Portland Is Too An Island (Part 1)

The Isle of Portland is not actually the home of a Moloch-worshipping blood-sacrifice cult (at least not the one I wrote about), but it is nevertheless a fascinating place. I have recently done a great deal of research on it which I am determined shall not be wasted, and hence I bring to you, patient reader, some of my learnings of interest.

We mock Islanders, don’t we, us Brits. We talk about being ‘on’ the Isle of Wight, the Isle of Man, the Isle of Portland, rather than ‘in’ them – but we never talk about being ‘on’ Britain. For some reason we forget that what we call the mainland is actually an island, too. There must be some kind of unwritten threshold for Island-ness, determined by – what? Size? Distance from another shore? Levels of mistrust between populations?

Hang on, you’re going to say, but Portland isn’t actually an island like those others, is it? It’s connected to the mainland by Chesil Beach. Well, yes, but what you have to realise is that you can’t actually walkfrom Weymouth to Portland across Chesil – not unless you have calves of titanium, and insteps of bronze, at any rate. The steeply banked pebbles roll and shift under you with every step, the incessant North Atlantic wind batters you, and the waves crashing to your right might seize you at any moment and drag you back to Nova Scotia whence they came.
This means that for most of its history, access to Portland has been by sea only  (as good a definition of an island as any) and its communities as tight-knit and insular as you might expect. Before the wooden bridge was built in the 19thcentury, a horse-powered chain ferry across Small Mouth was the only way to get on to the Island – unless you could hitch a lift on a local fisherman’s double-prowed oared lerret – and even King George III made the passage in this way.
So yes, perhaps there developed some ‘mistrust between populations’ – Islanders and what they referred to as ‘England’ giving each other the old narrow-eye. Taking opposing sides even in the Civil War, suspicion, grievance and bigotry has characterised much of the history between them. On Portland, two or three generations’ Island ancestry is required to be rid of the epithet ‘kimberlin’; and on the mainland, inbreeding jibes and casual denigration continue to this day.
Church Ope Cove. Ouch.
We used to go blackberry-picking on Portland on a Sunday afternoon. Once we lost my sister on the cliffs, two hours of windmilling frenzy, calling and peering over precipices. (She was found, fast asleep, on a ledge that had caught her like a cupped palm when she fell). In the summer we would hunt for fossils at Church Ope Cove, bruise our feet paddling at the rocky shore. Later, my first boyfriend, a Portlander, and I would follow bunny (‘don’t say it!) trails into abandoned quarries and overgrown Victorian gun batteries, looking for privacy and respite from the relentless wind.
It felt like a wild place, and dangerous – the bare cliffs, the hidden sink-holes opening hundreds of feet to sea-caves under the rock, the MOD range and the sudden sound of gunfire, the looming fortress of the Verne prison. There are few trees on Portland – even three hundred years ago its inhabitants were burning dung for lack of timber – and together with the dreary, huddled stone cottages, it can seem barren and austere to the casual visitor.
Deadman’s Cove
But there are riches here, if you care to look, and not just the golden ducats that still occasionally wash up from the ancient wrecks submerged off Deadman’s Cove (now soothingly renamed Chesil Cove). Stories, legends, characters and intrigue veritably drip from the fossil-crusted rocks.
Of which more in Part 2.

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