Puffing to Portland
Shortly after leaving Exmouth’s esplanade, the ‘Geoneedle’ perched at Orcombe Point’s red cliffs marked the westernmost point of the Jurassic Coast. Fittingly, the ‘needle’ is made from a pale Portland stone, a stone which can be found at the easternmost end of this World Heritage Site.
Those red cliffs transported me back an unimaginable 250 million years when the area would have been a windswept desert. Along the coast’s length reaching from Exmouth to Portland, East Devon’s cliffs are the oldest; the sea is often blood-red as waves pound cliff faces and cause them to erode.
These distinctive rust coloured cliffs, together with their regular climbs and drops, stayed with me through Budleigh Salterton and on to Sidmouth which was in the midst of its annual Folk Festival. For over sixty years people have flocked here and I could see it wasn’t a good place for the Victory Van to collect me. Instead, I caught a bus out of town and returned to my walk by the same means next morning.
When not puffing up hills, there was time to enjoy ever-changing scenery from the clifftops; Devon’s rolling countryside was looking at its best with corn harvesting in full swing. On reaching Beer, cliffs changed colour from red to white. Chalk cliffs surrounded Beer beach which has been neatly sectioned into segments: an area for fishing, another for deck chair hire, a portion allocated to picnic tables and another for leisure craft. I didn’t see beach huts, but these appeared further along at Seaton which is best known for its electric tramway that runs beside the River Axe.
Later, arriving in Lyme Regis I soon discovered that where smugglers once roamed the Cobb Harbour stone breakwater, it’s now besieged with tourists. It was Carnival week when I passed through and I have never heard so many screaming children! I fled, seeking sanctuary in the nearby public gardens which, through rain clouds, gave me views towards Golden Cap’s 619ft – planned for my next day’s walk.
Although the rain had eased by the following morning, cross-winds had significantly increased. On my approach to Golden Cap, which under ordinary conditions would have provided fantastic views up and down the coast, I almost retraced my steps back to Charmouth. I was finding it increasingly hard to keep upright with the wind regularly pulling my legs in different directions. Progress was slow as I made my way in a crab-like fashion to the top.
Further on, when trying to get out to Thornecombe Beacon, I resorted to taking shelter behind a hill crest. Throughout the day my wind-filled jacket made me look like the Michelin Tyre Man! Winds, coupled with torrential squalls, made for a tough day as I made my way towards Bridport’s original seaport at West Bay. It’s here Chesil Bank, consisting of billions of pebbles, begins its 18-mile stretch along the coast to Portland. In places the Bank rises to a height of 40 feet, and its entire length protects the lengthy Fleet Nature Reserve behind it.
Stepping out the following day, I was again hit by ferocious winds (about 55 mph) but was determined to walk along Abbotsbury Ridge: I wanted to view the length of Chesil Bank and see Abbotsbury Swannery from height. This first part of the walk saw me again battling with sea winds which showered me with spray; my hair was completely matted with salt when I returned to the Victory Van that evening.
For me, reaching Portland was an exciting event. I regard Portland Bill as my last major headland so it was a special moment when its red and white striped lighthouse came into view.
Before achieving that landmark, I’d spent time wandering through Tout Quarry. The stone-working industry brought worldwide recognition to Portland and its famous stone used in such buildings as St Paul’s Cathedral and Buckingham Palace. Tout Quarry dates back to 1750 when it was worked by hand and divided into quarrying strips (called lawnsheds) which were owned by different families. I sat quietly amongst the old workings thinking about the bands of men who would once have toiled here. In 1983 Tout Quarry was made into a sculpture park and I could have spent hours wandering around looking at the different works produced by today’s sculptors.
Moving on down to Portland Bill I was interested to learn there had been two earlier lighthouses, a higher and lower, before the current one was built in 1906; this remained manned until March 1996. Nearby, I was puzzled by the Trinity House obelisk until I read of its purpose – it exists to warn mariners that a low shelf of rock extends out for many metres into the sea.
The Bill’s cliffs are quite spectacular and along my return route I kept finding evidence of quarry workings, including the big one once used to employ convicts from the local prison. Portland’s original prison now houses a Young Offenders’ Institute. When passing by I noticed an old sign reading ‘Borstal’ – a term no longer used today.
High on Portland I took advantage of the views which swept down to Portland Harbour, one of the largest man-made harbours in the world. Prince Albert laid the foundation stone in 1849, after which convict labour provided 1,500 tons of stone per day to build the breakwater – hard work indeed! In all there are four breakwaters.
It’s easy to see why the Royal Navy established a base here and although HMS Osprey closed in 1995, the waterfront area was named Osprey Quay to reflect its former Naval Air Station’s origins. Today, this area is home to the National Sailing Academy and it also witnessed Sir Ben Ainslie’s Olympic sailing triumphs in 2012.
By clocking 5,300 miles this week I think most readers will realise I’m nearing the end of my Victory Walk! Plans are now being put in place for my arrival back in Portsmouth. For those that are interested, please refer to ‘Future Ports of Call’ page on this website.
A nice way to finish the week was meeting members of South Dorset’s branch Association of Wrens who treated us to a lip-smacking afternoon tea and generous Walk donation. During a brief talk to them about the Victory Walk, I jokingly announced that the first prize of their afternoon’s raffle would be a hundred-mile walk with me to the Portsmouth finish line. Guess whose ticket won the first prize? MINE!!
I suppose I’d better get on with it …