The Fleet Lagoon...
The Chesil Beach doesn’t only join Portland and Abbotsbury, it also divides. The massive bank of pebbles that arcs its way around the North Eastern edge of Lyme Bay has annexed a smaller body of water between itself and the mainland - the Fleet Lagoon. The result is spectacular.
In combination, the Fleet and the Chesil are a fascinating and beautiful habitat for a diverse range of animals, birds and plants. Because of which it is listed and protected under several national and international agreements, as well as being part of the World Heritage Jurassic Coast.
The Fleet stretches from Abbotsbury in the West to Ferry Bridge in the East, where it opens in to Portland Harbour.
The waters of the Fleet are tidal, being filled and partially emptied twice each day by the ebb and flow of the sea under Ferry Bridge and through the harbour. But the lagoon is also fed by fresh water run-off, streams and ditches along its 8 mile length. Because of this, the water of the Fleet is brackish, neither fresh nor as salty as the sea.
If it wasn’t for it’s opening into the the sea, we’d probably call the Fleet Lagoon “Dorset’s Great Lake”. Whilst not on the scale of the great lakes in the USA and Canada, it is certainly on the same page as some of England’s biggest and most famous inland waters. At 13 Km long, it’s longer than Ullswater (c.12 km) and only just short of Lake Windemere (c.18 km) the Lake District’s and England’s most lengthy lake!
The Fleet Lagoon is not as wide as Windemere, but at 900 metres at its widest point, it is only about 100 metres narrower than Ullswater! All of which gives an added perspective on just how big, beautiful and important the Fleet Lagoon is.
Small wonder then that the Fleet is famous for its waterfowl and natural history, but it has also permeated Britain’s literary and national history.
For serious ornithologists and amateur bird-watchers alike, the Fleet lagoon is a great place to come and see migrating waterfowl and waders against a unique and magnificent backdrop. There’s no other lagoon like it in the UK and few others in Europe. For that reason, the whole lagoon is listed as a Ramsar site (named after the “Ramsar Convention on Wetlands” signed in the town of the same name in Iran in 1972). Parts of the Fleet are also listed as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and Special Area of Conservation Interest among other designations.
The Fleet is probably most famous as the home of the Mute Swans of the Abbotsbury Swannery, but it also attracts significant populations of Dark Bellied Brent Geese, Common Greenshank, Little Egrets, Common Pochard, Red-breasted Merganser and Common Coot, among others. The Chesil Beach side of the Fleet Lagoon is also an important breeding ground for the Little Tern. To prevent nests being disturbed some areas of the beach are closed off during the nesting period because of this.
All these birds are attracted by the unique and wildlife-rich habitat the Fleet provides. The Swans, in particular, are dependent on the large quantities of eel-grass that the bottom of the Fleet supports. It also supports substantial populations of fish, including bass and eels. The latter are still caught by local fishermen using traditional methods - but other fishing in the area is confined to the seaward side of the Chesil!
For those with an interest in the underwater ecosystems of the Fleet there’s a glass bottomed boat, aptly named the Fleet Observer, which runs trips around the Eastern end of the Fleet. This, Ferry Bridge end of the lagoon, is also where you will find the “Chesil Centre”, a visitor centre dedicated to the Fleet and Chesil and all its natural history and ecology.
Whilst the Fleet is now recognised and protected for its national and international importance ecologically, in the past it has served the nation in other ways.
Until the 1970s, a string of World War Two pill boxes stretched the length of the Chesil as part of defences to prevent the beach being used for troop landings. Those on the Chesil have now been washed away but a few remain on the Fleet’s landward shore.
It was here also that some of the early prototypes of Barnes Wallis’s “bouncing bombs” of the Dam Busters fame, were first tested -although it was later decided that the waters of the Fleet itself were too shallow for a proper test and the waters on the other side of the Chesil were too choppy and so later tests went elsewhere.
Other military activity in the area includes several army camps including a rifle range - which is still functional today - and the bridging camp, where engineers practice building bridges across the Fleet at one of its narrower points.
All of this type of activity is concentrated, along with more commercial operations, at the Eastern end of the Fleet, towards Ferry Bridge. This gives some parts of the shore in that area a semi-industrial feel, but the farther westwards you go along the Fleet, the more beautiful, rural and tranquil it becomes.
The village of Fleet itself, which is about halfway along the lagoon, is especially picturesque. More of a hamlet than a village, it featured in the smuggling novel “Moonfleet”. Parts of the village were destroyed by a storm surge in 1824, including most of the “Old Fleet Church”. What was left of the Church by the sea remains standing today, pretty, but largely unused - a testament both to the strength and resilience of those who built it, and the the sea that destroyed it!
Today, the Fleet remains a truly beautiful and peaceful place to walk and enjoy great scenery and an abundance of wildlife.
You wouldn’t want to swim there, and you’re not allowed to fish there. Most boats are banned, unless you’ve a licence. So just enjoy it for what it is, Britain’s biggest and best brackish lagoon and a very beautiful place. There’s none other like it in Britain, and few in the rest of Europe.
At 13 Km long, it’s longer than Ullswater (c.12 km) and only just short of Lake Windemere (c.18 km) the Lake District’s and England’s most lengthy lake! .."