Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Five minutes away

In true Diamond Geezer style: Famous places within 5 minutes walk of my house.

Portland Harbour - a four square mile body of water on the Dorset Coast enclosed on the west by the natural wonder of Chesil Beach (a tombolo, fact fans: A sand bar connecting an island to mainland or joining two islands.), to the south by the equally impressive Isle and Royal Manor of Portland and to the east by four enormous Victorian breakwaters. To the North are the villages of Rodwell, Southlands and Wyke Regis, all merged in modernity into the whole that is Weymouth. And good grief, all this a rather enthusiastic stone’s throw away from Scaryduck Mansions, along with a good half dozen sheltered beaches of varying quality and nudity.

Portland Harbour has been important throughout history. Known to Iron Age man as proven by settlements on the Island, and almost certainly used as an anchorage by Vespasian as his troops moved up the Wey Valley to defeat the Durotriges at Maiden Castle near Dorchester, an event which would go virtually unnoticed in the town these days.

Henry VIII thought Portland Harbour so important that he built two castles to guard its entrances. The one on Portland has been impeccably restored by English Heritage. Guarding the north entrance to the Portland Roads is Sandsfoot Castle, a crumbling ruin slowly and tragically slipping into the sea on top of a crumbling cliff. It is, of course, by far the most interesting relic.

The two castles were replaced in the 1800s by the Verne Citadel, a stone monstrosity that actually lowered the height of the island by some fifty feet, now known as HMP The Verne, one of three prisons on the island including HMP The Weare, the infamous prison ship. The prisons are now the island’s major employer after the departure of the Royal Navy were established in the 1850s as penal colonies to help in the construction of the harbour’s most imposing feature - the breakwater which now separates it from the sea.

Never far from history, Brunel’s Great Eastern underwent repairs in the harbour after a fatal accident on her sea trials - one of the funnels, apparently, now forms the inlet pipe at the nearby Wyke water treatment plant. And a grave at Castletown is evidence of the only Victoria Cross won on British Territory, that of Leading Seaman Jack Foreman Mantle, who stayed at his post on HMS Foylebank, though mortally wounded and his ship sinking under him. The remarkable story of an ordinary young man just doing his duty in extraordinary circumstances. Hard to imagine that all this happened within spitting distance of your front door. The pillboxes on Castle Cove beach the only sign of more violent times.

Nowadays, the Navy is all but gone, and Portland Harbour has reinvented itself as a minor port for the Channel Islands and Transatlantic cable laying. Brighter days lie ahead with the hope of hosting the Olympic Games sailing events in 2012, and the new yachting academy is just the start of the process.

It is a thing of great beauty, as my none-too-flattering panoramic photo shows*. Scarydog and I just use it for walkies. Lucky old Scarydog.

* Dial-up warning - it's 420 kB, but worth the wait.

The Scaryduck Archive

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