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Articles Blog

Portland, England

Karyn Planett

Isle of Slingers 

Thomas Hardy coined the term “isle of slingers” after the Portlanders, known far and wide as excellent stone-throwers, slingers if you will, defenders of their land. Small wonder, as the terrain is composed almost entirely of limestone. Today, massive piles of rocks are testament to the quarrying of “portland stone” that’s existed here for centuries. 

In fact Sir Christopher Wren, architect and resident of nearby Weymouth, incorporated portland stone when rebuilding many of London’s landmarks, such as St. Paul’s Cathedral and Buckingham Palace, after the Great Fire in 1666. Sadly, millions of headstones for fallen soldiers were cut from portland stone after both World Wars. As a nice counterpoint to all this, the United Nations Headquarters in New York features its gleaming white luminescence. 

Wartime 

For 500 years in the days of sail, Portland headquartered the massive fleets of the British Royal Navy. Though the island juts from the shores of Dorset County into the wild vagaries of the English Channel, the construction of two monster breakwaters in 1848 created what is still one of the world’s largest man-made harbors. This made an appropriate home for the armada with which England projected her influence around the globe. 

In time, modern warfare necessitated some alterations. The danger of submarine attacks in World War I convinced the Admiralty to sink HMS Hood at the mouth of the harbor so surface ships could still pass yet submarines were prevented from launching a sub-surface attack. 

As World War II raged, the proximity of hostile air forces on the European continent required the British fleet to decamp to Scapa Flow off the northern coast of Scotland. Nonetheless, Portland was one of the major staging areas for the invasion of Normandy in 1944. Most recently, though, the naval base has been closed. The facilities are used, instead, by Her Majesty’s Coast Guard Search and Rescue service. 

Peacetime 

While the English Channel’s wind and weather are considered problematic to some, those seeing their glasses half full find them “reliable”. So, in 2000, the Royal Yachting Association found the waters of Weymouth and Portland to be Europe’s best for a variety of sailing events. In that same year, the Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy was established as the UK’s premier sailing venue. 

In 2005, the Academy was selected as the site for all sailing events in the 2012 Summer Olympics and, on the completion of a new 600-berth marina in 2009, it became the first Olympic venue open for business. 

That same reliable weather makes the harbor a favorite for snorkelers, divers, and wind surfers. Nearby quarries are heaven for rock climbers. And the South West Coast Path National Trail highlights the 21 kilometer perimeter of the island. 

Nearby 

The southwest of England is rich with much of the history that draws us to the British Isles. From the pre-historic strangeness of Stonehenge to the beginning of man’s soaring imagination captured in Salisbury Cathedral; from the castles of Portland, Sherborne and Corfe--monuments to the days of kings and conquerors--to the Abbotsbury Swannery and Gardens and the Bovington Tank Museum--evidence of more modern pursuits both peaceful and otherwise, there are a wealth of attractions within a two-hour drive of Portland. There are certainly more choices than one can hope to do in a day, so choose wisely. 

Oddities 

And what would any English community be without its share of eccentricities? Portlanders start with a special name for those “strangers” from the rest of England—kimberlin, derivation unknown. 

Nor is it known where locals come by their pathological fear of rabbits. Yes, bunnies, Thumper, cute little furry friends. So ingrained is this fear that the word rabbit has been banned in favor of such labels as “underground mutton”. Some surmise that the superstition originated with quarry workers who believed the presence of rabbits presaged the occurrence of rock slides and they would leave work for the day if a r_ _ _ _ t was spotted anywhere near their workplace. The fact that a few of them spent the rest of the day in the local pub suggests they were soon relieved of their misgivings. 

Just north of town is one of those strange English hill figures. Carved into the bedrock is “Rude Man” a 180-foot tall naked male figure carrying a 120-foot club. Again, one can only guess at the circumstances that might have brought forth the effort to not only conceive but the energy to construct such an item. Boredom? Divine inspiration? Strong drink? The list is long. And, the list of reasons for visiting this fascinating port is equally long.