“ Address: Church Ope Rd / Portland / Dorset DT5 1JA / England „
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Growing up as a child on Portland from 1998-2005, my family and I lived in the 'lower' part of Portland, known as Underhill, close by to Chesil Beach and Portland Harbour. The large amount of time I would spend with friends was almost always in Underhill area, or maybe touching certain closer parts of Tophill, which consisted of the rest of the island on higher ground - including the villages of Easton, Weston and Southwell, along with Portland Bill. The rest of the island further than Easton area was more of a mystery (apart from Portland Bill), and I would only ever visit places beyond that when on walks with the family, and these were not nearly as frequent as hanging around with friends. After moving to Cornwall in 2005, I have often made visits back to Portland and in the last three years, I've explored the entire island more thoroughly. One of my favourite spots is undoubtedly Church Ope Cove. I do recall walking down under the arch of Rufus Castle with the family those years ago but I hardly remembered the place years later. The area holds sites such as Portland Museum, Rufus Castle, Pennsylvania Castle, the ruins of St Andrews Church and John Penn's bath and this makes all the more reason to visit this spectacular place. In this review I will go through the various places of interest revolving around the Cove.
Church Ope Cove is a small secluded beach on the sheltered eastern side of the Isle of Portland in Dorset, southern England. It is found close to the village of Wakeham. The beach has many unusual features for the Isle of Portland. The beach used to be sandy, but quarry debris now covers the sand, and has been worn into rounded pebbles. The pebbles cover a small stream which runs to the sea, which is one of the few streams on the Isle of Portland. Further north along the coastal path that leads past Church Ope Cove is Durdle Pier. Further south, and overlooking the beach from the right is the caravan site Cove Holiday Park. To access the beach there are two paths. The main path follows the road past Portland Museum and leads under the arch bridge of the ruins of Rufus Castle, then down concrete steps to the cove. The view point above the steps, looking down on the cove, is part of the coastal path. The other path runs through a small area of woodland around the outside of the private Pennsylvania Castle, and passes through the ruins of St Andrews Church (close to John Penn's Bath), before linking up over midway down the concrete steps to the cove.
Starting at Portland Museum - this is the Isle of Portland's local museum and is located at the southern end of the village of Wakeham, close to Church Ope Cove. The museum has limited opening times at Easter, and is open every day during the summer (May-September), The museum is a member of the Dorset Museums Association, whilst the museum and its cottages are Grade II Listed Buildings. The museum is housed in two 17th-century thatched cottages built of stone. It is built around four distinct themes that represent Portland most famous attributes, highlighting the history of Portland Stone, the Jurassic Coast, shipwrecks around Portland, and famous people linked with Portland. It also shows examples of the Island's rich archaeology from the Stone Ages onwards. The intention of the Portland Museum is to educate the public by providing and maintaining artefacts and specimens relating to the natural sciences, natural history, archaeology, literature, music, the fine-decorative arts, antiques and local history relating to Portland. The museum was founded and first curated by doctor and pioneer of birth control Marie Stopes. She bought the two derelict cottages with the idea of creating a museum. Monies for equipment and building restoration were raised by public subscription, and Stopes gave the museum as a gift to Islanders in 1929, whilst the museum first opened in 1930. Stopes was the Museum's first Honorary Curator and continued a long and active association with it and its collection until her death in 1958. One of the museum's cottages was the inspiration behind the novel The Well-Beloved, written by Thomas Hardy, as the home of "Avis" - the novel's heroine. Hardy was a friend of Stopes.
The Marie Stopes Cottage features a small exhibition about Stopes, and a display of items connected to Thomas Hardy. This area also features a "Victorian Corner" which displays the wedding dress of a local Portland girl, and objects that would have been found in a Victorian parlour. In the upstairs of the cottage, the Maritime Room has a range of artefacts, including items recovered from the wrecks of 'The Earl of Abergavenny' and 'The Royal Adelaide', both lost in within Portland's waters. The Navy on Portland is also highlighted. The Stone Room highlights Portland Stone, from the quarrying and production to its use on buildings (including war graves) all over the world. The room also features the 'Men of Stone', based on those who worked in the quarries and masonry yards on Portland. The Portland Gallery contains a collection of archaeological finds from excavations, an exhibition about Portland prisons and a cabinet displaying local glass and china items. The Garden has a collection of local fossils, ammonites, fossilised trees and local masonry and artefacts, including the casing of the famous Portland Bomb. The garden also has seating for picnics and refreshments. The museum has a gift shop, whilst plants grown in the local area is offered for sale in the garden. This museum receives around an average of 5000 visitors a year and is well worth a visit.
Making your way past the museum, you come to the end of the small road which then turns into a small footpath that winds down underneath the arch of Rufus Castle. Rufus Castle, also known as Bow and Arrow Castle, is a ruined castle overlooking Church Ope Cove. The castle is a Grade I listed building, dating from the late 15th century, on the site of an earlier building - making it Portland's oldest castle. Remains include parts of the keep, outer bailey, sections of wall with gun ports and a 19th-century round-arched bridge across Church Ope Road. There is no roof remaining. Rufus Castle was reportedly built for William II and that the structure still standing in ruins today was the keep of a larger castle. Although very little remains of the original castle, the possible exception is the arch that spans over the path from Church Ope Road. However, the archway has been rumoured to be of Tudor origin from when the castle was partly rebuilt. In 1142, Robert, Earl of Gloucester, had captured the castle from King Stephen on behalf of Empress Maud. It had additional fortifications added in 1238 by Richard de Clare who owned it at that time. Around 1256, Aylmer de Lusignan obtained a licence to crenellate the 'insulam de Portand' and Robert, Earl of Gloucester, was granted a similar licence just 14 months later. It is generally presumed that Rufus castle is the site of any work that may have resulted from these licences and any remains that may date from the period exist only at foundation level, or have been lost to cliff erosion. It was rebuilt in the 15th century, and much of what remains today dates from this time. In 1989, the castle's seaward arch collapsed. In an article in the Free Portland News issue of May 2010, it was reported that the remaining ruins of the castle might be a folly built by John Penn, who owned the nearby Pennsylvania Castle, sometime in the early 1800s and therefore nothing like the castle seen in the late 1700s.
Rufus Castle has been owned by Mark Watson since the mid-1990s, a writer and broadcaster on royalty and genealogy. In the Sunday Mirror issue from 10 August 1997, an interview/article based on Watson was written by Caroline Sutton. In the article, which had the headline "Hello darling... I'm king of the £1 castle.", Watson revealed plans to turn the castle into a tourist attraction, with the article writing "Home is a council house, he drives a shaky old car and his income amounts to shirt buttons. But Mark Watson has just snapped up his very own clifftop castle...for £1. Now Mark, wife Caroline and their four children can't wait to show the castle off to the royals who often pop in to their terraced house for tea - honestly. Mark, 33, believes that battered Rufus Castle - built on the Dorset coast by William The Conqueror's son - can be transformed into a national treasure. He has already set his plans into motion and predicts that restoration will cost at least £250,000. He said: "People may think it's a mad scheme, but I'm sure it will work. I want to set up a fund and restore it as a local bit of heritage and a tourist attraction." Warning bells might have sounded to anyone but Mark when the last owners felt the castle was such a liability that they were willing to let it go for a quid. At least Mark's home in Kinson, Bournemouth, provides a roof over their heads and three bedrooms. The castle has no roof and not even four walls. But Mark's colourful outlook and big plans convinced the former owners he was the right man to take it on. He's had a succession of jobs since leaving school at 16 and now concentrates on tracing family trees."
Sadly, the castle has never been restored and is left in the same state as before. The castle remains private, presumably still owned by Mark Watson. It is a great shame that nothing has been done to keep the castle ruins secure but it isn't too late. The castle I always knew about was Portland Castle, found down in Castletown near Portland Harbour. When I visited Church Ope Cove for the first time in what must have been April 2011, I was amazed at the castle and its grand position overlooking the cove far down below.
~~~Church Ope Cove (The Beach)~~~
Now we arrive under the arch into the viewing area which gives some great views of the area and the cove from above, whilst also providing seating. Making our descent down the path to the cove. The beach itself is one of the few beaches on Portland, and due to having cliffs on three sides, is often sheltered from prevailing wind. Church Ope Cove once was a famous smuggling beach. For over a century, it was a favourite sheltered beach for swimming and launching fishing boats, and today continues to be popular for fishing, snorkelling and swimming. The beach provides diving access to the numerous wrecks in the surrounding waters too, which has made it a popular area for diving. For decades, an old rusting hand winch has been found on the beach. During the first half of the 20th century, a small cafe existed on the beach. The beach is also home to many beach huts which are much sought after and often sell for anything between £20,000 and £30,000. The public toilets at the beach were once threatened to be closed via the local council, however this did not come into fruition. Instead the toilets are run by a third party. Above Church Ope Cove, on the right going down the concrete steps is an ancient reservoir behind an area of thick brambles. A small opening leads into this reservoir and is often only known to some of Portland's locals. The reservoir has been rumoured to be a Roman reservoir however it is of unknown age, possibly Victorian. Due to the nature of this reservoir and the wet earth that lies on the floor of it, I would not recommend going inside it.
~~~St Andrews Church~~~
On the way down or back up the path, heading right and up a few steps take you to the ruins of St Andrews Church. The ruined church is found close to the ruins of Rufus Castle and the Pennsylvania Castle. St. Andrews Church is Portland's oldest part-surviving building and has been a Grade II* Listed Building since 1951. St Andrew's Church was Portland's first parish church and one of the island's prime historical sites. It remained the parish church of the island until the mid-18th century. Through archaeology, it has been discovered that the site was occupied from the late Iron Age, dating approximately 1500 years ago. The earliest church structure reveals the foundations of an earlier Saxon church, demolished around 1130. Edward the Confessor had bestowed Portland to the Benedictine Monks of St. Swithen of Winchester in 1042 who in turn built a new church over the old Saxon foundations in 1100, as the old building was destroyed by an underwater earthquake 100 years earlier. In January 1340 French raiders landed at Church Ope Cove and torched St. Andrews and again in 1404, where each time the tiny church was rebuilt.
Around 1470-1475 a tower was added and the church was dedicated to St. Andrew, the saint with the sword, during the reign of Edward IV. In 1625 a wall was built to shore up the land after a landslip had damaged the church, and caused half of the cemetery to collapse onto the beach below. Another major landslip in 1675 caused considerable damage, whilst the church continued to suffer from an unstable site and various invasions of French pirates. The church was abandoned after it was in danger of falling over the cliff after a second massive landslip around 1734-1735, which had caused another large section of the graveyard to slip down the cliff that included the graves of King Ethelred's twin daughters who had died at birth around 990. It was following the 1734 landslip that within two months, a decision was made, with a survey of the old church finding that repairs would be at least half the cost of a new building. This led to the church being closed and demolished in July 1756. Much of the stone was used to build St. George's Church at Easton area which replaced it. Between 1800 and 1822, John Penn, owner of the nearby Pennsylvania Castle, had fenced in both Rufus Castle and the ruins of St Andrew's Church, which the local people were used to freely walking on. The Court Leet, acting as the people's representatives, strongly protested, but were unsuccessful. This resulted in lengthy legal battles which were not settled until 1822 after the Court Leet agreed that Mr. Penn should be allowed to keep the land he enclosed in return for an annual payment of five shillings.
The site was excavated by J. Merrick Head in 1898. The church ruins went through renovations between 1978-1982 and archeologists discovered statues that were similar to the ones found at Old Sarum, a Bronze Age hill fort in Salisbury. Another discovery also found was a Purbeck marble altar and an old well outside the west wall that predated the church filled with old masonry rubble with several human skeletons above it. During the second world war, the churches remains were further damaged from bombing. Since then the church was carefully secured by archaeologists. Today, the barest ruins now remain of the church, whilst some of the original stones are in the garden of Portland Museum. The church's arch entrance remains in good condition, and leads into a woodland. A few gravestones of respectable citizens of Portland remain. On particular stone has a skull and crossbones emblem, and is often mistaken as a relation to pirates, however the symbol was once common on tombstones to represent death. English Heritage are the owners of the site, although it had been allowed to be neglected for the past few years with buddleia, ivy and red valerian growing wild around the site of the ruins. Fortunately, local people have kept the area from overgrowing, including a major clean up in 1980 when Manpower Services had worked on the site. The ruins of the church, like Rufus Castle, was to me something I never really knew existed until a couple of years ago. This incredible bit of history is a fascinating visit and lies overlooking the beach nicely.
Heading out of the church and under its remaining arch, you enter into Portland's woodland area - a rare feature on Portland's landscape. This peaceful area takes you back up to the main road that leads past Portland Museum - and so you have essentially done a round trip of the cove area. Pennsylvania Castle, although private, does have a path that follows the outskirts of its garden within the woodland area and the public are allowed around there. The castle is a Gothic Revival mansion, built in 1797-1800 to designs by James Wyatt for John Penn, Governor of Portland and grandson of William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania. After the castle's completion, Penn spent the last thirty years of his life enhancing the grounds of his cliff-top estate. In Victorian times, the castle had many distinguished visitors. It has been claimed that Churchill and Eisenhower planned part of the D-Day invasion there. The castle was converted into a hotel and became The Pennsylvania Castle Hotel in 1950, owned by a Mr & Mrs Wyatt and a Mr & Mrs Hall, and run by Richard Cope, the son-in-law of the Wyatts. It later became a private residence once more, before being sold in 2011 by the widow of the former owner, Stephen Curtis, a solicitor with business interests in Russia, who was killed in a helicopter crash in 2004. It is a Grade II listed building, and has been returned to use as a private residence, but is on offer to be hired for functions and events. This grand building is a great look at a building of its type and remains beautifully kept and looked after. The castle was originally a rectangular block constructed of squared and coursed Portland stone, with projecting corner turrets, embattled parapets and a circular tower, and was extended in the 20th century.
~~~John Penn's Bath~~~
Before heading out of the church ruins and under its remaining arch into Portland's woodland area, those who are a little adventurous can take a small de-tour to visit John Penn's bath, which sits below Pennsylvania Castle. This is a large oval shaped stone bath, which was built for Penn. It is located at the base of the cliff directly below Pennsylvania Castle, although it is not part of the property. The bath measures 9 feet (2.7 m) long, by 4 feet (1.2 m) deep and 4 feet (1.2 m) high. After sea bathing gained popularity as a health benefit around the start of the 19th century via King George III, John Penn, the owner of Pennsylvania Castle, decided that he would also take part in this latest interest. However, Penn was not happy with the idea of travelling from the castle to the beach of Church Ope Cove, located down below the castle. He decided to have the bath built halfway between his castle and the sea. In order to use it, his servants were tasked with fetching sea water from the cove using buckets to fill the bath. Over the years, Penn had become unpopular with Portland's governing Court Leet and the local people, so during construction of the bath, the Leet members waited as the bath was built. Upon completion, they announced that Penn had built his bath on Common Land and therefore would have to pay in order to use it, setting the price at a then exorbitant 2 shillings and 6 pence per year. Outraged and refusing to pay, Penn abandoned his bath, much to the relief of his servants. The bath was left to ruin and remained that way ever since. The Dorset Rambler website described the bath as "a rather quirky Dorset curiosity!"
This bath remains on public land however is difficult to access due to erosion. The bath's area is overgrown and can only be visited by a precarious path on the edge of a drop in the woodland area, although it isn't actually as difficult to get to as it sounds as long as care is taken. In the graveyard of St. Andrew's Church, close to the two remaining tombstones, there is a small gap in the wall, with a metal bar, leading to the bath. The bath is a fantastic and rather unknown piece of Portland history and remains another fascinating look into some great history. A visit is very worthwhile.
Overall a visit to Church Ope Cove is essential for anyone visiting Portland area. Firstly the views are spectacular and visiting whilst walking along the coastal route is certainly a great way to take in the beauty of the area. Mainly though, there are so many snippets of long-lost history and places to explore in the area. The beach itself would make a worthy reason to visit, but with the sight of the castle and church ruins, along with the other hidden bits of lost history, the entire area makes a fantastic place to visit and explore. The cove is usually relatively quite and peaceful as well, and therefore makes a nice relaxing place to unwind. Whenever I visit Portland, Church Ope Cove is always a great highlight of the visit.