Famous for its sailing, lighthouses and natural white stone, there’s more to Portland than meets the eye. Words Lesley Gillilan
A tear-drop of pale rock hanging off a long ridge of West Dorset shingle, the Isle of Portland is a place apart. Notice the subtle change of atmosphere as you drive off the causeway and begin the slow climb to its summit. The wind invariably picks up as you arrive at its southern tip where Portland Bill lighthouse sits on low cliffs rising out of the Channel. The centre-point of Dorset’s Jurassic Coast, this is Portland’s tourist hotspot – but few visitors explore the rest of the island. Only four miles long and less than two miles wide, Portland consists of a string of villages: Fortuneswell, Easton, Weston and Southwell. There is no proper town as such, nor fast roads, and because it’s wilder and more spartan than the Dorset mainland, it takes a bit of getting used to.
First impressions are of bleached-stone houses, windswept landscapes and disused quarries (world famous Portland stone has been mined since Roman times). The island still has the air of a disused military outpost and it has two working prisons. New Zealander Mark Dunning of the island’s Real Estate Bureau, admits that Portland was ‘pretty basic’ when he moved here in 2002. He saw an upturn in 2012 when Portland Harbour was the venue for the London Olympics’ sailing events. He has since seen an influx of new faces. ‘And the place grows on you.’
Discover Church Ope Cove with beach huts and views of ruined Rufus Castle and Old St Andrews Church (and pirate cemetery). Visit Portland Bird Observatory (housed in an old lighthouse) and teeny Portland Museum. In spring, wild flowers and grasses populate the quarries. And it’s hard not to be seduced by the island’s views: on one side Weymouth Bay, on the other magnificent Chesil Beach and the Fleet Lagoon.
WHERE TO BUY
Choose between Underhill (Fortuneswell, Castletown or Chiswell at the north end) or Tophill (Easton, Weston, Wakeham and Southwell – more or less one village – on the sloping cap of the island). For the best views, head for Fortuneswell, a seaside community of tight-knit terraces clinging to the limestone cliffs that overlook Chesil Beach. Fortuneswell, wrote Thomas Hardy, is a place of ‘houses above houses, one man’s doorstep rising behind the neighbour’s chimney.’ Further inland, Easton is the island’s low-key centre with period stone cottages on uncannily wide streets and a handful of shops.
Portland prices are below the national average; it’s one of the cheapest places to buy on the Dorset coast and though the occasional up-scale homes fetch above-average prices, millionaire properties are unheard of. Typically, a stone-clad Georgian house in Easton can be bought for around £250,000-350,000. In Fortuneswell, it’s possible to buy a two-bedroom cottage with sea views for under £130,000. Tenants can rent a three-bedroom house for around £800 a month; two bedrooms for around £650.
As home to the Weymouth & Portland National Sailing Academy, watersports are a big attraction; and the island is equally famous among climbers for its rugged limestone cliffs, divers for its underwater wrecks and twitchers for its birdlife (think peregrines, fulmars and the occasional puffin). For walkers, there is a 13-mile round-the-island footpath – from Portland Bill you can see more coast than from any other point on the South West Coast Path. Beaches are not a strong point, but there are proper bucket-and-spade sands at Weymouth. Night life is almost non-existent and restaurants are limited: best options are the nearby Crab House Café (crabhousecafe.co.uk) on the Weymouth side of the causeway; White Stones Café and Gallery in Easton (whitestonescafegallery.com); and Quiddles, a quirky seafood beach café with fabulous views of Chesil Beach.
There is no railway station on Portland – the closest is Weymouth (a 20-minute drive). From there you can go all the way to Bristol, or change at Dorchester for London Waterloo (two to three hours, depending on the service). Dorchester, West Dorset’s small county town, is only a half-hour drive away. And Bournemouth International airport is 45 miles away.
The island’s former Aldridge Community Academy was rated by Ofsted as ‘inadequate’ but has now been rebranded as Atlantic Academy Portland. Budmouth College in nearby Chickerell is rated as ‘outstanding’.
The island can feel a little isolated and though it has a reputation as one of the warmest places on the south coast, it can be very windy (note the lack of trees). It also has a reputation for eccentricity and Portlanders unashamedly campaign to Keep Portland Weird. Part of its charm, perhaps?
The Underhill village of Castletown – the hub of a former naval base – was subject to a regeneration project to revive the island’s scuba-diving industry and create a heritage centre focused around the Tudor fort. Part of this has already been achieved in the £25m Crabbers’ Wharf: a community that combines marine industry with waterside holiday apartments (crabberswharf.co.uk).
PAY A VISIT
Shearwater (bluechipholidays.co.uk, 0333 3317897). One of a collection of Portland holiday homes offered by Blue Chip, Shearwater is a modern, family-friendly eco home with an open-plan kitchen, light fresh décor and views of nearby Pennsylvania Castle and the sea. The three-bedroom house is on a brand-new development in Wakeham and it comes with unlimited use of a day hut on Church Ope Cove – and this delightful outlook. From £339 (for a three-night stay).
CAN YOU AFFORD IT?