Do you have a problem with WEIRD?

Written by Tymn Lintell.

If not, then let's dive straight into this fascinating place called 'Weird'. 

(one of a series of walks using the #1 bus from Weymouth to Portland and back again) It's a short walk but a BIG story.

'Still Falling' by Antony Gormley 1983 - Tout Quarry - #1 bus stop, Heights Hotel.

Imagine; you are a foreigner, English is not your first language, you have been sold on the idea of exploring Dorset and the Jurassic Coast. You don't have a car - so what do you do?

Yup! - you use public transport. Specifically, the east/west/east X53 bus and then a LOCAL bus.

So Mr First Bus, we locals don't need this timetable stuff (it's in our DNA and on your RTPI screens) but our guests/your new customers are hungry for it so long as it's informative, easy to digest and above all - USEFUL (not just weird)! 

  • Why no mention of the Ferrybridge stop? (for Crab House Cafe, Rodwell Trail, Chesil Beach VC, the Fleet Nature Reserve - even the holiday camp).
  • Why no Olympic Sailing Academy stop for all those 100s of eager youngsters?
  • Why no Heights Hotel stop? (great for views, Tout Quarry, West Weares and Verne walk).
  • Why no Portland Museum and Church Ope stop?
  • Why no Portland Bill stop? (nearest is Avalanche Church with 30 min walk to the Bill and back)

Timetables should be about Where People Want to Go ........ (as well as 'where people live'). 

interior #1 bus to Portland

The #1 bus runs (approx) every ten minutes from Weymouth to Portland (no timetable required).

As you leave the safety of the suburban mainland and cross the causeway to the Isle of Portland, your first stop is Victoria Square (more a traffic roundabout than a piazza/square but hey, you are now on Portland!). Bing the bell, jump off outside the derelict blue pub (below), turn left and follow the pavement around to the right.

 The renowned local historian/author - Selwyn Williams - tells me ...'This anchor (salvaged from the nearby harbour) had one palm bent back to act as a mooring anchor so, no danger of a ship having a fluke go through it's bottom, I presume it was done in the dockyard by the blacksmiths' - weird?

Having turned left out of the bus, we are now walking down Mulberry Avenue out onto the draughty empty expanse of the old RNAS helicopter base, once the busiest military Heliport in Europe - can you feel the westerly wind on your back? (more historical info and pics about the Royal Naval Air Station Portland here).

The red brick building (below), once the air station canteen and latterly the Control Tower (far right and ooops, the whole soon to be an old peoples home), is dwarfed by the massive but redundant ex-Naval accomodation blocks. Built in the '80s, then deserted in the mid '90s and bought by an Irish property developer in the mid '00ies then 'converted' into luxury seaview appartments, now searching for tenants in the mid 2010s.

Recent history aside, we are now approaching the nub of this story. Within the little white stone-pillared gateway at the far left of this picture is our starting point - built nearly 500 years ago for one Henry V111 nestles the cutest, cuddliest castle you could ever hope to find!

Cuddly or not, it still amazes me how these pea-shooter-sized cannon could protect us from our enemies. Perhaps they were more 'deterrent' than WMD?

Now lovingly cared for by English Heritage, Portland Castle contains a myriad of historical stories that make a great appetizer for this Victor Meldrew'esque ramble around Castletown.

Looking out to sea from Portland castle

I love it, I so love it! It really is a pocket-sized castle. Small but perfectly formed - curves in all the right places, curves that could have deflected the Frenchies 'boulet de cannon' - poof! And still, in the foreground the locals quietly collect seaweed to fertilise their veggie plots - weird huh?

Collecting seaweed outside Portland Castle

BUT up the lane, a mere 100 metres and 500 years away is this reinforced, bomb proof, cast steel and concrete monster! (no wonder that the developers could only glue-on some green glass balconies to give it a 'Luxury' tag!). Could English Heritage adopt it too - now that really would be weird?

Carcass of old Naval Accommodation block-awaiting developersConverted naval accommodation, now 'luxury' flats for rent!

Standing at the roundabout in front of this monster, behind you is yet another interesting story. Known as a 'stone frigate', HMS Boscawen (now Osprey leisure centre) was originally a 'wooden-waller' and two very old iron-clad ships moored in the middle of Portland harbour. Their purpose? To train young boys for a life before the mast. Except our navy no longer had any masts! It was a harsh life for the young lads with their measley 3d/week pay. You can read more about HMS Boscawen here.

Walking away from Osprey and up towards the derelict block is where the real magic begins. Notice the little pathway under the road and into this tunnel - follow it!

This, the now redundant Merchant's railway was once the M1 motorway (or HS2 project!) of Portland. Opened in 1826 it completely revolutionised how Portland connected the Tophill quarries to the quayside pier at Castletown, once used for exporting their hard-won stone out to the rest of the world.

Tunnel approach to Merchants railway - Portland

This clever little three-tracked balanced railway system shifted approx. 6 million tonnes of stone just to build the harbour breakwaters and forts alone. Then add-in the 100s of '000s of war grave headstones shipped across the globe. Then all the massive building projects in London and it becomes clear that this was one very busy little railway and a crucial backbone to the local economy. If you walk up the old trackbed you can connect with the Jail House Café walk - and have a welcome cuppa in prison - (now, that really is weird)!

The only way to really understand the geological magic of Portland stone is to visit the Albion Stone website and play around with their c/u pictures of the different 'beds'! - (that's not weird).

This same little railway also facilitated the massive construction task of building the breakwaters for the Portland Harbour we see today, a real tale of hair-raising Victorian endeavour. The story is well worth a read because it places everything you see around you here in Castletown into a context.

Bulk Tankers in Portland Port

With the Navy came all the supporting trades to keep them fuelled, victualed and afloat. And after a hard days graft, it was time to play! Castletown, once a sleepy little fishing village with a simple beach was transformed by the arrival of the fleet and nightly, used to throb to the sound of many a Jolly (happy) Sailor and his mates!

The Jolly Sailor pub signCurved parapet of the Royal Breakwater Hotel, Castletown.

Joviality aside. War is War. Imagine 1944. Imagine if we asked every man woman and child currently living in 2012 West Dorset; North Dorset, East Dorset, Purbeck, Christchurch, Weymouth and Portland, (yes - EVERY man woman and child) to all rise up and walk towards the coastal town of Weymouth and the Isle of Portland? And for each 3rd person to bring a tractor, truck, tank, gun, jeep or wheelbarrow with them, so that we could load them all onto flimsy boats and send them off to France in one massive wave. Now you begin to get an idea of just how complex the preparations for D-Day actually were. And the bulk of that operation - the shifting of 144,090 engines of war and 418,588 troops - happened right here, under your feet here on the hards of Castletown.

Reversing their various transports onto waiting LCTs, these 1000s of young GIs had no idea of the carnage that lay ahead of them.For many many Americans this would be their last view of civilisation before perishing at Bloody Omaha beach on D-Day 1944.

Bertie Male, as skipper of one of those many LCTs was a Portlander, born and bred. His moving personal account of the D-Day invasion is worth a read. He was there at D-Day, I wasn't.

Next year, over the weekend of 20/21 June 2014, Weymouth & Portland will be commemorating the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion by The Big Red One with a series of re-enactments and themed events - why not diarise it, come down in period costume and join in?

Putting Castletown behind us and perhaps taking a quiet quayside coffee break at The Aqua Café, let's leave one time zone and walk a half-a-mile up the road into another facet of this weird and wonderful place.

In 2012 the Olympic Sailing events were staged just up the road at The National Sailing Academy. These buildings (below) were constructed as the athletes residential village, to be sold back into the local community post Olympics. Many locals dismiss them as weird and an expensive eyesore. I beg to differ.

The homes are built using quality materials and constructed to Code Level 4 of the Code for Sustainable Homes. They incorporate sustainable technologies such as biomass district heating, wood pellet stoves and rainwater harvesting. This means these homes are very cheap to run. And that is what makes them so special to my eyes - so, they are far from being weird!

Why not watch and listen to Kim Slowe - he once flew choppers out of the Helio base that we started our walk from. His company then went on to design and build this unique little development and there is nothing weird about this trail-blazing project at all!

Walking out of the bottom entrance to Officer's Fields we meet the shock of the 21st century (traffic). Best to now cross-over the top of Victoria Sq roundabout and head for the beach, well the (one) back (pebbly) street of Chiswell that leads to the mighty 28km Chesil Beach (read about it here, it's not on the #1 bus timetable!).

Before you hit the beach and if you are in need of some sustenance, The Blue Fish Cafe does a mean fish & shellfish stew with new potatoes, basil, pernod and olive oil - weird? no, just really tasty after a good walk on a blustery autumnal day! Or, keep on walking down to Deadman's Cove and take a break at Quiddles Café on their roof-top terrace (nifty bit of design, this used to be the public loos!).

We are now in 'fish country'. Everything on this side of Victoria Square concerns itself with the adjacent ocean. You cannot escape it. You cannot ignore it. Most days you can hear it, smell it and feel it. It is a very very powerful prescence. Local lerrets used to seine net (see below) for shoals of mackerel off this unique 'tombolo' beach (rumour has it that in the 1860s one William Bilke - fisherman - of Wyke, landed 63,000 mackerel onto this beach in one day - and that's a lot of mackerel paté!).

Calm as it may look this stretch of ocean with a continuous fetch all the way from the Bahamas can throw-up the most hideous waves you have ever seen. Pounding, thrashing and sucking the life out of anyone who dares to enter, it rarely looks this tranquil - beware!

Of those brave enough are a band of local scuba divers called Underwater Explorers who are busy mapping the undersea flora and fauna (do try and watch their fascinating videos) whilst also working with The Shipwreck Project recording the many human and technological stories of the multitude of historically significant shipwrecks that lie just off this beach.

If like me, you enjoy trying to visualise times long gone I can highly recommend walking from here along this boardwalk and straight up the side of the hill in front of you. At the top, turn right and follow the (cliff edge) disused railway trackbed path. Engage imagination, turn-up the volume, for this is the real Jurassic Coast. (oh - and you can catch the #1 bus back home from outside The Heights Hotel!)

If you don't fancy the uphill march (past Quiddles Café) then there is no better place for a sundowner than right here at The Cove Inn - that bench is still there!

Leaving the Cove Inn behind you, slip down the side of the pub to the main road and 'bingo' there is the #1 bus stop ready and waiting to carry you swiftly home - like magic, it's weirdly easy by bus!

But if you are feeling bold (and/or full of energy) jump-off at the end of the causeway and walk back to Weymouth along the Rodwell Trail - or visit the Fleet lagoon or The Crab House Cafe or the Chesil Beach Centre or even take a kayak up the lagoon to Abbotsbury or do some bird watching or even go rockpooling or just live a little and love your little old weird self in this wonderfully wild environment!

It's Better by Bus!

If you are interested in the story of the quarries and The Merchant's Railway, here is an excellent 12 minute film made by Julian Richards and Steve Shearn. http://vimeo.com/76957994

(thanks to isleofportlandpictures.org.uk for use of four archive images. Others © jurassicagent)

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