16 October 2019

Portland : two windmills

On the Isle of Portland you will find the only remains of old windmills in the whole of the county of Dorset and, sadly, there’s not much left of them to see.

In such a wild and windy location, it’s no surprise that, in medieval times, the local farmers used windmills to have their grain milled in to flour. A signboard near one of the stone towers explains:

The windmills were principally sited to utilise the open, windy landscape of the island and to provide a grain grinding facility for the local community.
Although the land was farmed by many individuals, the crop grown in a particular area was a common one and meant that harvesting took place all at one time.
The Islanders would bring their own grain to be milled as they wanted to use it. The miller would take some of the flour for his pay.

The windmill remains consist of two stone towers standing around 135 metres apart, now labelled the North windmill and the South windmill – I’m sure they once had different names, perhaps those of their owners or millers. According to the Historic England website, both towers are thought to date from the 17th century. The towers were constructed of rough coursed rubble, with walls approximately 650mm thick, and have a diameter of about 4 metres. The North windmill is now 5.5 metres tall and the South 7 metres.

The signboard gives a couple of interesting facts about the mills:

North windmill ... The timber wind-shaft was removed from the tower in 1983 after it became unsafe and has been stored in the garden of the Portland museum ever since.
South windmill ... This windmill incorporated an inserted concrete floor slab on corrugated shuttering probably from World War Two.

But, if you’re keen to read a more thorough history of the mills, the Encyclopedia of Portland History has a wonderfully informative entry here.

10 October 2019

Portland : lighthouses

I’d always wanted to stay in a lighthouse so, three years ago, when I got the chance to join a Glamorgan Bird Club weekend in Portland, I jumped at the chance – and I’ve just been back for my third such weekend. Of course, the purpose of the weekend is birding but Portland Bird Observatory and Field Centre is a former lighthouse, now filled with bunk rooms to accommodate the visiting birders who come to check out the rarities this extreme location always seems to attract.

There are, in fact, three lighthouses at Portland Bill, the narrow promontory at the southern end of the Isle of Portland: the Old Lower Light (now Portland Birds Obs), the Old Higher Light (now converted to holiday accommodation; not covered in this blog), and the current operational light.

When you’re at the Bill, especially in stormy weather, it’s easy to see why the lights are necessary – as the Trinity House website explains

The Portland Race is caused by the meeting of the tides between the Bill and the Shambles sandbank about 3 miles SE. Strong currents break the sea so fiercely that from the shore a continuous disturbance can be seen.

The Old Lower Lighthouse, the attached cottage and its boundary wall are all Grade-II listed structures. The current building, built in 1869, is, in fact, the third lighthouse to be built on this site: the first began operating in conjunction with the Old Higher Light in 1716 but was replaced in 1789. The 1869 structure, the existing Old Lower Light, was built, appropriately enough, of Portland stone and is 63 feet high.

Both the Old Lower and Old Higher Lights were decommissioned in 1906 when Trinity House had the current lighthouse built. The Old Lower Lighthouse has had many incarnations since then: for a time in the early 1900s it was a tea garden, and it has also been a family home. By the 1950s it had been abandoned and was derelict but, thanks to the beneficence of Miss Mary Brotherton, the building was saved, restored and converted for use by visiting ornithologists. And so the Portland Bird Observatory and Field Centre was born, in March 1961, and I’m delighted to report it is still going strong, as a registered charity supported by the passion, hard work and generosity of its warden, staff, volunteers and supporters.

The present lighthouse, the red-and-white-striped tower that stands close to the end of Portland Bill, is 135 feet high. According to Wikipedia, Trinity House   

acquired the required land in 1903. The builders, Wakeham Bros. of Plymouth, began work on the foundations in October 1903. Chance & Co of Birmingham supplied and fitted the lantern ... The lighthouse was completed in 1905 at a cost of £13,000, and the lamp first lit on 11 January 1906 ...
On 18 March 1996, Portland Bill Lighthouse was demanned, and all monitoring and control transferred to the Trinity House Operations & Planning Centre in Harwich [in Essex].

Though I haven’t been in, there is a visitor centre in the former keepers’ cottages at the present lighthouse. As well as perusing the various informative displays about the lighthouse, visitors can also climb the tower to enjoy the views from the top. It’s on my list for my next visit to Portland!

07 October 2019

East Sussex : St Margaret’s, Rottingdean

During a recent visit to Rottingdean to see the windmill, my friend Jill and I also had a brief wander around the historic centre of this pretty little town. 

Jill was particularly keen to see the church after we were told by a local in a coffee shop about its Burne-Jones stained-glass windows.

Dedicated to St Margaret of Antioch, this Grade-II listed, Church of England building dates, in part, from the 13th century but has had many subsequent alterations and restorations. 

It is built of flint, with stone dressings and a tiled roof. 

Perhaps to ensure parishioners are never late for services, it has a big bold clock in the wall above the entrance door.

According to the British Listed Buildings website, all but two of the window designs are by renowned pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones, though there is a proviso that the situation may have changed since the original listing, and it did appear that a couple of windows were more modern.

The three windows that immediately catch your eye as you enter St Margaret's Church, those above the altar, are Burne-Jones masterpieces. Designed by him and made by his good friend William Morris, the windows depict the three archangels: from left, Gabriel, the messenger; Michael, the warrior; and Raphael, guardian of children.

These are two more of the stunning windows, which I think were designed by Burne-Jones though, unfortunately, I neglected to take down the details during my visit, and I don’t find the church’s online guide particularly helpful or thorough in its descriptions of the windows.

Following his death in 1898 the ashes of Edward Burne-Jones were buried in the churchyard and memorial plaques to him, and his wife Georgiana, are attached to the exterior of the church, to the south of the main entrance. Burne-Jones lived in North End House, which is just across the village green from the church.

I was intrigued by this rather odd structure, also near the church entrance. The quote, ‘The bird is dead / That we have made so much on’, is from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, act 4 scene 2, where Arviragus enters bearing the seemingly dead Imogen. The memorial, for such it is, is explained in one of the church’s online guidebooks:

Angela Thirkel, society novelist, much loved grand-daughter of Sir Edward Burne-Jones has her memorial also to the left of the West door, a wooden structure needing repair you may think, but this was Angela’s wish that it should ‘rot’ into the ground. The Angela Thirkel Society is still very popular with members who visit St Margaret’s church frequently in her memory. One of her most popular books (repeatedly reprinted) is ‘Three Houses’ a child’s memoir of Rottingdean.

I’m sure there are many other interesting sights to see, gravestones to admire, inscriptions to read in St Margaret’s lovely churchyard but we were on a mission ... that windmill!