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Portland Bill Lighthouse (Portland, Dorset)

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Portland Bill lighthouse in Dorset.

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      15.12.2013 12:54
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      An excellent lighthouse in a unique area, highlighting great views and history

      ~~~Introduction~~~
      Portland Bill Lighthouse is a functioning lighthouse on the Isle of Portland, Dorset, England, and is located at the very south of the island, warning coastal traffic off of Portland Bill. The lighthouse and its boundary walls are Grade II Listed and have been since May 1993. Living on the island from the age of four until eleven, the lighthouse, being one of Portland's biggest attractions, was naturally something I would visit very often. I have memories of visiting mostly with family as me and my friends would prefer to stick to the Portland area of Underhill, near to Chesil Beach and therefore in walking distance to our homes. After we moved to Cornwall in 2005, I would visit Portland every now and then but most times, visiting Portland Bill was not possible as buses only tend to run there and back in the Summer, and only once an hour. Seeing the lighthouse again for the first time in a good while was back in December 2010 when I stayed at Portland, and since then a visit has been essential each time I'm in the area.

      ~~~Background and History~~~
      As Portland's largest and most recent lighthouse, the Trinity House operated Portland Bill Lighthouse is distinctively white and red striped, standing at a height of 41 metres (135 ft). It was completed by 1906 and first shone out on 11 January 1906.

      Both Portland Bill and Chesil Beach are the locations of many wrecks of vessels that failed to reach Weymouth or Portland Roads. Portland Bill Lighthouse guides vessels heading for Portland and Weymouth through these hazardous waters as well as acting as a waymark for ships navigating the English Channel. The rocky promontory of Portland Bill has often been regarded as one of the greatest navigational hazards in the Channel. A treacherous race, which can run at 10 knots in spring tidal streams, are created as tide and current clash as they round it. The dangers are worsened by the Shambles, which is a two mile long sandbank that lies south-east of Portland Bill and whose depth reaches a mere 11 feet in two places at low tide. It is likely that the Romans would light beacon fires on Branscombe Hill above Bill Point to warn sailors, as well as on Verne Hill, but the lack of local fuel prevented any regular light being established. Ancient fires probably served more as signals than as general lights. As a result the island coast has been the graveyard of countless ships from the earliest times, before any lighthouses were built.

      Originally, both the Old Higher Lighthouse and Old Lower Lighthouse were the two functioning lighthouses on the island (also in Portland Bill area), where both were opened in 1716 and continued to warn ships of the coast until 1906, when both were decommissioned.

      On 17 June 1903, Messrs J. Lano, H. Sansom, R. Pearce, F. J. Barnes, and Robert White appointed a Committee by a meeting of Commoners to treat with the Corporation of Trinity House for the acquisition of one acre, 66 poles of land at the Bill, for a new lighthouse. The group met in the George Inn to discuss plans for the new lighthouse. The Higher and Lower Lighthouses could not be adapted to take on the latest apparatus, and so Trinity House made plans to build a single lighthouse on Bill Point. However this was common land and so compensation had to be paid for the loss of the local people's common rights. By October that year an agreement was reached and a convoy of contactors' carts and traction engines made their way along the rough road to the remote tip of Portland Bill to start work. The Lighthouse's foundations were dug deep into the rock, and the stone was quarried almost on the spot. The lighthouse was built with stone from surrounding quarries at Portland Bill. The area was quarried for centuries until they were abandoned by the early years of the 20th century, following the lighthouse's construction.

      By mid-1905 the builders, Wakeham Bros of Plymouth, had completed the high masonry tower, when Chance & Co of Birmingham arrived to hoist their great lantern to the top. The revolving lenses floating on a bath of mercury were designed to send a two and a half metre candlepower beam (from a vapourised oil burner) 18 miles on a clear night. As the scaffolding was taken down, the stonework was rendered, and the whole was painted in bright red and white livery, which has remained the tourist symbol of Portland ever since. The new lighthouse cost a total of £13,000. Lighthouse keepers Taylor and Comben moved house from the old Lower Light and they lit the new lamp for the first time on 11 January 1906. A year after the construction of the lighthouse, the contractors Wakeham Brothers erected the Clock Tower of Easton Gardens on Portland. The Old Lower Lighthouse became a bird observatory in the 1960s whilst the Old Higher Lighthouse became the home of Marie Stopes in the 1920s, and today remains a holiday let.

      Portland struggled without mains electricity until 1930. Since the turn of the century the Council had resisted all competition to its gas works, hoping that one day it would pay its way. The resistance could be held no longer, and an agreement was made to lay on an electric supply generated at Weymouth. In the £25,000 scheme Underhill and Easton were first to be switched on, on 1 July 1930, and two years later the cables were extended to Weston and Southwell, then the Grove. However Portland Bill and the Lighthouse had to wait until 1938. The lighthouse was swathed in scaffolding and polythene when undergoing a facelift during 1990. One of the old lamp holders from Portland Bill Lighthouse can be seen at Portland Museum, which is found in the village of Wakeham, close to Church Ope Cove.

      ~~~Lamp and Fog Signal~~~
      The lighthouse was de-manned on 18th March 1996, and all monitoring and control of the station was transferred to the Trinity House Operations & Planning Centre in Harwich. Portland Bill Lighthouse uses a 1 Kw Mbi lamp and 4 Panel 1St Order Catadioptric Fixed Lens. The light flashes four times every 20 seconds and has an intensity of 635,000 Candela, with a range of 25 nautical miles. Also having a fog signal for times of bad weather, the signal uses a four second blast every 30 seconds, with a range of 2 nautical miles. The Type F diaphone was decommissioned in 1996, but restored in 2003 for the benefit of visitors, where it is sounded every Sunday morning as an added attraction on the island but only used in foggy conditions if the lighthouse is out of operation. The present optic at the lighthouse is unusual due to the arrangement of the panels, where the character gradually changes from one flash to four flashes between the bearings 221°-224° and from four flashes to one flash between bearings 117°-141°.

      ~~~Tourist Attraction~~~
      Arguably Portland's biggest attraction and most photographed feature, the Portland Bill Lighthouse is open to the public, where tours are operated by Trinity House, and a visitor centre is also a big part of the lighthouse. The visitor centre is a joint project between The Crown Estate, The Corporation of Trinity House and Weymouth and Portland Borough Council. It was opened by HRH The Duke of Edinburgh KG KT on 14 July 1999. The tours of Portland Bill Lighthouse are organised by The Crown Estate under licence from the Corporation of Trinity House. Often lasting approximately 45 minutes, visitors are able to climb the 153 steps to the top of the lighthouse on a guided tour with a former Lighthouse Keeper, and view both the inside of the lighthouse and its lamp as well as the surrounding Portland coastline. The visitor centre is owned and operated independently from the actual tower lighthouse, and past occasions have seen the lighthouse closed to the public, whilst the centre would remain open. It opens from Easter to the end of September each year, and in 2007 was reported to receive 300,000 visitors a year. The centre features various displays which provides insight and introduction into Portland's environment & heritage - ranging from geology, Portland stone and the Jurassic Coast. It also features a shop which stocks various souvenirs. The nearby Trinity House Obelisk and Pulpit Rock are also popular attractions in the area. The lighthouse received a TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence in 2013.

      ~~~My Experience~~~
      The first time I went up the lighthouse was for my younger brother's birthday when I must have been about 10 years old, if not a little earlier. Although I must admit I don't remember much about the trip, I do remember the excitement of being able to get right to the top of the lighthouse. Once we moved from Portland though, I found it difficult to visit Portland Bill whenever I returned for a day visit to the island. The main problem was that buses would only run to the Bill during the peak summer season, and on top of that it was an hourly service so it would take enough time off of the day. One particular time I did visit was when a friends' father dropped us off there - only to find that the lighthouse was closed and the weather wasn't all that good.

      After a trip to Portland in February 2009, I wouldn't visit the island again until December 2010, much to my dismay, as my father continued to promise trips to Dorset (usually for work) but nothing came of it. I decided to visit via train with my girlfriend at the time in December 2010 and stay overnight. We walked to the lighthouse, and from then on whenever I visited and saw friends, we'd walk out to the Bill. It was the following trip in April 2011 that allowed me to go up the lighthouse again for the first time in years. And seeing that I couldn't remember my original tour inside all those years ago, it was a perfect time to go up. Only costing a few quid each (I believe it was £4), the tour itself isn't guided, and instead you are trusted to successfully get up all those steps to the top. Usually at the top there is some member of staff who you can have a conversation with etc. The April 2011 visit wasn't on a particularly sunny day, but the view was crystal clear and it is amazing how much you can see high up. But it isn't just the view to look at, as you are standing next to the lighthouse's lamp - fascinating in its own right, and there a few information boards as you head up the lighthouse at little 'stopping points'. In fact, the entire lighthouse, and being inside it, is a great experience in such a location too. In recent times I've actually stayed at the Old Lower Lighthouse (a Bird Observatory) and the views from the top of that lighthouse are spectacular enough. With the main lighthouse though, the location is ideal and you are much higher up.

      Then there is also the visitor centre on ground level. This centre is often open during the peak season, even if the lighthouse tours aren't operating (which is usually due to bad weather when the foghorn is live). The centre features various information boards and a few displays relating to the Bill area, and the dangerous coast that it has. There's also a few things for children in particular to enjoy involving drawing etc. The nice gift shop is also worth a browse as it holds various souvenirs, books, DVDs amongst many other items. Although I haven't been up the lighthouse since, I have been in the centre for a quick look as it doesn't cost anything to look around the centre's displays.

      Aside from many other things to explore in the area, such as Pulpit Rock, the Trinity House Obelisk, and the Old Higher and Lower Lighthouses, there is also a small number of commercial business in the area. The Lobster Pot Restaurant lies close to the lighthouse, and was established in 1952. Including an indoor restaurant with seating for approximately 90 people, the restaurant also has outdoor seating and a gift shop. The Pulpit Inn overlooks the Bill area and is a family run public house, which also offers three rooms as accommodation. Public toilets are situated within the car park area too, which is right outside the lighthouse, so driving to the lighthouse is also easily done. Portland Bill can be walked from Southwell village and takes about 15 minutes at least. Buses used to run to the Bill only during the peak season and I expect this is still the same so having your own car is the best way of getting to the Bill, although the walk is great for taking in the views etc. You can also walk along the South West Coastal Path to get to the Bill and the Lighthouse - a much recommend walk along the west side of the island.

      ~~~Conclusion~~~
      A visit to Portland Bill Lighthouse, and the Bill itself, is highly recommended if anyone has never done so before. There is plenty in the area and something for everyone to enjoy. The lighthouse's centre and tours are a good-priced and very worthy experience in a unique coastal location. The staff have always been very friendly and welcoming too. One of the great things about the bill is that going on a nice day is obviously the best choice, but if you happen to also go on a more windy, stormy day then the waves and overall atmosphere is quite amazing. Overall Portland Bill Lighthouse is a much recommended experience, boasting great views and holding a lot of history too.

      The Wikipedia page I created for the Lighthouse can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portland_Bill_Lighthouse

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