Portland Bill Lighthouse, on the tip of the Isle of Portland south of Weymouth, is a fascinating attraction. A tour takes you right to the top with its stunning views over Portland Race and out to sea. Historical Details
As you make your way up the different levels to the very top of the lighthouse (reached by a ladder), the tour guide explains how it all works, making the tour both interesting and educational. Along the way the tour guide will point out the foghorn machinery and compressors and the red danger light signal.
There's even a computer that shows the location and details of all the ships and boats in range and its features are demonstrated. Once you have successfully navigated back down the 153 steps, you will be rewarded with a Certificate of Achievement for high climbers.
Portland Bill and Chesil Beach are the graveyards of many vessels that failed to reach Weymouth or Portland Roads. After these many shipwrecks in the 1600s and earlier, it was decided that a lighthouse was necessary to guide vessels to Portland and Weymouth harbours due to the Portland Race, which is where the tides meet and cause strong currents and churning of the sea. This area is known as the Shambles sandbank, and the Portland Bill is a headland at the end of Portland “island”. In addition to guiding vessels to port, the lighthouse would serve as a beacon for ships navigating the English channel.
A patent to put up a lighthouse was granted in 1669, but it didn’t happen. Captain William Holman sent a petition to Trinity House, the lighthouse governing board, for permission to build one in the early 1700s, but he was turned down because Trinity House thought it was not needed and too expensive to maintain. The citizens of Weymouth continued their efforts and finally, in 1716, George I issued a patent to Trinity House for the building. Trinity leased the land and permit to private individuals, and two lighthouses were built on the site.
Unfortunately they were badly maintained and sometimes not even lit (enclosed lanterns and coal fires were used for lighting). Because of this Trinity House eventually had a builder take one lighthouse down and put up a new one in 1789, leaving one of the old lighthouses intact. Argand lamps were installed in 1788, and were the first in England for a lighthouse.
Two cannons were installed at the lighthouse in 1789 when England was under threat of invasion from Napoleon. In 1844 at Portland Bill’s southern tip a white stone obelisk was built to warn ships of a rock shelf that extends into the sea. New lighthouses, one high and one low, were built in 1869.
The present lighthouse dates from the early 20th century and replaced one of the 1869 ones. It has been unmanned since 1996. The lighthouse flashes four times every 20 seconds and can be seen for 25 sea miles.
The lower of the original two lighthouses constructed in 1869 is now a bird observatory. A full time warden monitors bird migration, especially active in spring and autumn. Sea birds include tern, skuas, shearwaters, fulmer, and gannet. Small land birds that over-winter in Africa return. In late spring the west cliffs are alive with breeding seabirds including puffin, guillemots, and razorbills. The area is a key bird-ringing site.
The Facts for Lighthouse Aficionados
Height of current tower: 41m
Height of light above MHW: 43m
Optic: 1st order 920 catadioptric rotating lens
Lamp: 1Kw MBI
Character: FI (4) 20s + F.R
Intensity: 635,000 Candela
Range of light: 25Nm + 13Nm
Fog Signal Character: Horn (1) 30s
Range: 3 Nm
Portland Bill Lighthouse
On the southern tip of the Isle of Portland, 1.2 miles south of the village of Easton.
Tel: 0 1255 245 156
Open: phone for details
Lots of parking but fee charged.
Web: Trinity House Lighthouse Authority
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