Sunday, 17 May 2015

Portland - and nearly clapped in irons!

With another holiday looming, I'd better wrap up what still needs to be recounted from the last one! This post deals with what happened when I visited the Isle of Portland.

If you don't know, the Isle of Portland (or just 'Portland') is that highly distinctive beak-like projection halfway along the south coast of England, just south of Weymouth, that shows up so well on satellite images.

It hasn't really been an island for a very long time, because it's connected to the mainland by Chesil Beach, a long wide ridge of pebbles that begins near Bridport in the west and ends at Portland in the east, forming that distinctive straight line on the satellite image above. Here's a shot I took in 2009 of the Beach at Burton Bradstock, at its western end:

And here's one I took last month closer to Portland, near Abbotsbury, showing the lagoon behind it known as the Fleet and, in the distance, the Gibraltar-like rocky prominence of Portland:

At Portland itself, the beach looks like this (a shot of mine from 2004). You can see that it is wider and higher here compared to further west.

Chesil Beach was formed by the action of waves pushing stones against the shore from the south-west, and piling them up, rather than (as is commonly thought) gradually extending them eastwards from Bridport. This hints at the strength of the wind and waves in Lyme Bay. It has always been a deadly trap for shipping, the sea in the English Channel tending to push any unpowered vessel onto this steep shingle bank, and there was many a shipwreck in the days of sail. And if any ship escaped getting caught in Lyme Bay, and being dashed against Chesil Beach, then off Portland Bill (the southern tip of Portland) there was another problem - a tidal race. Not a good place for little boats to be!

And yet on the lee side of Portland is vast Portland Harbour, for so long a safe and sheltered anchorage, with stout enclosing breakwaters. This was where the 2012 Olympic sailing events were held, and where a Sailing Academy now is.

But back to Portland itself. It has always been a rather bleak place, renowned for its quarries (this is where the famous white Portland Stone comes from), the naval and military presence, and its suitability for keeping prisoners secure - because, of course, it's easy to block the only road out of the place. So there are two places of detention on it - HM Prison Portland, opened in 1848 on the eastern cliffs at Grove, and HM Prison The Verne, opened in 1949 within the the massive citadel at the island's highest point.

On a whim, I decided to see what The Verne looked like up close. There is only one modern road to it, a steep zig-zag approach through a council housing estate full of parked cars and tight bends. No chance then of a speedy getaway if a prisoner absconded, even if there were a Ferrari waiting to whizz him down the hill and off the island! Getting nearer, you could see that this was a classic nineteenth century military stronghold with impressive ramparts. I parked Fiona off the road, near the entrance.

I hoped she didn't look suspicious. You know - the handy getaway vehicle. But there was no sign to say I couldn't park there, nor that Fiona might be towed away, and besides the view northwards over Portland Harbour was magnificent. I decided to chance my arm.

Walking up to the entrance to the citadel, I was surprised to see that it was unguarded. Certainly there were huge iron gates and gun-slits, and a long narrow tunnel controlled by traffic lights, but that was all.

The notice (which I photographed on leaving - for a reason that will become clear) said: 'HOME OFFICE - NO UNAUTHORISED ENTRY'. With translations in a curious selection of other languages. Why not just in English? Oh well. The important question seemed to be this: was I authorised to enter? Absolutely not. I wasn't a wife visiting her husband, nor a legal person, nor any kind of official. I had no business there at all. So of course I went in.

Emerging on the far side of the tunnel, there was still no challenge. No barking dogs, no armed guards rushing forward. Just an inner view of the military stonework.

How odd, with nobody about. Were the prisoners and their guards having a nice day on the sands in Weymouth? I'd expected much more security in one of Her Majesty's prisons. I advanced carefully up the roadway, and eventually reached another gateway, one that finally looked the business, with a modern-looking reception area next to it. They had built a compound with high concrete walls around it. Ah, this must be the real prison! I definitely now felt like the trespasser.

There was nothing to see of whatever (and whoever) lay inside the compound. But I saw an interesting-looking notice nearby, a Home Office notice, that listed the penalties for doing all sorts of unauthorised things, such as springing a convict. I took a photo of it. Then I began to walk on, intending to find The Jailhouse Café. I gathered this was open to the public, and was a normal café. Presumably frequented by prison visitors - wives and girlfriends - smuggling in the usual things: cigarettes, sweets, drugs, helicopters.

But I was stopped in my tracks by a commanding voice behind. It was a prison officer in uniform. I should point out that I was hardly looking like a dangerous intruder. This was a selfie taken barely an hour earlier at Portland Castle:

Miss Demure and Innocent, surely! But the man was implacable. Had I taken a picture of that interesting Home Office notice? Yes, I had. Did I know it was an offence to photograph a Home Office notice? No, I didn't! I was so sorry. What would happen now? (I braced myself for the blown whistle, the turned-out guard, the gyves clapped onto my wrists, the reeking dungeon, the rats, the night-time gang rape by all the other prisoners, the firing squad at dawn)

Desperate not to lose control of the situation, I had an inspiration: would deleting the photograph, while he saw me do it, save me? I put this to him. Yes, could I do that, please. I said to him, 'Come into the shade so we can both see the screen better, and watch me delete the shot.' But you know how it is. I've owned that camera for six years. I've taken 59,000 shots with it. I've frequently deleted some of them on-camera. But could I do it under pressure, with a prison officer standing next to me - a man determined to stick to the rules and likely to confiscate the camera if I failed? Or impose an even worse punishment for my crime?

No I couldn't. My mind went blank. I completely forgot how to delete that incriminating photo. I fumbled. It took three embarrassing attempts to delete it. But at last he saw it disappear. Phew!

And then magically his attitude changed. Oh, I still had a lecture on what I could and couldn't do at The Verne. But he also strongly recommended, in friendly terms, a visit The Jailhouse Café. And he told me where to see an amazing view along the coast, as far as the Isle of Wight, which involved walking between some old buildings, somewhere I wouldn't have dared go ordinarily.

Well, I skipped the café. No doubt it was excellent - and indeed it would have been an intriguing experience, because I learned later that it was staffed by trusted prisoners - but then I'd already had a light snack at Portland Castle, and after my brush with Authority I wasn't really in the right mood. I did seek out the amazing view he'd recommended. And it was pretty good, even though I couldn't actually see the Isle of Wight. I decided to fib about that - not seeing the isle of Wight - when walking back past the prison reception block, if the officer came out and asked me about it, as he well might. I needed to keep him sweet. No prison toady was going to out-toady this toady! I had to ensure that I could escape this fortress.

But by the time I did actually get back to the reception block, I had recovered my composure somewhat, and was determined to show the man that this lady wasn't to be intimidated. I decided to go in and have a word with him. Boldly I entered where I might not return from. I saw a huge array of lockers, and a glassed-in counter, such as you might find in a bank. Two prison officers, a man and a woman, confronted me from behind the plate glass and asked me what I wanted. Behind them I saw the older officer who had imposed his will on me. I smiled, and said that I'd popped in to thank him personally for directing me to such a good view. Ah! All was at once good cheer.

Then I left before I said or did something to land me in trouble again. I didn't feel safe until I'd passed through the tunnel and out into the sunshine on the other side. Nor indeed until I was sitting in Fiona with the engine fired up. I drove away before they changed their mind about letting me go.

It was only today, when checking some basic facts about HM Prison The Verne, that I discovered it was converted in early 2014 from a medium-security prison for fairly serious offenders into an Immigrant Removal Centre. So it wasn't stuffed full of felons - just persons who had come to the UK illegally and were going to be deported. Well, that explained the strange selection of foreign languages on the notice outside the tunnel entrance. But it felt something of a let-down!

And I began to wonder whether that rule-minded prison officer had been entirely correct about not photographing Home Office notices. Had he been merely curious about me, and had made it all up? Hmm.

I've mentioned Portland Castle twice. Let's look at it. This is an old gun fort of Henry the Eighth's, now in the care of English Heritage:

It was immaculately presented, as is usual with English Heritage. Also as usual with their properties, there was a collection of period clothing to try on. Not just in kid's sizes. I was able to don a colourful gunner's outfit from 1793, complete with tricorn hat:

I think that looks pretty good! Wouldn't it be fantastic if late-eighteenth century fashions came back in?

I also tried on the iron hat of a Tudor soldier of 1545:

No, that's not so good. I think I'll avoid iron hats in the future. Even Second World War tin hats don't do it for me, as this 2013 shot with friend Emma in Hastings confirms:

I also visited Portland Bill, and had a wander around Fortuneswell, the main town on Portland. This 2004 photo will give you a good impression of the place - it's very hilly!

I encountered an idiot man there. I was walking down a narrow one-way street with camera in hand, and he was painting his house. He gave me a look that seemed to say, 'What's your game, missus?' So to mollify him, I smiled pleasantly and asked him whether, if I turned left at the bottom of the street, I would get back to the town car park. It seemed a simple enough question, and in fact I already knew the answer, which was yes, I would get back to the car park. But he perversely seemed to think that I had parked my car just up the road from his house, and wanted to drive to the car park, and not walk. He kept on saying that it was one-way, and that I had to turn right at the bottom and then drive all the way around if I wanted to park where I wanted to.

Talk about having an unshakeable bulldog grip on a concept! I gave up trying to explain that I was actually on foot, and just thanked him and walked on. No doubt he thought I was the stupid one. Sigh.


  1. I don't get it... So the jailhouse cafe is open to all, but access to the site (according to the notice at the entrance) is for authorised persons only. Perhaps taking illegal photographs gave you the necessary qualification for a meal there!

  2. I would have forced down another cup of tea and slice of cake, Angie, if I'd known that serving jailbirds (well, detainees) would be doing the honours. A missed chance to see another side of life.

    They do advertise the Café, but there are no obvious signs to it once you are through the tunnel and inside the citadel. I got the impression that only proper prison visitors, and of course prison officers, were supposed to use it, and not ladies turning up on spec, unless, as you suggest, they were directed there on an 'official' basis by an officer.


  3. What fun!
    Now *that's* what I call a day out!


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