A POPULAR modification to cars round here is a bumper sticker: Keep Portland Weird, it demands. The slogan is an import from the USA, where the city of Portland, Oregon took ownership of a sentiment originally stuck to automobiles in that nexus of individuality, Austin, Texas. I have been to Portland, Oregon. It was a fairly strange place indeed, in a nice sort of way. A fug of coffee fumes hangs around the place. I remember it having an awful lot of pubs, which is never a negative in my estimation.
But the American metropolis will never be as weird as Portland, Dorset. Very few places are. British journalist Tom Dykhoff commented last year in his Guardian column Let’s Move To… that “the place is pockmarked with quarries, the lingering sense of something missing adding a peculiar air to a place which already has its fair share of oddity”. Dykhoff sensed the strangeness that is at Portland’s very core – it’s a tiny island only four miles long and a little over a mile and a half wide. It is physically joined to the kiss-me-quick resort of Weymouth by a causeway behind Chesil beach, one of the largest shingle structures in Europe. But once you have driven onto this work-scarred chunk of rock, you’re acutely conscious that you have landed somewhere other. Welcome to the Isle of the Dead. Novelist Bernard Cornwell gave it this title in his 1990s Warlord Chronicle books. It served for him as an asylum for the insane, imprisoned away from the mainland.
Cornwell was in the business of fiction, but Portland has long been a container for society’s pariahs. Built into the cliff on its northern side is The Verne, a huge and forbidding military complex defended by the cliffs themselves and even by a moat. Built in the late 1850s, in 1949 it became a prison. In 2014 it was refashioned as an immigration centre, but it remains a place of confinement.
Portland’s inhabitants form a famously exclusive community. Before the road was built access was available by boat or chain ferry. Nowadays Portlanders stream on and off the island on a daily basis, but only a few years ago an elderly inhabitant landed up in Dorset County Hospital, 13 miles away in Dorchester. It emerged that this was the first visit he had ever made to the mainland. Asked why he had never before quit his tiny homeland he had a very simple reply: “well,” he demanded, “why would I?”
Dorset has a great deal of coastline, which is happily available to people inclined towards perambulation. The Coast Path follows the seaboard. It pops across the causeway and takes in Portland along the way. The path makes a spectacular ramble, 13 miles in length if you start at the beginning of the causeway, around 10 miles if you park up near the Verne, above the town of Fortuneswell. This is exactly what I have just done, because today I am going to circumnavigate Portland at a run.
I carry a backpack, but it doesn’t contain much: a lightweight waterproof, because island weather is never predictable, half a litre of water and a mobile phone for emergencies – for the present set to aircraft mode. I don’t want to be disturbed.
From the parking place the view is spectacular. The sheer scale of Chesil Beach dominates your senses. The gravel spit rears away from Portland, following the coast into the westward distance. When the sun shines it glows gold. To the left is the open sea, to the right the enormous harbour of Portland Bay. For many years this huge, watery fortress was home to naval vessels. Now, following its hosting of the Olympic sailing events in 2012, it is filled with small sails – dinghy pilots, wind surfers and kite surfers career around having what looks like a great deal of fun.
Less enjoyment is to be found after a few hundred yards of road and quarry track leading past – slightly improbably – a collection of goats and other animals. Fancy’s Farm is a community farm which preserves a flock of native Portland sheep. It lives in the distinctly un-sylvan setting of a former radar station, a cold-war confection of barbed wire and concrete. Then I reach a hulking, Victorian building with an unfeasible number of chimneys. This still functions as a young offender’s institution. It’s a very depressing place. The path picks its way around the back, following high walls and more barbed wire. Thankfully it then drops down to sea level and the institution becomes invisible.
Suddenly I am in a realm of rocks, large boulders strewn everywhere. It’s the kind of scene that could have been created by a deeply disturbed giant, but is in fact the legacy of quarrying. To get to the famous milk-white Portland stone a great deal of less-desirable rock has to be moved out of the way. It litters the island, being absorbed by bushes year on year.
One of Portland’s great charms is the sheer variety of experience it packs into its very limited land mass. You have no time to get bored here. You must savour each moment as within minutes you are in a completely different landscape. After a short period of running through the Dr Who set of the boulder field the trail slopes upwards, towards a riven crag known as the Cuttings. This is a classic rock climbing venue, which a few months ago I was removing tons of undergrowth and brambles from as part of a volunteer effort by the British Mountaineering Council. As I trot by I can hear the distinctive clink of sport climbing clips being attached to a harness. Someone is having fun.
The next installment is a beaten-up piece of ground used as a turning place for quarry trucks, before the trail becomes a path and steps, dropping down into an intimate cove by the ruins of Rufus Castle – a 15th Century keep that has spent the last half millennium slowly submitting its corporeal remains to storms. The rocky bay below houses a community of much more recent strongholds – tiny wooden beach huts, many with small areas in front delineated by rough walls made of cobbles. Church Ope cove is an incredibly peaceful spot, overseen benignly by the hulk of a long-dead 13th Century church. We are on the Eastern side of the isle, protected by orientation from the furious storms which come rolling in through the winter.
The tranquility soon evaporates as I run out, up past a beautiful little cliff known as The Lost Valley and into the open air. The wind is getting up. Once past what has to be one of the most exposed allotment sites in all the realm, then the last of the quarries and cliff faces, I am on Portland’s lower section. It is geologically distinct from the craggy north, forming a plateau that slopes down to the east and south. This is a vista of small fields, mostly inhabited by rather dispirited-looking ponies.
Portland Bill is famous the world over. It is a smashed-up promontory that noses bravely into the ocean, dotted with three lighthouses, a sinister-looking former military installation, a pub so grim in appearance that even I have never entered it, and a collection of rather chilly-seeming houses. Thousands of visitors descend on the place annually, to drink tea in gale force winds. Locals tend to come down when storms roll in, to watch the waves crash onto the rocks and feel the spray on our faces. Under the waves the rocky ridge continues, slicing the current to create a tidal race that has swallowed innumerable vessels over the centuries. These are dangerous waters. The main lighthouse remains in service for good reason.
Today I am not stopping for tea. I head up the slope onto the island’s Western edge. I am running along the top of high, weather-assaulted cliffs. In Portland-speak these are known as Weares and the West Weares are huge, forbidding fortresses inhabited by sea birds and the ghosts of the tormented. This is Dorset’s answer to Beachy Head, a favourite place to throw oneself from when life becomes too hard to bear. The cliffs themselves frequently follow suit. Large sections give way periodically, to the extent that the Coast Path was diverted a couple of years ago.
Happily the diversion runs into Tout Quarry, one of the craziest gems on this rocky bijoutery of the bizarre. A disused quarry, it is latticed with rough paths. Wander around on these and you will discover hidden and not-so-hidden sculptural treats. People are welcome to carve the stone here and the result is incredibly charming. If you look carefully you can find an Anthony Gormley piece, a primitive figure carved into a rock face, of a man falling headfirst through space.
The trail takes me through Tout and across a road, into another wonderful quarry. King Barrow is slowly being claimed by nature and is set aside as a reserve. It takes time to explore, but those hours are well-spent. You can find a section of fossilised forest, tunnels in the rock, birds of prey and butterflies. Sometimes there are hundreds of butterflies. Portland is home to over half the species of lepidoptera known in Britain. Oddly, there are very few rabbits. Portlanders are famously superstitious about rabbits, which were seen as harbingers of rock falls in the quarries. Played up rather for the sake of the tourists, local custom forbids the use of the word. But I haven’t seen a single bunny all day.
I run up over the lip of King Barrow and onto the flat turf beyond. I can see my car a few yards away. One of the most eventful ten-mile journeys I know is over for today. I will be back soon though – the Isle of the Dead is ever-changing and this is a run I never tire of. Right now I am a little weary though – so a restorative pint will be taken at the Cove House below. I shall sit and watch the waves crash onto Chesil Beach, and thank the stars that Portland keeps itself weird. Only then will I take my phone off aircraft mode and rejoin the world.