Today’s stage was a circuit of the Isle and Royal Manor of Portland, Gateway to the Jurassic Coast. I was puzzled as to how a place can be a ‘gateway’ to somewhere it’s in the middle of, but at least this conundrum gave me something to think about during the tedious three mile trudge along the edge of the A354 that links the island to Weymouth.
When I arrived in Chiswell another, physical, gateway greeted me, more traditionally placed at the entrance to the island, and I went over to read the inscription.
“By the great generosity of the brethren of the six Portland Lodges of Freemasons under the auspices of…”
Wait a second – the tiny Isle of Portland has six Masonic Lodges? Who would have thought a population of just 13,000 people would support so many? Perhaps the Freemasons have more to do with masonry than I previously realised; quarries were by far the most striking feature of the island. At one time there were apparently over 80 working quarries whose products can be seen in numerous impressive edifices including the National Gallery, the British Museum and, most famously, St Paul’s Cathedral. It is still a major industry but many of the old quarries are now abandoned and the Coast Path runs right through them.
The discarded blocks and abandoned faces of Tout Quarry have become an al fresco gallery, adorned by numerous sculptures left there by the departing artisans. I would have liked to spend longer pottering round the quarry looking for them, but the weather didn’t encourage me to linger. Cool, windy and drizzling it was a day for brisk walking not dawdling. And after a few heavy showers I started to wonder whether I wanted to walk at all. My guidebook makes the Isle of Portland sound almost optional, and as I approached Portland Bill I saw there was a tempting bus service directly back to Weymouth – but not for another 45 minutes. To kill time I walked down behind the lighthouse to explore the tip of the Bill and saw a Coast Path marker: Minehead 581 miles to the left, Poole 49 miles to the right.
I hadn’t realised how close I was to the finish line! I decided not to cheat after all: after coming so far I could surely manage another 49 miles, especially if I had a good lunch. With that in mind I headed into the Lobster Pot restaurant for ham, egg and some excellent chips. As I ate I noticed a sign advertising cream teas, based on their famous award-winning scones made to a secret recipe handed down through the generations. How could I pass that up? But how could I fit one in when I’d just eaten such a large lunch?! Fortunately, it turned out they did a takeaway version for just this eventuality. Relieved, I popped one into my rucksack for later and set off up the east coast of the island.
It was an interesting route, beautiful in places, that I would have enjoyed in better weather. As it was, by the time the path rose to the highest part of the island I was walking in thick fog and couldn’t see a thing – ironic, given that on a clear day you can apparently see a quarter of the Coast Path from Portland Bill, more than from any other point. In the swirling mist I couldn’t even see Portland Harbour – one of the largest man-made harbours in the world – directly below me. I hastily skirted the old Verne Citadel, a fortress until the end of the second World War, now a medium security prison and an eerie desolate place to be this afternoon and hurried down to the harbour where a more cheerful sight greeted me. Osprey Quay and the adjacent athletes village were decked out in party colours ready to host the Olympic sailing next week, a welcome splash of colour on a grey, miserable day.
Less welcome, however, was the detour round the security cordon: back out onto the main road again. Still, since there’s only one way on and off the island it was coming sooner or later. Of all the sections of the Coast Path to have to walk twice, this had to be one of my last choices, but spurred on by the thought of the cream tea in my bag I made it back to the tent in double quick time. Chilled and tired after the damp 16.5 mile walk my take-away cream tea hit the spot and the scone was just as good as they’d claimed. But the logistics of eating it out of a box with only a spork and a folding pocket knife to assist me were a challenge. Several hours later, still discovering crumbs in my sleeping bag, I concluded that cream teas are better enjoyed in a proper tea shop.