When you think of walking on Portland you may think first of the area down towards the Bill, the picturesque east coast around Church Ope Cove, you probably wouldn’t consider wandering around a disused quarry. But it is the quarries where the heart of Portland once lay.
All around Portland are quarries extracting the fine Portland Stone. It’s been used since Roman times but it was not until 17th century that the stone began to be used on a large-scale and extensive quarrying begun. Ingio Jones, the royal architect, chose Portland stone for his restoration of Old St Paul’s Cathedral in London. After the Great Fire of London of 1666 Christopher Wren used it in the replacement St Paul’s and other important London buildings .
In the 17th and 18th centuries up to a thousand Portlanders’ were employed in the quarries, extracting the stone in gangs of three or four men and a boy. Each gang was virtually self-employed, earning their living by “piecework”.
A prison was built in east Portland in the 1840s and convicts were put to work in some quarries. Prisoners condemned for transportation to Australia could work at the quarry for a year and with good behaviour could obtain a free ticket , which meant that they would be free when they arrived in Australia.
It was hard work: The best stone, the Whitbed, lay many feet under poorer stone, requiring much effort to extract it. All this had to be removed by hand or with the aid of explosives and hand cranes.
Originally the stone was exported entirely by sea, being transported to the loading jetties by horses and specially designed low trolleys. The Railway arrived in 1902 to be followed by motor transport. To-day the railway has gone and huge blocks are exported from the Island by articulated vehicles.
Today, many of the quarries are still worked. Some of the disused quarries have found a new life as nature reserves where wild flowers, butterflies and reptiles can thrive comparatively undisturbed. Unique is Tout Quarry, which has become a sculpture park as well as keeping its historical heritage.
Tout Quarry stands at the north-west corner of Tophill and is situated between the cliff edge and the road to Weston and Portland Bill. It is well signposted to the car park.
Before you start the walk – just a quick word of caution. Away from the main tracks the going can be a bit difficult on loose stone chippings and some steep drops, and is strongly advisable to keep dogs on leads. Also if you see a rabbit please remember not to utter the word – the r-word is considered so unlucky that it is not used by Portland locals, who refer instead to coneys or burrowing mutton!
Tout Quarry worked commercially from around 1750. The name “Tout” was taken from the Latin meaning for “look-out”, relating to the quarry’s position alongside West Cliff.
Touts quarry was originally worked by hand by family quarry gangs, who owned strips of land.
The poor quality stone was stacked by the quarrymen in massive dry stone walls seen throughout the quarry. Overlooking the Chesil Bank, the quarry was conveniently placed for much of the waste stone to be tipped over the cliff edge onto the West Weare’s below.
In the northern section of Tout Quarry, a World War II Coastal Defence radar station was built along West Cliff. The station, named site M73, was constructed by the British Army to monitor shipping and aircraft during the war. After the war, during the early 1950s, the station was used as part of the ROTOR project. This air defence radar system was built by the British Government to counter possible attack by Soviet bombers.
After its use by the Navy, the station was demolished to make way for quarrying. Today a small number of constructions from the defence station remain , including brick rubble (thrown into a nearby ravine), mast bases and power cables. A set of concrete steps leading to tip of the site remain in place.
In 1982 stone was quarried for the last time and a year later the Portland Sculpture & Quarry Trust opened. This was Britain’s first sculpture quarry. The objective of the trust was to integrate sculptures into the landscape, and now houses around 60 pieces of art, scattered seemingly random along the paths and gullies.
As you wander around the site, in between the sculptures, you will see many features from its past quarrying life, including signs of old tramways, hidden shelters, tunnel entrances and the “Beaches”, which are constructed dry stone walls. The gullies linking the quarry to the cliff-edge allowed two-way traffic, and stone was carried along the cliff edge by a horse-drawn tramway to Priory corner. From there it would join the Merchants Railway(opened 1826 – the first railway on Portland)) down to the port at Castletown, to be shipped off across the world.
Look out for Lano Bridge. It is dated 1854 and was built to carry a tramway taking stone waste to the cliff edge and then tipped over. The bridge was reconstructed in the 1980s and today has Grade II status.
See if you can spot the remains of any quarrymen’s huts, which were built into retaining walls the quarry.
I can not recommend this walk enough – stunning views, quirky sculptures and hidden historical gems. Where else could you find that?