two badges in fact – one for making it to the top, and another for making it safely down again.


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