Portland Castle is possibly the best value for money, pay-to-enter, historical attraction on the Dorset coast. Kids and grown-ups alike will love it!
This fascinating Tudor castle and shore battery was built on the orders of Henry VIII in 1539. At which time it was a state-of-the-art defence against naval attack and invasion by the Spanish and the French.
Portland Castle never saw action against the foes for which it was built, but in later times was at the centre of battles and events in the English Civil War and also World War II.
This relatively small site is in a surprising location and is surprisingly entertaining and educational.
If less is more, Portland Castle is everything. Unlike many historical sites and museums there are few artefacts and few displays. But that’s the whole point. Portland Castle is, itself, the main exhibit.
And what an exhibit it is. In many respects this building is perfectly preserved, the main reason for which is that it was so well built in the first place.
This was not a castle that developed over centuries as a protected living space and to be changed with defensive trends. This was a purpose-built castle designed to deliver the maximum possible destructive capacity over a relatively small and clearly defined field of fire. It was also designed to be hard to hit and, even if it was, to be as indestructible as it could be.
The plan was this.
In Portland harbour you have a great natural anchorage which is useful to the defending navy but also invaluable to an invasion force. Portland Castle was placed at one side of the harbour and Sandsfoot Castle (now gone) at the other. Using the best cannons available at the time it would be possible to deliver a concentrated and devastating field of fire across the entire width of the harbour which would have made life very unpleasant for the wooden ships in between. They would have been pummelled from both sides!
To do this to best effect, you needed a lot of guns in a small area, which is why Portland Castle was built with a number of gunnery platforms. You also wanted your guns to be firing straight out over the water, to give the greatest accuracy.
The added bonus of having all your guns in a very compact area is that it gives the returning gunners a very small target to hit. Of course if they did get lucky, the risk would be that because you have all your eggs in one basket the damage done could be substantial, which is why they built Portland Castle like the military equivalent of a brick outhouse! The walls are light-years thick and made of readily available and strong Portland Stone. The exterior walls and battlements are curved to deflect incoming fire - a technique still used on modern armoured vehicles.
The other defences are equally well thought out, but bizarrely, weren’t really tested until the English Civil War, when Royalist occupants of the Castle were eventually starved out by the Parliamentarians - and very sportingly allowed to leave with all their weapons and Colours to return to their lives on the Isle of Portland.
The Castle has fulfilled numerous functions since it was built, including troop residences and munitions storage. Osprey quay was also an embarkation point for US soldiers on their way to Normandy in 1944, where, ironically they would face newer versions of defensive coastal batteries at fortified emplacements like those at the infamous Pointe du Hoc, and other links in Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. Although the Atlantic Wall was built hundreds of years later, some of the similarities in design and the overall concepts behind Portland Castle are uncanny.
There is a further link between the Normandy landings of D-Day and Portland Castle. Today, if you look out from the Castle, you can still see in the water close by two sections of the famous “Mulberry Harbour” ordered by Winston Churchill. It was this prefabricated harbour that was so important in the logistics and overall success of the Battle of Normandy.
Portland Castle is an exceptional visit. Do not be put off by the approach over the now decommissioned HMS Osprey helicopter landing pads, once the home of UK anti-submarine warfare. This looks like a building site, but the Castle is clearly signed and the parking is free. Entry to the Castle itself does cost, but a family ticket is only a tenner! Which includes handheld audio guides for every member of the family. These little boxes of electronic wizardry are what really make this visit so great. In entertainment and educational value it is head and shoulders above many others.
Kids as young as four will be transfixed by their very own castle guides, from the stonemasons who built the castle to the soldiers and others who lived and served in it.
All pitch their stories at a level to inform and entertain anyone from Ceebeebies to Senior Citizens. It’s truly brilliant and what helps to make this such a special visit, which some other attractions in the area could learn from.
Just push the numbered buttons as you enter each room and be transported through time to listen and learn more about the fascinating and exciting history of this sturdy old building. It has stood in its corner of Portland Harbour for approaching 500 years, while the military and naval might of later generations have come and gone. It has seen newer, more modern installations built up around it and watched them crumble too.
Such are the fortunes of military and historical buildings! Only the exceptional survive, and Portland Castle is.
English Heritage staff reckon the full audio tour of the Castle takes about 45 minutes, but that could be rushing it. Even when you’re done, there’s still the gardens and the wonderful harbour-side setting to enjoy. The Castle has its own well-appointed Café and Tea Rooms so you can feed and refresh yourself on site to make the most your visit and of the Castle’s wonderful setting.
This fascinating Tudor castle and shore battery was built on the orders of Henry VIII in 1539. At which time it was a state-of-the-art defence against naval attack and invasion by the Spanish and the French"