Coun­try di­ary

Port­land, Dorset

The Guardian - Journal - - Letters -

A stone arch­way, fram­ing sea and sky. The thresh­old to an­other world, a world un­sus­pected by vis­i­tors hur­ry­ing over the windswept plateau to the Bill, Port­land’s beaklike south­ern tip. Un­der the eye of Ru­fus Cas­tle, we wan­der down be­tween spindly ivy-sashed trees and warm, lich­ened walls bright with va­le­rian, to the cove where shut­tered beach huts curve round a bank of big, pale stones. The sense of oth­er­ness in­creases. Ear­lier this year, we were met by the sight of three peb­ble minarets sil­hou­et­ted against the waves. If we hadn’t taken pho­tos, we’d have thought we had dreamed them.

A cliff path leads us up into

Penn’s Weare, a mad land­scape of land­slip and ram­pag­ing veg­e­ta­tion. The gentle greens and yel­lows of our last visit are now bleached and tar­nished, tall grasses faded to blond, wood spurge dried to rust. Only wild thyme, pyra­mi­dal or­chids and scabi­ous add dashes of colour. A lizard flicks from sight, bees thrum and a south­ern pill wood­louse (big­ger than the cheesel­ogs at home) trun­dles across our path. We pick our way past pits and boul­ders, at one minute in a hol­loway of way­farer’s trees and bud­dleia, the next on a spiny ridge or in an am­phithe­atre above the bay. Be­low, on a rock, two cor­morants preen them­selves while a third stretches its wings. A boat chugs past.

At the look­out hut, we turn from the sea and make our way up to the long lime­stone crag on the sky­line. No clang of climbers to­day, only a liq­uid, throaty sound. Peer­ing down at us from a high ledge are five white doves and a sin­gle grey city type, con­stantly flut­ter­ing and chang­ing places like the waves far be­low.

The track we’re on was once a rail­way – a hint, like the scat­tered, half-dressed rocks, that this play­ground used to be a place of back-break­ing labour. In his strange late novel The Well-Beloved, Thomas Hardy con­jures up Port­land’s quar­ries, where “eter­nal saws were go­ing to and fro upon eter­nal blocks of stone”. Port­land be­comes the Isle of Slingers and a cot­tage near the cas­tle the home of his hero­ine, Avice. Go­ing back through the arch­way, we pass the cot­tage, a last ves­tige of the af­ter­noon’s magic.

Vivien Cripps

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