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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.
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.
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!'
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!
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!