It is London’s stone of choice.
If you have been to the city you will have it etched on your memory: a golden, graceful stone which works with sunlight to create a haze of sanguine assurance in the streets of this debatably civilised centre of the Western World.
Smoke and smog layered it with grime, but it comes up a treat with sand blasting. It is Portland Stone: it made the Tower of London, the first palace of Westminster, the first stone London Bridge, St Paul’s Cathedral, and the Banqueting House where Charles I was topped, amongst myriad other places.
And it was all hacked from one island. I mean, not even an island, but a tied island. A great lump of limestone jutting out of the sea off the coast of Dorset. They’ve been taking stone from that island to other places since the Romans took up residence. Archaeologists found more than 500 Roman sarcophagi under the soil on the hills outside Fortunes Well, the island’s main town. All, of course, hewn out of Portland Stone.
And the thing is, they’re still taking it out today.
Portland has a magic, but you need rose-tinted spectacles to find it. It is a working island, a business island, covered in operational quarries with huge blocks of stone piled up higgledy piggledy waiting for someone to pay £230 a cubic metre. The stone’s pricey, because it is hard enough to resist weathering, but workable enough for masons to create beautiful things with it.
To find Portland, drive along the spit of shingle from Weymouth until you hit Fortunes Well.
Named after the spring which supplied ancient communities there, Fortunes Well is Ankh Morpork-on-sea, a twisty turny village on a steep gradient they call Underhill, socio-economically at odds with the picture we all have of affluent, thatched little Dorset. Yet many of its old houses are built in Portland stone; not the worked, flat, gracious kind, but hunks taken centuries ago out of the ground and mortared together. Some of the stone is crumbling back to the sand it once was. Touch it and the first millilitres of the surface disintegrate. Clearly those stone merchants hundred of years ago were not willing to let the best stone go to the workers.
Travel south-west on the island, taking the stunning coastal paths which look down on Portland-stone cliffs, and you find the oldest building known to have been built in Portland stone: Rufus Castle, first thrown up on the cliff at Church Ope Cove in 1080, though the walls one sees today date from the fifteenth century.
Any walk passes quarries. Glance to the left and to the right, and there are the telltale blocks of stone.
Look at the houses: and you will see that wherever Portland’s wealth has gone, it has not stayed on the island. It is an anti-advert for capitalism. This island’s streets are paved with gold, yet the rich men have taken what they wanted and left.
Bits of the island pepper not just this country but countries far afield . The UN building in New York is made of the island of Portland. But the money made by gargantuan transactions such as this is not evident there.
It is a working island. A no-nonsense depository of some of the most magical, golden stone the world has ever known.