Portland Bill is a narrow promontory (or bill) at the southern end of the Isle of Portland, and the southernmost point of Dorset, England. One of Portland's most popular destinations, the popular attraction Portland Bill Lighthouse is found in the area. The surrounding coast of Portland, namely Portland Bill and Chesil Beach, have been notorious for the many vessels that became shipwrecked in the area over the centuries. The dangerous coastline, which features shallow reefs and the Shambles sandbank, was proven more hazardous due to the strong tidal race known as the Portland Race.
The Bill is still an important way-point for coastal traffic, and three lighthouses have been built to protect shipping, in particular from its strong tidal race and shallow reef. The original two lighthouses guided vessels around the coast from 1716, until they were replaced in 1906 by the current lighthouse.
From Roman times, beacon fires would be lit to warn passing ships of the danger of the Bill. During the early 18th century, a petition to Trinity House had been put forward for a lighthouse; however, Trinity House opposed it. The demand continued for over a decade until Trinity House conceded that a lighthouse was needed, and George I granted the patent on 26 May 1716. Trinity House issued a lease to William Barrett and Francis Browne to build and maintain one or more lighthouses.
One lighthouse was built at Branscombe Hill, while the other was situated on lower land. The two lighthouses shone out for the first time on 29 September 1716. Over time Trinity House were made aware that the lights were being poorly maintained, and after an inspection during 1752, they terminated the lease. In 1789, the Old Lower Lighthouse demolished and rebuilt. In 1844 Trinity House erected a white stone obelisk at the southern tip of the Bill as a daymark, and in 1859 the first lightship was placed at the Shambles sandbank. In 1869, Trinity House had both lighthouses rebuilt.
The cliffs at Portland Bill were quarried until the early 20th-century. A reminder is Pulpit Rock, an artificial stack of rock, left in the 1870s. At the turn of the 20th-century, Trinity House put forward plans for a new lighthouse at Bill Point. It was completed in 1905, and first shone on 11 January 1906. From that point the original two lighthouses became disused, and were soon auctioned. After various changes in ownership, the Old Lower Lighthouse became a bird observatory in 1961, while the Old Higher Lighthouse became the home of Marie Stopes from 1923 to 1958, and today is a holiday let. A proper road, as opposed to a simple track, to Portland Bill, was laid in 1922, and this helped the Bill become a tourist destination.
A coastguard lookout at Portland Bill was first built in 1934. When it closed in the 1990s, it was taken over by the National Coastwatch Institution, who rebuilt the station later in the 21st century. NCI Portland Bill continues to operate today. During the 1960s the Ministry of Defence Magnetic Range was built at the Bill. Further up the hill at Branscombe was also the Royal Navy Portland Bill W/T Station, which was established during the early 20th-century, and remained active until the 1990s. In 1976, the Shambles lightship was permanently withdrawn and replaced by automatic buoys. The lighthouse was demanned on 18 March 1996, and all monitoring and control transferred to the Trinity House Operations & Planning Centre in Harwich. The lighthouse has a visitor centre, while tours are conducted to take visitors to the top of the lighthouse.
The lighthouses, Pulpit Rock and the Trinity House Obelisk are Portland Bill's key attractions. Close to the MOD range at the Bill is Portland's main Raised Beach. A fishing crane, known as Red Crane, is situated on the cliff edge at Portland Bill. The area holds many beach huts. There are a few commercial businesses in the area, including a restaurant - The Lobster Pot - and a pub - The Pulpit Inn.
Portland Bill has a number of buildings which are Grade Listed. The current lighthouse, along with its boundary walls, are Grade II Listed. The Old Lower Lighthouse, now the Bird Observatory, including its boundary walls and coastguard house, are also Grade II Listed, as is the Old Higher Lighthouse, its four cottages and boundary walls. A 19th-century Fisherman's hut is Grade II Listed, while Red Crane is part of the now-disused Portland Bill stone loading quay - which has become a scheduled monument.
The surrounding fields between the Bill and Southwell are made up of an ancient strip field system, once found all over the island. They date from Saxon times. The nearby Culverwell Mesolithic Site is a Mesolithic settlement, located along the Portland Bill Road. The site is said to be circa 7500-8500 years old and has also become a scheduled monument. This includes surrounding fields, also relating to the Mesolithic period, and these fields lead across to the coastline.
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