The Jailhouse Café on The Jurassic Coast.

Written by Tymn Lintell.

Riding the bus the other day an American visitor, fresh-in from one of the cruise ships moored in the harbour below announced loudly 'Gee Willma, this place looks just like Alcatraz' to which I quietly replied in his ear, 'sir, Alcatraz has only one prison, we have TWO!'

Going to Prison (the infamous Verne prison - the BIG one) is all about The Journey.

'My crime?' Trying to get in through the back door (firmly locked and nobody there).

For my sins, I arrived on the No.1 bus at entirely the wrong place. However, that bus ('the other bus' with Serco or G4S written on the side) would have taken me straight to and through the front door of The Verne - with no return ticket home for the foreseeable future!

This one the real No.1, dropped me off some way away from my intended target. So, time to walk.

So, putting the Portland Heights Hotel (here, bottom of map ^ ) behind me I walked NE on a nice level tarmac surface .... towards the BACK door of where I was trying to go (beside the point of the pencil).

From the back door (clearly visible at the top of this period print), dropping left down a steeply shelving flight of stone steps you cannot but be amazed by the sheer scale of the Caponiers (walls) and ditch, the enormity of the construction task which commenced in 1847 and finished some twenty years later, defies belief.

Walking around this 'monster mountain' on the hottest day of the year was nothing but inspirational. The aspect, the view, the awe, is some!

At 56 acres, the Verne is HUGE, gouged and blasted out of a mountain of rock. In 1847 a start was made on temporary prison buildings known as The Verne Citadel for the prisoners who were building the Portland Harbour Breakwaters down below.

The Citadel under construction. The actual Verne Prison opened in 1949 on what was the site of this former military barracks

We are starting this walk at '9 o'clock' and going clockwise around to about '2.30'.

We are following the little dotted path down on to the bed of the disused railway track that used to transport the quarried stone to the harbour below. You need to leave the track and join the yellow road before the railway enters the tunnel.

This walk is like a piece of classical music, at each twist and turn, the crescendo building and building unti .... 'Photographer?' Go that extra mile, for those mega sunset shots (sets at top of frame), this is a new view that I reckon will come good. Harder than standing in the carpark I know - but - shape, form, light - sunset potential?

Climbing up the switchback road really heightens the expectation of arrival. But what lay ahead was an emotion we really hadn't expected. This vast portal (below) hove into view - senses pulsating you enter at your peril, for this is a prison. But no. No fear. It was quiet, no sound, almost spooky, no humans anywhere. Sublimating ourselves to that darkened tunnel, we nonchalently strolled forward convinced a voice-of-god would surely boom - 'HALT! - who goes there?'

Nothing. Silence. Just the high Portland stone walls amplifying our whispers to left and right.

'Calm down' she said, 'I bet we're on camera somewhere, everywhere!'

Entrance to Verne Prison

All this drama for a cuppa tea! But what a location to have that cuppa in? And more than tea was on offer. What we experienced was a unique project. Part Lottery Funded part mentored by (the infamous Harley-riding Kiwi) one Mat Follas of The Wild Garlic and Masterchef fame, this is a genuinely interesting scheme that gives out-bound end of term prisoners, the opportunity to acquire Real World skills. And to mix and interact with Real World customers too.

Never have I experienced a bunch of people so happy to please; to help, to serve, quietly and unobtrusively. The experience was almost monastic, temple-like. The tucker was good too!

 

If ever you look across the bay from Weymouth towards the Isle of Portland you cannot but fail to notice this huge white golf ball Ray Dome on the skyline (The Jailhouse Cafe terrace is right beneath and beside it). But what is it? When the harbour down below was an active Naval base there was a perceived need to protect the base from low level aerial attack by enemy aircraft (rumour has it that old Hawker Hunters used to fly from Boscombe Down a couple of times a day to test its low-approach detection systems). Now that the Port is in private hands we suspect that the Dome has probably been turned off so, fear not, enjoy your meal and the view!

'A Screw with a View' - be aware though, this is a fully functioning category C prison. The warders are discretely around yet so open to chat to and elucidate about life at The Verne. But ... what an office view eh?

As far as the eye can see, that is the real Jurassic Coast! .......... Weymouth SeaLife Tower boasts 174ft of altitude - the terrace at the Verne Jailhouse Cafe is nearly 3x higher at 500ft above sea level (Golden Cap tops-out at 627ft)!

Lunch over, we let the welcoming power of gravity propel us back down the switchback road to civilization again. Eyes wide open, looking for the little 'cut-through' paths that will lead you down through streets of stout local-stone cottages, each cascading under the gravitational pull of The Ocean towards our reward, the mighty Chesil Beach - a befitting finale to a fantastic Jailhouse Café experience.

PS. Prison warders and guards are nicknamed 'screws', usually by the prisoners. The word screw originated in the Victorian era when a prison warder or officer would give a prisoner a pointless task as a punishment. One of these punishments was a crank machine used as hard labour. This crank machine would involve the inmate having to turn a handle on a drum which would be filled with sand or water to make it heavier. The prison guard could tighten a screw in the drum to make turning the handle harder.

PPS. The Verne is a Category C prison for adult males. The population consists of life sentence prisoners and determinate sentenced prisoners, many serving four years or over. About sixty per cent of the prisoners are foreign nationals, with over fifty different nationalities represented.

PPPS. Breaking news - 04.09.13 - it has just been announced that The Verne prison is to become an immigration removal centre. Presumably the 'lifers' will be accommodated elsewhere now.

So, will the café (and it's stunning views) be open next year - who knows? Just Google it!

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