The first time I visited the Isle of Portland was to help my brother-in-law move there and knew right away I’d be back. I’d already seen it countless times, as it’s visible right down the Devon coast, including from the Pebblebed Heaths. When the visibility is reasonable and the sun shines on it, there it is, jutting out of the English Channel like some improbably vast steampunk ship.
Whether or not it’s really an island is debated, because it has a land bridge. For the pendantic, it’s a tied island; a formerly separate land mass connected by a spit, in this case the incredibly long and incredibly famous Chesil Beach (which is itself formed in part from the same pebble beds which make up the heaths and have drifted there from Budleigh Salterton). Given that Chesil Beach formed around 7,000 years ago, and humans first arrived on Portland around 8,500 years ago, it’s fair to say it’s not been what most people think of as an island for quite some time. And yet there is much of an island about Portland, despite a busy A-road, regular bus service, and a former rail line. People from Portland refer to themselves as Islanders, and that thin sliver of land leading up to Portland’s massive cliffs does feel rather provisional; more so, given the incrementally increasing rise of the sea levels. It certainly feels like an island.
This island character lends Portland a famously ‘weird’ feeling, as if one is stepping back in time. Many coastal resorts give you this sense of going back to the late 70s, but somehow in Portland it goes much deeper. Indeed, the above sign, one of a handful remaining, comes straight out of the mind of Scarfolk’s creators, and seems perfectly at home here.
And yet the past’s haunting of the present goes much deeper than playful postmodernism. Portland is home to a considerable number of commons which include several of its best-loved spots – Portland Bill, Chesil Beach (and Hamm Common, along which the A354 runs,) and Church Ope Cove. I’d hoped, somehow, to ‘do’ these all in one day, but what I found was a landscape so seductive that I barely scratched the surface.
What makes Portland’s commons more fascinating yet is its modern governance. That might sound rather dull, but much of Portland, including the commons, belongs to the Crown Estate, an institution which has evolved over time but essentially means it’s owned by the monarch and has been legally since 1066. There’s not much left of the Crown Estate these days in comparison with William’s dominion over the whole of England, but it still brings in several billion pounds a year, most of which goes to the UK Treasury but from which a hefty proportion, the Civil List, nevertheless finds its way into Elizabeth II’s coffers. That a fair amount of Portland hasn’t change hands in almost a millennium feels about right.
But even that’s not all. Portland’s commons are administered by one of England’s remaining Anglo-Saxon Court Leets, one of only a handful to have retained genuine civic powers, rather than simply being ceremonial. Portland’s dates back to at least 1086 and has retained much the same structure, even if the elected Hayward doesn’t have much in the way of stray stock to impound, and the Reeve no longer needs to collect Quit Rent from villagers who don’t want to do military service for the monarch. Meeting in May and November at The Heights hotel, roles are elected in November, the Reeve changing annually. Additional meetings with the village commissioners take place every two months. The Crown Estate is represented by the Local Crown Bailiff at the twice yearly meetings, while other representatives, such as the Mineral and Marine Agent, appear in November.
The Leet collects money from several streams. Beach huts at Portland Bill and Church Ope are rented out, and the owners of any road signage or utility pipes crossing the land have to pay; this is classed as encroachment on the commons, and such selling of the right to encroach is an ancient historic feature on many commons, just as is the right to let stock stray for an agreed ‘fine’. Money additionally comes from quarrying. The Court Leet are also investors in the Lobster Pot restaurant at Portland Bill and the Chesil Beach Visitors Centre, and receive income through that, as well as the occasional Natural England pay-out.
This money goes towards upkeep of the commons, such as grass restoration on the heavily used commons around Portland Bill, the toilet at Church Ope Cove, recent removal of an invasive plant at Hamm Common, and partnering on conservation projects such as the tern colony at the Fleet. The Leet also gives around £10,000 a year to local groups, such as the Sea Cadets, Women’s Institute, and voluntary and green space organisations.
So far, so much fascinating information. Beyond the Portland Commons signage, it’s difficult to observe any of this. And in fact, I found the landscape itself so multi-layered and fascinating that it got quite overwhelming. At Portland Bill alone, I encountered mass tourism, military encroachment, the legacy of mining, and the implications of sea level rise.
I also came across plentiful evidence of commons being used as a public memorial – there were plaques and plastic flowers everywhere, and this was something I found elsewhere along the coast. I’d love to know if these were Islanders or visitors who loved the place and wanted their ashes scattered here. I suspect it’s both.
The ancient field system, remnants of now-enclosed open fields, is very much visible, and in places protected as a scheduled ancient monument. Walking amongst these very long fields, mostly now used by stables, gives a sense of the commons around them in a living relationship to a landscape, both what has been lost and what persists.
There’s a patch of wet woodland around Culver Well which is common land, perhaps because it’s useless for agriculture, or perhaps to retain access from the road. Nearby is the Late Mesolithic settlement where slightly under 1% of the UK’s population once lived, and presumably, the well has some significance for this. The well is still accessible and when I visited, the woodland was strung through with rolled up netting, presumably for monitoring insects or birds at some point. It’s a very weird hidden corner indeed.
The beach huts were delightful. The ones at Church Ope Cove seem to have been there a long, long time, with stone paths and stone walls built to and around them from the beach. Those near Portland Bill are slightly baffling, as they don’t seem to be on common land and I’m wondering if this is an example of common land having public access restricted. Certainly, it seems a bit off to be able to barge into someone’s beach hut and start kicking off about rights of access.
Also curious are the thin slivers of common around the coast, especially when there is grazing land adjoining it with no visible boundaries. I’m used to seeing these tracks and verges surrounded by obvious signs of enclosure, but here, as elsewhere in Portland generally, there’s a blurring of boundaries. And while I didn’t get to see any of them, the patches of remaining common land in Portland’s villages – Easton, Weston, Southwell – aren’t just unloved anomalies: thanks to the ancient institution of the village commissioners, these are looked after and thought about. In fact, a long stretch along Wide Street is being restored to public use now that quarrying there has ceased.
I will be back to Portland. Not only do I need to investigate its greens, but there’s a stretch of steep woodland which includes memorials and a nature reserve. And then there’s Hamm Common and Chesil Beach itself, which includes an ancient boundary point where a seven-yearly ceremony will see the Reeve beat (gently) two local school children as a part of beating the bounds. The Court Leet do like their rituals, too, as I hope to see on May 18th 2023, when it next takes place.