Portland - Sailing Academy and Portland Ports Limited. Saturday 9th April 2005
Leaving home early on a crisp cold frosty morning I commenced my drive westwards amid a strange feeling of déjà-vu; it was to take me back some thirty years to the 1970’s when, as a member of No.829 Squadron at the Royal Naval Air Station Portland, I used to make this self-same hateful journey on a regular basis. Rather less than two hours later any misguided memories I may have had suddenly faded with the most beautiful sight of a gleaming azure sea framed between the fields of Osmington and dominated by the Isle of Portland. It was just as breathtaking as ever and a sight not to be missed in the early morning sun. The new Sailing Academy complete with all its facilities was an eye-opener too, set upon ground towards the north of the old air station. Forming part of the United Kingdom’s Olympic bid it didn’t take long to find the lecture room within the main building and join the fifty other members and guests for what would turn out to be an incredibly interesting and packed day.
After coffee and introductions the remainder of the morning was taken up by three presentations in quick succession starting with an illustrated talk on the stone trade by John Reay, a former area manager of Kingston Minerals. There followed a fascinating appraisal of the early history of quarrying and its development through the ages to the present day with an in-depth look at much of the machinery that has been used over the years to lift the massive blocks out of the ground. John thoughtfully covered the strata, explaining the layers of useful stone - the majority commercially used being of either the ‘Whit’ or’ Brown’ Bed or the ‘Base’ or ‘White’ Bed. We learnt that St. Paul’s Cathedral had used a massive 50,000 tons of Portland stone in its build but this was totally eclipsed by the harbour breakwaters; they had consumed no less than 15 million tons of the local rock. John laced his talk with an endearing wit but viewing many of the photos he provided you would have been forgiven for thinking that there was little stone left to be quarried. He quickly reassured us that that was not the case, there still being plenty but then added that if everyone brought back the stone they had used over the years he doubted that it would all fit back into the island. The presentation finished with a quick mention of some of the ships which used their quay in the harbour although sometimes, particularly when they were Russian, this was to the consternation of the security-minded naval authorities! It was, after all, still the days of the ‘Cold War’.
Moving on quickly Stuart Morris, a local author and historian then produced a most polished audio-visual presentation outlining the history of Portland more generally. He traced the development of the harbour from its beginnings in the 1840’s. The first phase produced the southern breakwater and south ship entrance and was completed by 1872 but it was a massive civil engineering undertaking for its day standing some 100ft. in height from the seabed. Hundreds of convicts were employed in quarrying the stone both for this and for the associated formation of Verne Hill into a major fort to protect the anchorage. Stuart went on to describe the completion of the harbour breakwaters, including two further ship entrances, during the second phase from the 1890’s these being provided as much to protect the fleet anchorage from the threat of torpedoes than from the weather. With the harbour came the development of the naval dockyard including an extensive coaling ‘island’, slips, docks and deep-water quays. Collectively it was by far the largest and most expensive civil engineering project of its time in Europe and the government expenditure brought with it not only a major building boom throughout the local area but very many visitors, both official and tourist. The south ship entrance was purposely blocked in November 1914 by the 1891-built 14,150-ton battleship Hood (not to be confused by the more famous battle cruiser of the same name) and the wreck still remains providing excellent opportunities today for the local sports divers.
The final talk of the morning was given by former Queen’s Harbourmaster John Culley who took the story on from 1945 until the departure of the Royal Navy in 1995. He described how the naval dockyard developed into the latter-day naval base. Immediately post-war the establishment was developed into a major trials and training area. A myriad of trials took place, many under the auspices of the Admiralty Underwater Weapons Establishment (AUWE). On the training side the Battleship Training Squadron was formed and survived until the mid-1950’s before a major redevelopment took place to modernise future sea training. This saw the development of the naval base with a new fleet engineering support unit alongside the Flag Officer Sea Training (FOST) organisation which arrived in 1958. The task now centred on the preparation and work-up of destroyers and frigates (but later other ships as well) into competent fighting units of the fleet, this becoming a protracted seven-week period which concentrated on developing team work and subjecting crews of ships to the most rigorous of exercises of all types culminating each week in the legendary ‘Thursday War’. The writer was one such recipient of this sea training and can vouch for the effectiveness of the programme; it was certainly an experience I will never forget! The third part of the jig-saw was the construction of the naval air station which did not open as such until as late as April 1959 although aviation at Portland long pre-dated this with first helicopter landing trials taking place on HMS Helmsdale as early as 1946. John went on to describe the changing circumstances and dissent from many quarters when the RN reluctantly had to vacate the base despite the strong recommendations at the time that Portland offered by far the best training facilities available.
After a break for lunch provided by the Academy’s own cafeteria it was time to board a coach for the short trip into the former naval base itself. Here we met the commercial manager, John Healy, standing in for Rupert Best, the director of Portland Ports Ltd. Sitting in the old junior ratings club, now surprisingly turned into the cruise ship terminal we were treated to a most interesting presentation on the development of the facilities by the present owners since they took over some seven years ago. John described many of the inherited problems of adapting a naval port for commercial operation such as the lack of cargo working space, the demolition of unwanted buildings and the problems associated with finding tenants for others. With priority given to setting up the new company it is only now that serious thought is being given to the conservation of the many listed buildings whilst much yet needs to be done to strengthen and redevelop some of the quays. His specific role as commercial manager is to find new business. Some success has been achieved with new imports of commodities such as Finnish Peat, some oil fuel (mainly for ship bunkering services) and small amounts of break-bulk cargo together with a small but growing cruise ship market. A contract with the RFA provides the ongoing provision of at least two deep-water berths for their exclusive use whilst Global Marine Ltd. operates the Portland-based cable ships. The availability of deep water berthing is an obvious attraction together with the location of Portland, just eight miles from the main shipping lanes although the lack of a railway and good road communications are major disadvantages. For the future other imports are being actively sought including timber from Russia. Following this we took a coach tour around the base area, stopping to take an invigorating walk along the south breakwater to the fort at the end where we could overlook the site of, but not see, the wreck of the Hoodand view to good effect the immense enclosed area of this deep-water harbour.
All too soon we had come to the end of this most fascinating and enjoyable of days in which we all learnt and saw such a lot. Indeed, I am sure that I was not the only one who left wishing there had been time for more. That just leaves me to thank Peter Thompson and Dave Hills for their superb work in organising and controlling such an immensely successful meeting.
Cable Ship Sovereign at Portland Port.
Reported by Chris Handley
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