The Isle of Portland lies off the coast of Dorset to the south of Weymouth. It is joined to the mainland by the Chesil Bank, a chert and flint pebble spit 18 miles long which runs westward to join the mainland at Abbotsbury. The spit and mainland are separated by the tidal Fleet Lagoon, spanned only by a road bridge, and between 1865 and 1965 a railway line.
The Chesil Bank offers protection to Weymouth and Chiswell, and also to the deep water Portland harbour, a base for Royal Navy warships and submarines until 1995, all of which lie in its lee. Despite this, during high winter tides, the road joining the island to the mainland could be under water.
At the southern tip of the Isle of Portland lies Portland Bill. At the tip a rock shelf juts out into the sea, supporting a huge rock which forever seems to tempt folk to climb it! Due to an underwater rocky outcrop, the currents form into a tidal race that can be very dangerous to shipping, hence the three lighthouses built there over the years. In 1996 the present lighthouse was computerised, as will be all of them, removing the hairy scary business of crewing some of the most dangerous ones.
Portland has been continually inhabited since the Mesolithic period, probably due to its isolated and defensive capabilities, and its strategic position. The Romans recognised the importance of its position, and Henry VIII constructed Portland Castle in 1539 as part of his defences against French invasion.
Portland's main produce has always been its famous Portland Limestone. It was chosen by local man Christopher Wren, the Weymouth member of parliament, and the architect given the job of rebuilding central London after the Great Fire of 1666. He obtained six million tons of stone from Portland for the work, and many facades of buildings including Buckingham House (Palace) and St Paul's Cathedral show off its glistening finish.
Most of the older buildings on the Isle of Portland incorporate the stone, and on a grimmer note the Ministry of Defence obtained 500,000 gravestones for the dead of the Great War, and repeated this again following World War II.
To protect the naval ships based in the harbour from the risk of submarine torpedoes at the beginning of the First World War, HMS Hood, last of the Royal Sovereign Class Battleships, was sunk across the harbour entrance. After the war in 1919 it was decided to have a permanent naval base there, which resulted in Portland being heavily bombed during World War II. When helicopters came into commission in 1946, a naval helicopter station was established. I have also seen "jump jets" landing there from ships in the harbour. The base was decommissioned in 1995, and the naval helicopters in 1999, although it is still used by air sea rescue and coastguards.