The Chesil Beach, or Chesil Bank, is a dramatic 18-mile curve of steeply banked shingle stretching north-west from Portland (the southern-most point of Dorset) to West Bay via Abbotsbury. The formation contains a long tidal lagoon known as the Fleet.* 

Portland Bill & Chesil Beach (Landsat)

Before a causeway road was constructed, the bank connected the mainland to the Isle of Portland, creating a form of TOMBOLO (strictly, it is a ‘barrier beach’). The uninterrupted shingle strip of Chesil beach is up to 50 feet high in places. The stones are large at the Portland end, gradually reducing in size until, by the western end at West Bay, they are pea-sized. It is said that in the past (and maybe still) local people were able to tell the location on the beach that a particular pebble had come from. This knowledge was supposedly helpful for the accurate landing of contraband at dead of night, smuggling being a popular occupation along the Dorset coast (and maybe still).

Chesil Beach, the Fleet and the Isle of Portland, from the north-west over AbbotsburyWiki

Chesil Beach looking north-west from a viewpoint on PortlandChesil Bank 1

A long shot of the same view, showing the Fleet  lagoonChesil Bank 2

Boats on top of the beach at PortlandChesil Bank 15

This view shows the breadth of the beach at the Portland end – solid shingle throughoutChesil Bank 4

Further along, fishermen line up all along the water’s edgeChesil Bank 5

The rake of the beach on the seaward side. It’s much steeper on the landward side.Chesil Bank 6

We sat on a tide-shelf above the waterline – the top stones bone dry, the next layer down wet.Chesil Bank 12

Everyone will be familiar with the gentle swoosh sound of small shingle as the waves come and go. On Chesil Beach, the wave interaction with the large pebbles produces a remarkable clattering and clacking sound that is mesmerising to listen to. Luckily I remembered the video button on my camera, so here’s a very short movie to demonstrate this.

Here is a collection of photos of the stones around us as we sat by the sea. The apparently uniform colouring of the beach from a distance turns out to be a blend of many soft, subtle colours and shades – not least because the stones are of different materials. The geology of the beach would make a good post for another occasion, but not by me!

Chesil Bank 13Chesil Bank 10 Close-up of the bottom left corner aboveChesil Bank 11Chesil Bank 7 Chesil Bank 8 Chesil Bank 9 Chesil Bank 14

Finally, a reminder of the area’s more turbulent past – a time of press-gangs, blackjacks and daggers swiftly drawn in candlelit taverns. A portland stone plaque in the Church of St George, Portland gives eloquent testimony to an era of lawlessness.Press Gang Memorial, Portland

Later, and perhaps in consequence, Portland became the centre of the Knuckleduster-making industry that flourished on the island until the passing of the Prevention of Crime Act 1953, which defined and prohibited “the carrying of offensive weapons without lawful authority or reasonable excuse”. The industry, already in sharp decline in the 1930s, was by then nearly defunct, with only one craftsman still active on Portland. In 2012, a large and elegant sculpture to commemorate this unusual aspect of Portland’s history was installed in a prominent position, commanding a fine view over the the Chesil Beach to Weymouth and the mainland beyond.

Chesil Bank 3The ‘Knuckleduster Memorial’ also marked Weymouth & Portland as the Olympic Sailing venue

* I’m reluctant to endorse the enthusiastic marketing of large swathes of the Dorset seaboard as ‘The Jurassic Coast’. There are fossils in many places. They are fun to look for. More fun to find. Best not to turn it into a Theme Park. I’ll leave it at that.


Portland is a ‘tied  island’ at the southernmost point of Dorset, linked to the mainland by a 5 mile strip of steeply banked stones and pebbles called the Chesil Beach (or to the older among us, Chesil Bank) that runs northwest towards Abbotsbury and West Bay. There is now a road, of course. The bank’s formation is known as a ‘tombolo’, where a spit joins to land at both ends,  creating a tied island and often a lagoon (here known as the Fleet).

Portland MapPortland Lighthouse 2

I’ll be posting about Chesil Beach and other aspects of Portland in due course. Meanwhile, I’ll focus on the southern tip of Portland, known as Portland Bill. There are 3 lighthouses there. Two were operationally replaced in 1906 by a classic red-and-white striped edifice, and are now, respectively, holiday apartments; and a bird observatory. The ‘new’ lighthouse stands guard over a strong tidal race caused by the underwater continuation of the Portland rock ‘shelf’ and the Shambles sandbank further offshore. 

Portland Lighthouse 3The LanternPortland Lighthouse 4

Portland is one of the ‘Sea Areas’ familiar from UK shipping forecasts, located between Wight and Plymouth. The lighthouse, 115 ft high, is a prominent navigational landmark for the English Channel.

Portland Lighthouse 1

Since 1514, Trinity House has been the organisation with responsibility for lighthouses and the safety of UK shipping generally since the grant of a Royal Charter by Henry VIII. The Portland light bears the Trinity House arms.

Portland Lighthouse 6

It also bears a substantial foghorn, essential to warn of the coastal rocks as well as the strong current from the tidal race

Portland Lighthouse 5

As ships are warned by the foghorn, so humans are warned of the foghorn…Portland Lighthouse 7

At the cliff edge is a stout obelisk of portland stone erected by Trinity House in 1844 (before the present lighthouse existed) as a daylight warning to passing ships of the dangers of the offshore race.

Portland Lighthouse 8 Portland Lighthouse 9