Weymouth’s splendid esplanade of Georgian terraces is very pleasing on the eye, but the town’s treatment of its cyclists is simply shocking. Where Brighton’s promenade accommodates pedestrians and cyclists harmoniously, Weymouth regards cyclists with utter disdain. The local council has strapped or stuck forbidding ‘No Cycling’ signs to every lamppost, railing and wall. In fact the money they have spent on these signs would have gone a long way towards establishing safe shared routes for pedestrian and cyclist alike. The same council also publishes a laughably useless cycle route map of the town, where every road in the town centre or near the sea front is shaded brown, indicating a ‘busy or high speed road suited to confident cyclists only’.
The town had lost its role as a channel port earlier in the year, after Condor’s new ferry was deemed too large to berth here. I read that the council was discussing efforts to turn the quay into a leisure destination, rather than a ferry port. We can assume that whatever leisure activity is being proposed, it will not include cycling.
My first destination was the Isle of Portland, connected by road via a long causeway running between Weymouth and Fortuneswell. The island is home to no fewer than four lighthouses, the most famous being Portland Bill. Although only nine miles from my bed and breakfast, the route included one of the steepest climbs of the journey so far, and took two hours where I had allowed just one.
It was worth it, though. Two former, substantial lighthouses still stand near the current tower. A few hundred metres short of the headland stands the old lower light, sold by Trinity House in 1906, and now a bird observatory. It’s a splendid building and as I cycled past I concluded that this would certainly make my list of top ten places to live if money, and my lifestyle, allowed.
Behind it, further inland and up a steep hill, the old higher light is now a private house. Its squat tower may not be as imposing as the lower light, but the views are simply spectacular.
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) May 19, 2015
The main event, however, was Portland Bill Lighthouse itself. Built in 1906 to replace the two earlier lights, it’s one of the most substantial and recognisable lighthouses on our coast. I took advantage of the guided tour of the lighthouse, and from the lantern it was easy to see why the two vast bays on either side of the headland need such protection.
Trinity House originally opposed the construction of a lighthouse at Portland Bill, arguing that a light here wasn’t necessary and that shipowners could not bear the burden of its upkeep. However, the Portland Race, a fast-moving tidal area caused by the meeting of the tides between Portland Bill and the Shambles sandbank, caused a substantial hazard to so many vessels that a pair of coal-fired lights were constructed in the early eighteenth century.
In August 1788, Portland was the first lighthouse to be installed with Argand oil lamps, with their lights increased by lenses. The lower of the two towers was demolished and rebuilt in 1789, but otherwise these two towers served until 1869, when new high and low lighthouses were built.
The new pair of lights were in operation for less than forty years, and were replaced in 1906 by the current lighthouse. It was designed by Sir Thomas Matthews, then Trinity House’s engineer-in-chief, and has a tapered circular tower, nearly 140 feet tall, with lantern and gallery. It is painted white, with a single broad red band at its midpoint. It displays a group flashing light, which is visible for twenty-five miles.
The lighthouse was automated in March 1996.
Portland Bill made the news in 2019, when the lantern’s optics and lens, which gave the lighthouse’s beam its iconic sweeping motion, was switched off and replaced by a new LED light. The new light retains its range, but locals argue that without its familiar sweeping beam of light, its character has changed forever.
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) May 19, 2015
By contrast, the light at Portland Breakwater is far less impressive. It marks the entrance to Portland Harbour, once the largest man-made harbour in the world. Completed in 1873, the harbour was originally built for the Royal Navy, and it remained an important naval base until the end of the Cold War.
Since 1996, the harbour has been in private hands, and now serves a range of functions, including channel shipping, water sports, ship repair and, for a while, as home to the prison ship, HM Prison Weare.
Although the breakwater lighthouse was built in 1905, a year before the main light at Portland Bill, it is of an entirely different construction and scale. Comprising a prefabricated cast-iron, white-painted tower, seventy-one feet tall, it sports a weathervane on top of its lantern. It emits a white flashing light every two and a half seconds, which is visible for ten miles.
Access to the breakwater lighthouse was not an option, so my best view was from the hill above the harbour. Having taken a dozen or more long-range pictures, I couldn’t believe my luck when I found a long, deserted, well-maintained track heading steeply downhill towards the harbour. I would be off the island and on my way towards Bridport in no time, I assumed. But after a mile, and at the very bottom of the hill, I was met with twenty-foot high, barbed wire fences and gates, with armed guards on each side. I had been cycling along the private entrance to HMP Portland, a Young Offenders institution. I tried, and failed, to persuade the guards to let me through the thirty yards to the main road opposite, and instead had to retrace my route back up the hill. That’s twice I’ve been suckered by enticing-looking deserted roads. Lesson learned.
What I had planned to be a rapid excursion to Portland Bill lasting an hour or so ended up taking most of the day. I arrived back in Weymouth in the middle of the afternoon, and decided to press on towards Bridport. It was hard going, and by halfway I’d had enough.
I found refuge in the Crown Inn, in Punknowle, where the landlady insisted that I chained my bike up in the pub’s dining room, limiting the number of diners she could accommodate. I rediscovered Palmers Copper Ale, a local brew described as a ‘session ale’ and ‘the Head Brewer’s drink of choice’. I couldn’t help but agree.