Steve Harris: A visit to the magical Isle of Portland
PUBLISHED: 10:01 12 April 2016 | UPDATED: 10:01 12 April 2016
The Isle of Portland is a magical place and the opportunity to literally set in stone its good name in the global market place seems like an inspired idea
I’m embarrased to admit that the first time I visited Portland was as recently as autumn 2011. Angie and I had borrowed my parents’ campervan to take a half-term road trip around Dorset and I’d insisted we see Portland Bill. I still remember that enchanting first drive across the causeway, crunching the gears of the Peugeot van to drag us up through Fortuneswell, and then along boulder-edged roads, eventually to emerge on the county’s southernmost tip. Along the route, Angie read out facts about the island from Wikipedia; my favourite is still that the word “rabbit” is forbidden on Portland – apparently locals were superstitious about bunnies because they were often seen before rock falls in the quarries.
I don’t think I was unique in my ignorance though. I reckon, if you asked someone in the south of England to name islands in the UK, they’d happily reel off Wight or Brownsea, or look further afield to Shetland or Sheppey before they namechecked the Isle of Slingers - as Thomas Hardy called it. Portland has a profile problem. Which is a shame, let’s be honest, because it is a really cool place.
Since my first visit, I’ve returned dozens of times for work, and had some of my most interesting assignments on the island. I’ve climbed a cliff called Neddyfields while my rock climbing instructor told me there are 2000 routes on Portland; its good weather makes it one of the best places for people to cut their climbing teeth. I’ve sat in the lantern of the lighthouse at Marie Stopes’ former home, reading some of the women’s rights campaigner’s more colourful tips for birth control (I’ll never look at a lemon the same way again!). And while the rest of Dorset was getting its knickers in a twist about the Antony Gormley sculpture which was temporarily anchored in the waters of Kimmeridge Bay, my favourite work of his will always be the one hidden in Portland’s Tout Quarry.
Speaking of stones, that’s what took me back to this magical place most recently. Underground this time, to see the mining of Portland Stone - the same stone that was used to build St Paul’s Cathedral. While just watching hulking great white blocks being cut from solid stone walls is interesting in its own right, I was also there to learn about an initiative to legally protecting the stone’s name.
You know how Champagne has to come from the Champagne region of France – otherwise it’s just sparkling wine? Or how Melton Mowbray pork pies must originate in that Leicestershire town to be allowed to use the name? It’s called a Protected Geographical Indication or PGI. At the moment PGIs are only available for food and drink, but there is a suggestion to extend them to, amongst other things, famous quarrying areas. The chaps showing me around told me that lesser products have been piggy-backing the Portland name for far too long, potentially causing reputational damage and certainly eating into their profits.
I can’t help but think that anything which has the potential to address Portland’s profile problem by tying together, in law, the name of their legendary stone and the island, can only be a good thing.
Steve lives in Penn Hill with his wife Angie and their cats Aristotle and Moses. The half Welsh, half Italian radio presenter came to Dorset five years ago to work at BBC Radio Solent. Since then he has fallen in love with the county and enjoys discovering more about it. He presents Breakfast in Dorset weekdays 6.30 - 9am on 103.8fm and DAB Digital Radio.
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