Case Study Site 6 – Weymouth and Portland, Dorset

Case Study Site 6 – Weymouth and Portland, Dorset

1.         Location

The case study site extends from Redcliff Point at the eastern end of Weymouth Bay, westwards to the town of Weymouth and the Isle of Portland. 

2.         Why was the Case Study Site selected?

The study site was chosen on account of the rich and varied heritage, in the vicinity of Weymouth, Portland Harbour and on the Isle of Portland.  Heritage sites include those relating to military activity, ranging from the Tudor coastal artillery fort of Sandsfoot Castle, Weymouth (MDO6598) to substantial nineteenth century coastal batteries and forts that formed defences for Weymouth, and Portland Harbour. These include the nineteenth century Verne Citadel (MDO6577), which was built to protect Portland Roads and Weymouth Harbour, and which is now a prison, the Breakwater Fort (MWX1380), the High Angle Battery (MDO6569), Nothe Fort (MDO6676) and East Weare (MWX1365). On the west side of Portland the Blacknor Battery was one of two coastal batteries planned to defend the West Bay area from attack. Portland is also well known for the extraction of its celebrated Portland Limestone, with quarries dating back to medieval times.  On account of its exposed position, Portland Bill has played a significant role as a navigational aid warning shipping of the hazardous rocky coastline, three lighthouses of different ages exist on the Isle. 

Some of the best preserved medieval open fields lie on Portland (MDO6521 and MDO6526) that date back to the eleventh century when the site was a Royal Manor. Parts of this coast, for example to the east of Weymouth, are affected by significant cliff erosion and instability, although, in contrast, the Isle of Portland is composed of highly durable limestones.  However, even here substantial rockfalls occur periodically. There is a wealth of illustrations of this study site and these are assessed in terms of their contribution to heritage risk management. 

3.         Summary of the Geology, Geomorphology & Coastal Processes

The study site is comprised mainly of rocks of the mid and late Jurassic period, together with Purbeck Limestones; these form the bulk of the Isle of Portland. 

The southern tip of Portland forms a major headland that protrudes some 10km into the English Channel.  It forms a key regional sediment transport boundary along this part of the Dorset coast.  Within Portland Harbour and Weymouth Bay the general direction of sediment transport is northern and easterly, whilst offshore sediments leave Weymouth Bay and are transported southwards to a sediment sink located to the south-east of Portland Bill.  Dramatic instability has occurred at Bowleaze to the east where the cliffs can reach 30m in height although the whole of the Weymouth frontage is defended.  On Portland, most of the clifflines comprise highly durable limestones, however, on the north and north-east coasts of the Isle of Portland the cliffs rest upon soft Kimmeridge Clay in a sequence that has resulted in deep-seated landslides.  Around the coast of the Isle of Portland in the past the long history of quarrying resulted in much quarry waste being tipped around its coast, forming protective boulder aprons at the cliff toes.

4.         Risks to Heritage Assets along the Case Study Frontage

Ongoing erosion and coastal instability has affected the Bowleaze Cove Roman site, with Romano-British pottery being visible in the cliff face over many years.  At Sandsfoot Castle at Weymouth, a fort built in 1539 by Henry VIII which formed part of his defences along the Channel coast, has been affected by coastal erosion and instability with a greater part of the south front falling into the sea in 1837; at that time the masonry facing on the north front was removed.  The construction of the Portland Breakwater in 1849 reduced the effects of coastal erosion on the cliff face at this location.  The unstable remains of the castle were, subsequently, protected by the Council and the grounds are now landscaped as a public amenity.  As a result of the resilience of the strata on the Isle of Portland, most of the major heritage sites are unaffected in the short to medium term. 

5.         How can historical Imagery inform heritage risk management?

There is a rich resource of images relating to this area, and a number of these are illustrated below.  These include Sandsfoot Castle (Figures 6.1-6.3), Weymouth Bay (Figure 4), the popular resort of Weymouth (Figures 6.5-6.8) and the Iighthouses on the Isle of Portland itself (Figures 6.9-6.12).  A further popular vantage point for artists was the view from Portland Heights looking north-west along Chesil Beach towards West Bay and Lyme Regis, Chesil Beach providing protection for the road on its lee side, which links the Isle of Portland to the mainland (Figures 6.13-6.15). Chesil Beach was severely affected by the coastal storms of winter 2013/14. The selected images depict heritage assets over time, and the changes that have affected Weymouth and Portland to a greater or lesser degree as a result of both natural processes and development. 

6.         Key Issues – What can be learnt from this site?

The Bowleaze Cove site, which is of considerable heritage significance, has been affected over time by coastal erosion and instability, however, because of the undeveloped nature of this section of coast it was not chosen as a subject by artists.  By contrast there are many views of Sandsfoot Castle, which shows the chronology of coastal erosion over time.  The town of Weymouth, together with the harbour and breakwater, were also illustrated by many artists dating back to the late eighteenth century and show the pattern of alterations and improvements that took place at this location over the last 200 years and particularly in the late nineteenth century.  On the Isle of Portland, many views are taken from the sea showing shipping set against the impressive backdrop of the cliff line; Portland Bill lighthouse was also depicted by artists.  Because of the durable nature of the coastal cliffs on Portland, the images demonstrate that the rate of coastal change, and risks to heritage is low.  In terms of the early history of the Isle of Portland including the field systems and the quarrying history aerial photography forms the most valuable medium for study.

Figure 6.1 (right): A view of Sandsfoot Castle, Weymouth, in the 1840s.  Lithograph.  The seaward face of the Castle can be seen collapsing into the sea as a result of coastal erosion.

Image Courtesy: Private Collection.

Figure 6.2 (left): Sandsfoot Castle today.  The site has been safeguarded following works by the Council and acquisition of the grounds as an amenity. 

Image Courtesy: Eugene Birchall, Creative Commons Licence.

Figure 6.3: This watercolour by Alfred Robert Quinton, c.1925, shows the remains of Sandsfoot Castle on the cliff top and the commanding position it occupied looking towards the Isle of Portland. 

Image Courtesy of J. Salmon Limited of Sevenoaks.

Figure 6.4: An aquatint of Weymouth Bay from the late eighteenth century.

Image Courtesy: Private Collection.

Figure 6.5: This view of the seafront at Weymouth painted in watercolour by A. R. Quinton, c.1920, shows the fine architecture at this flourishing resort.  Quinton’s eye for detail provides us with a wealth of information on the state of coastal towns and villages between 1900 and the early 1930. 

Image Courtesy of J. Salmon Limited of Sevenoaks.

Figure 6.6: ‘Weymouth’ by William Daniell RA showing the view at the mouth of the Little Wey.  The elegant seaside resort became fashionable after a visit by King George III in 1789.

Figure 6.7: This watercolour by David Addey painted in 1989/90 shows the fine seafront buildings that Daniell depicted (above).  The Georgian character of the town remains largely unchanged. 

Image Courtesy of David Addey.

Figure 6.8: A. R. Quinton also painted Weymouth from Daniell’s vantage point.  The three images on this page show little change over the 170 year timespan. 

Image Courtesy of J. Salmon Limited of Sevenoaks.

Figure 6.9: This view by W. Daniell RA is believed to depict the old High Lighthouse, which was replaced in 1869. 

Image Courtesy: Private Collection.

Figure 6.10: David Addey’s 1989 watercolour shows the same lighthouse as in Daniell’s view.  A new lighthouse was erected at Portland Bill in 1906. 

Image Courtesy of David Addey.

Figures 6.11 and 6.12: ‘Ruined Lighthouse on the Isle of Portland’. Watercolour. 1964 by Leslie Moffat Ward.  Image Courtesy of the Russell Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, Bournemouth.  The restored lighthouse is shown above right.

Figure 6.13: ‘View from Portland over Chesil Beach’.  Lithograph, c.1850s by Day & Sons.

Image Courtesy of Dorset County Museum and Heritage Service.

Figure 6.14: The same vantage point was chosen by Alfred Robert Quinton for his view of Chesil Beach, which he painted in about 1920.  Quinton’s views often show beaches (as well as architecture) depicted with considerable accuracy.  This allows both quantitative and qualitative comparisons to be made with the present day situation.

Image Courtesy of J. Salmon Limited of Sevenoaks.

Figure 6.15: William Daniell RA produced an aquatint in 1823 from St Catherine’s Chapel near Abbotsbury looking south-east over Chesil Beach to Portland.  This image, one of 308 aquatints that he prepared for his publication ‘A Voyage Round Great Britain’ (1814-25), shows his skill as both an architectural draughtsman as well as a topographical artist.

Image Courtesy: Private Collection.