£5.70 adults, £3.4 children; closed from November to March
Castle Road, Portland; DT5 1AZ
Portland Castle, one of the best preserved of Henry VIII's Device Forts, was constructed in the early 16th century to combat the threat of French invasion, and is situated right on the coast, just a few feet above sea level, at the foot of the steep slopes on the north side of the Isle of Portland, guarding the important natural anchorage of Portland Harbour. The fort is one of a pair; the other is Sandsfoot Castle, 2 miles north on the opposite side of the harbour, similar in size though different in design, and partly ruined. Portland Castle however is intact and undamaged, having been used for military purposes near continuously until after the Second World War, with only a brief interruption in the 19th century when it was converted to a private residence. After the war the place has become a popular visitor attraction, and after removal of most of the Victorian modifications, it once again has the original, 16th century appearance.
The complex is relatively small, consisting of a semi-circular gun block adjoining a rectangular residential building, next to a walled courtyard with a garden beyond. The fort does not look much like a traditional castle, and its pristine, almost new-looking state makes the place somewhat less atmospheric and evocative than many of the older, ruined places; the scenic, sea-side location is probably the best aspect. The exterior can be seen, without charge, at any time of year, while interior tours are available between April and October.
The castle was completed in 1541, using the local, light-coloured Portland stone, quarried a short distance away on the island, and was stocked with a variety of guns, cannons and other weaponry. Tensions with France soon subsided, though the castle was rearmed in the 1580s in response to a similar threat from Spain, however it had once again become partly disused at the start of the 17th century, having not been involved in any campaigns. The fort did see action in the English Civil War, between 1642 and 1644, and remained in operation afterwards, mostly to protect shipping, in particular to counter attacks by pirates, rather than defend incursions by foreign powers. The guns were finally removed after conclusion of the Napoleonic wars, and the fort leased to a local cleric, John Manning. He and his son Charles carried out several modifications including expansion of the basic residential quarters to form a more elaborate mansion, the Captain's House. Site ownership reverted to the government once more in 1869, in response to growing instability in Europe, and official use continued until 1955 (the castle) and 1999 (the house); now all areas are open to the public.
Portland Castle has a low profile and is rather inconspicuous from a distance, now dwarfed by modern buildings close by to the south. When built, the coast was otherwise undeveloped and partly lined by marshland, an environment that changed in 1841 after construction of breakwaters to create a protected harbour, and the surroundings have been further modified in recent years by land reclamation, including construction of a large marina and boatyard just west of the fort. Free parking is available beside the castle, which lies along Liberty Road, off Castle Road. Entry is across an outer courtyard, then through a wooden door in the battlemented wall guarding the inner enclosure, which is bordered by Captain's House to the west, the gun block to the north and another wall to the east, on the far side of which is the Heritage Garden, created in 2002 out of previously derelict land. The thick-walled gun block, or keep, has an octagonal great hall at the centre, with smaller rooms at either side; gunner's accommodation and a kitchen on the ground floor, and officer's lodging above. The artillery rooms are to the north, also on two stories, though the roof of the upper section is missing. Platforms to the east and west provided further space for artillery pieces, and now all such areas are stocked with a variety of authentic cannons, while the interior rooms also feature many other historic items and exhibits.