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Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Walk 117 Weymouth and Portland (Dorset)

Walk 117 Weymouth and Portland (Dorset)

(Second leg of English coastal walk – Broadstairs to Lands End)

Map: L/R 194
Distance: 17 miles or 25km
Difficulty: moderate
Terrain: road, cliff and other paths
Access: Parking in Weymouth.
Public transport: Plenty of buses between Weymouth and Portland.

This is a bit longer than the normal walks I do as it involves a circular walk around the island of Portland. Start off on the coastal path near to the George 111 statue in Weymouth and walk along the coastal path adjacent to the beach.

Look out for varied architecture including The New Vic Hotel which has a rather smart bust of Queen Victoria above its entrance. There are good views to the sheltered Weymouth Bay from here and soon the River Wey will have to be crossed for the walk to Nothe Fort. On the hills near Weymouth is a chalk carving of a horse meant to represent George 111 – dismayed that the work generated royal disapproval the artist killed himself. Fortunately, these days we are a little more sanguine about royal criticism – there would be an architect’s bloodbath if Prince Charles comments about some modern buildings were taken too much to heart!

The bridge across the Wey gives a good view up and down the river – lifeboats and old sailing vessels were in evidence when I was there. A plaque near here states that Captain Richard Clark departed from Weymouth to join Sir Humphrey Gilbert in his discovery of Newfoundland. Continue the walk up to and along the pier where ferries leave for the Channel Islands and Brittany. A less welcome visitor arrived here in 1348 as it was near Weymouth that the Black Death entered Britain killing nearly half the population in one year!

Weymouth Harbour was once a major port in the UK for both fishing and cargo – less so now although the catch is still the third largest in England. The bridge here is raised every two hours to let shipping through.

Continue the walk to Nothe Fort. This was built in 1860 by the Royal Engineers, with help from prisoners from Portland Prison, as part of the defence of Portland Harbour. It housed 12 gun batteries with 70 rooms on 3 levels. It remained in active service until 1956 and is now owned by the council.

Walk westwards and after about a mile is Sandsfoot or Weymouth  Castle and gardens. This was completed on the orders of Henry V111 in about 1539 to support Portland Castle in the protection of Portland Harbour. It has 2 storeys, dungeons, cannons and quarters for 50 men. The castle was in bad repair by 1584 due to damage by the sea and remedial work had to be done. It was held for the king in the Civil War and was then used as a mint. It then became a storehouse and never saw serious military action.

Portland Harbour was built in Victorian times and was an important naval base during the times of the Spanish Armada. It was closed (under the then name of HMS Osprey) in 1999 and the work transferred to Somerset. The cycle track along this stretch is part of The Rodwell Trail and follows part of the old Weymouth to Portland railway line which was closed in 1965. Look out for the platform and a sign of one of the old stations.

The walk along the road to Portland is a bit tedious. It becomes better near the end where there is a good view of Chesil Cave. This point, which lies at the end of Chesil Beach, gets the full blast of the Atlantic and is the site of many shipwrecks. The walk on the west side of the island starts with a rather steep and difficult climb alongside some houses to West Cliff. The path wasn’t entirely clear and it is possible that I took a route that was more difficult than it should have been. There is a very good view back to Chesil Beach which is one of the greatest examples of a tombolo in the world (a tombolo is a spit of land formed by longshore drift that has completely sealed in a section of the coast). The beach is 17 miles long and has been built up by a steady deposition of pebbles, the bulkiest near to Portland and the smaller down the coast at Abbotsbury. Local fishermen can tell exactly where on the beach a pebble comes from by its size.

Continue the walk along the path adjacent to the rugged coastline past Blacknor and towards Portland Bill. The scaly cricket’s only British home is in this area possibly brought here on a World War2 landing craft.

The 115 ft high lighthouse at Portland Bill was built in 1906 although there is an older disused one a little bit inland. To the right of it is an obelisk constructed in 1844 and warning of a low ledge stretching out 30 metres into the sea. Look out for Pulpit Rock further to the west which is a popular attraction because of its shape.

Continue the walk around the island where a mixture of erosion and quarrying has resulted in unusual rock formations. The area has been quarried for centuries to extract limestone. This has been used in such notable places as St Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower of London and the United Nations HQ in New York. Further round near Freshwater Bay there appears to be some new quarrying going on – a crane with a load still attached was abandoned – must have been knocking-off time!

Further up the east coast is Rufus Castle which is at the top of a steep climb from Church Ope Cove. The castle was built for William Rufus, king of England from 1087-1100, and is also known as Bow and Arrow Castle because of the many spaces for these weapons in the 7 ft thick walls. All that is left is a ruin and the arch is the only original part that remains.

Look out for the grim facades of the Young Offenders Institution and prison at Grove with the barbed wire and cameras. Near the end of the walk, on a hill near Fortuneswell, is an impressive sculpture of a quarryman. Descend into Fortunewell where there are buses back to Weymouth if needed.

Photos show: Chesil Beach from Portland; Portland Bill lighthouse; Quarrying areas on the south coast; sculpture of quarryman near Fortuneswell. 

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