Section 4. Isle of Portland Circle to Weymouth - (optional day but recommended)
Distance 13 miles - Grade - Moderate Walking - What these grades mean.
Highlights - Lighthouses, quarries, castles, views, Pulpit Rock and Dorset’s most southerly point..
The Isle of Portland Circle only became part of the official South West Coast Path National Trail in 2003, but don’t be deceived into feeling you must doggedly walk it for this reason alone. Portland is completely different from anything else on the 630 miles of this trail and if you miss it out you lose out on not only an important part of the coastal context but a unique and fascinating detour into the past on an island that, since the Romans, has been a wild and isolated frontier post literally hanging off the mainland UK.
The Dorset Coast Path here is often high level above the cliffs and offers the most far reaching panoramas on this entire coast. With every turn you will meet the bizarre, the unexpected and, despite its ruggedness, the beautiful as you twist through old castles, long abandoned quarries and isolated fishing shacks.
You arrive on the island along the route of the old railway from the Chesil Beach causeway, Thomas Hardy’s “Dead Mans Cove” on your right, his nickname for this notorious magnet for ship wrecks. Passing the Chesil Visitor Centre you climb through abandoned quarries where the land has been left to the wild flowers and grasslands, creating a unique habitat for many rare species of butterfly. These Quarries have provided Portland Stone, the most famous building stone in the world, to buildings around the globe from Whitehall and St Pauls Cathedral to the Raj buildings in New Delhi and the UN building in New York
The South West Coast Path winds past huge slabs of stone as you pass remains of the hand cranes that somehow loaded the rock onto horse drawn trailers. All along here watch out for a huge variety of birdlife with kittiwakes, fulmar, peregrines and guillemots in the area. At Old Trout Quarry you can wander through 40 superb sculptures in the Portland Sculpture Trust site where the artwork sits amid an area of protected wild orchids. From here the Dorset coast path takes dramatic turns, joining old tramways under immense rock arches, past stone seats, old World War 2 Gun emplacements, tumbling screes and quarry spoil, but always returning above the sheer cliffs that allow uninterrupted views out over Fleet and Chesil and beyond to Lyme Regis Bay and what was the distant start of your walk.
At the end of the isle you reach desolate Portland Bill itself, the most southerly point on this walk and along the entire Dorset Coast. Here is the notorious Portland Race, where two tides meet in a churning angry sea so treacherous that even today you will find three lighthouses on the route, the original one coal fired! At the gigantic stone plinth of Pulpit Rock those brave enough can shin up to the superb rock platform where you feel at the end of the World. For the less daring you can visit the Modern Lighthouse and climb the tower for the views. On a clear day you can see as far back as Start Point in mid Devon - an amazing 118 miles back down the Coast Path, if your walking holiday has brought you that far. You can see more of the coast from here than from any other part of the entire South West Coast Path - overall over one quarter of the whole route is visible.
Returning on the east coast the views change to no less impressive rolling chalk cliffs stretching towards Swanage from a trail that passes old fisherman’s shacks, then wide tracks through quarries mixed pleasantly with zigzag paths through landslips. At Church Ope Cove see the Cave Hole formation below the cliff top remains of St Andrews Church with its Pirate Graveyard. Close by you can see the aptly named Pennsylvania Castle built for the Governor of the Island in 1800. The nearby thatched Portland Museum is housed in the cottage Hardy used for the dwelling of Avice, the heroine in The Well Beloved.
The Dorset Coast Path now continues past the 15C Rufus Castle, above huge sea cliffs often being scaled by climbers. Old Engine Houses, hand cranes, isolated chimneys and tramways complete the surreal walking route before you reach the towering Victorian Portland Prison, now a young offenders unit. Beyond this the path takes you to the moat and tunnel of the impressive Verne Citadel, built on huge ramparts for 1000 soldiers in the 1860’s and yet another prison today - due to its wild tides and isolation this has always been England’s answer to Alcatraz. One last battery fort at the grassy slopes of High Angle before the final part of the walking circle is completed above Portland Harbour, the largest artificial harbour in Britain. This was built, no surprises here, by convict work gangs, its far end rebuilt for sailing and water sports events in the 2012 Olympics
If time allows before leaving the Isle, it's worth visiting Portland Castle, probably the best of Henry VIII’s string of coastal forts. You can enter the Tudor kitchen and step inside the Great Hall, as well as wander the canons and gun emplacements set with superb views of Portland Harbour from its ramparts.
From Portland enjoy some easy walking following the waterside Rodwell trail on the course of the old railway into Weymouth itself. The Dorset Coast Path passes the ruins of 16th Century Sandsfoot Castle, another Henry VIII coastal castle, though this one is now disappearing into the sea. On low cliffs enter delightful Nothe Gardens where you can pick your path through to Napoleonic Nothe Fort, standing in a prominent position overlooking Weymouth Bay, with its 12 gun battery open to the walker to wander round. A short ferry ride takes you over the neck of inland Weymouth Harbour, a safe haven for its cluster of working fishing boats, before a stretch along the waterfront Esplanade - one of the best in the UK