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Area Around Nicodemus Knob

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69573011LR1The dominant feature in this area is Nicodemus Knob which is an isolated stack of rock about 10 metres high. This can be seen casting a shadow on the adjacent aerial picture (A).

There is an abandoned tramway track (B) which carried stone from the Nicodemus Knob area to the Victorian engineering work on the Breakwater and the Verne Citadel.

HMS OSPREY occupied buildings in the area marked (C) and pictures are included below of the demolition of the main site.

At (D) is King’s Pier; one of several piers from where stone was once exported mainly to Whitehall in London. The pier was built in 1622 so this is an important historical link to the 17th century stone industry.

The point (E) marks the abandoned main line railway track which can be seen winding from top to bottom of the picture. Alongside the path to King’s Pier is a curious water conduit.

Finally, at point (F) is the abandoned rear entrance gate to Portland Port alongside which is one of several pillboxes surviving from World War 2.

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It is very dangerous and stupid to attempt to climb Nicodemus Knob! OK! So that’s me up there but do what I say - not what I do!

There is no consensus on the reason that this pillar of rock was left when the rest of the area was quarried away.

One theory is that it was left as a navigational mark for shipping.

Another theory is that it was left to show how much rock was quarried out to build the Breakwater and Verne Citadel. About six million tonnes of rock were taken from this area in the Victorian era by prisoners from Portland Prison (The Grove).


A third theory is that the stack was left as a memorial to the prisoners - especially those who died - to recognize their efforts.

My own fourth theory was published in the Free Portland News issue of June 1990. It went like this...

The Making of Nicodemus Knob

Nicodemus Knob, is to my eyes, the most impressive rock formation on our island. It dominates the skyline near the top of Incline Road as a navigation point for shipping. But how did it get its name? I have now unravelled this fascinating story.

Nick O'Demus was an Irish protestant who fled the Emerald Isle in the turbulent decades following the Battle of the Boyne and he settled in Buckland Ripers, a hamlet north of Weymouth. However, finding the pace of life there too hectic he moved to Portland in about 1735.

Unfortunately, Nicholas was one of the few (other than Weymouth men of whom no better was expected) who took advantage of the local courting practices. For, in 1745, he had three 'fiancées' pregnant at the same time. Since they lived in Chiswell, Weston and Southwell there was no way they would ever meet. Poor Nick was driven to distraction by the commuting between Underhill and Tophill. Eventually the Court Leet got wind of what was going on and took 'appropriate action'!

Stories and jokes about Nick abounded in the 18th and 19th centuries and he became a cult figure. But, because of the crudity of the stories that sprung up after his death, these were never written down or told in polite company. They were passed around the quarries and the ale houses just as the current - but entirely respectable - stories of Dap and General have proliferated.

When the land was quarried at the top of the Incline Road to build the Verne Citadel a solitary pillar of rock was left by quarrymen as an appropriate monument to the legendary prowess of Nick O'Demus.

The Victorians, who turned Tolpiddle into Tolpuddle and allowed the Cerne Abbas Giant to grow over, changed Nick O'Demus's Knob to Nicodemus Knob with its religious and more laudable connotations"

Although an obvious spoof this ‘legend’ is frequently retold on websites (for example we read “Set well away from the main climbing areas on Portland is this curious feature named in honour of a local man, Nick O'Demus, and his outstanding appendage (perhaps).” - see here.

The prestigious and authoritative Portland Geology website (please click here) by Professor Ian West also refers to my story.

My spoof story was even reprinted in the Dorset Echo newspaper as a true story about ten years ago.


I took the above picture in about 1990 and it shows a diesel electric submarine setting off into the English Channel to join in a ‘Thursday War’ exercise.


In July 2015 this metal tower was constructed on the top of Nicodemus Knob so that climbers can attached their ropes safely when climbing the stack. *

The old pictures below show convicts working in quarries and the scene around Nicodemus Knob would have looked very much like this in the mid-1800s.






* That was a joke! It was a deliberate alignment of Nicodemus Knob and the communications aerial in Fancy’s Family Farm.


From Nicodemus Knob there is a path heading north which is a long abandoned tramway which was used in Victorian times to take stone to build the Breakwater and the Verne Citadel.

This track was heavily overgrown in 2015 and impassable but the pictures below include some showing the track when it was clear.

This track was a public path much used by Portlanders. However, when the Royal Navy took over land in this area the path was blocked in two places by steel security gates.

There have been several attempts to have this path reopened but the current owners of the land seem not inclined to open it up.


The above picture was taken when the track was clear in 2011 and it was possible to walk easily to the Portland Port security fence. However by 2015 the track was totally impassable due to brambles growing over the track as shown below.


The path runs for about 230 metres from this point near Nicodemus Knob.


In June 2015 I made an attempt to start clearing this path but it was very hard work and I only cleared about 50 metres before having to give up wounded and exhausted.






In the days when this path was clear it was possible to walk all the way to the steel security fence.


Within the southern wall of the Verne Ditch is this hole which leads to a 60 metre long tight squeeze of tunnels - or so I have read in caving magazines. I have not personally tried entering this challenging cave system.


After walking about 200 metres on the track there is a high mound of earth on the left. Climbing to the top gives a view into the Verne Southern Ditch as shown above.

The concrete slab in the foreground is the roof of a ventilator associated with the 1950s ROTOR RADAR station at RAF PORTLAND which is beneath where Fancy’s Community Farm now stands. This ventilator is so far from Fancy’s Farm that we get a good impression of how large the ROTOR tunnels were and how far they extended under Portland.

Pictures of this vast underground network of tunnels and rooms can be seen here.




This picture taken in 2012 before the track became impassable shows the earth bank over which you need to climb to reach the Verne Ditch.

The brick structure is an inspection hatch for a pipeline that runs from the water reservoir just north of St Peter’s Church to Portland Port. 

The ramparts in the above picture protected the Verne Citadel from land attack in Victorian times.




This picture shows the Portland Port security fence with the World War 2 pillbox on the right. This picture was taken before the path became impenetrable due to bramble growth.



These are the buildings once occupied by HMS OSPREY but then abandoned when the Royal Navy left Portland and moved to Plymouth in the mid-1990s. There is a detailed history of this site here and another here gives a detailed description of the operational side of the air station.

The road running across the picture is Incline Road which ran down from Tophill to the Royal Naval Dockyard. It is now gated and unused.

This road was once the line of a cable operated railway used for getting stone blocks down to the dockyard for building the Portland Breakwater.


This view of HMS OSPREY main building was taken in the late 1990s and shows the buildings decaying through neglect.

King’s Pier can be seen jutting out to sea. This marks the boundary of the Portland Port property - note the security fence on the pier.




The final collapse of the HMS OSPREY main building in 2006 as photographed by Derek Why.


This site was soon cleared and plans were proposed to create huge caverns deep undergroup at this place for the storage of natural gas.


However, these plans fell through and a new plan was put forward to use the site for the generation of electrical energy by burning imported palm oil. This met with vigourous opposition from Portlanders.

More recently the plan changed to using old car tyres to generate energy, diesel fuel and LPG. At the time of writing (August 2015) this plan is still extant although nothing has yet happened - please see here for details.



This picture copied from above shows King’s Pier jutting out to sea. There is a detailed and excellent history of this pier on Ashley Smith’s website which can be read here.

The pier was first recorded on a map in 1710, although historical documents reveal that King's Pier was completed in 1622, for the shipment of stone to Whitehall in London. King's Pier became one of the main stone shipping places on the east side of Portland.

The stone for rebuilding St. Paul's Cathedral came from the eastern coastal strip of Portland and the majority of it was shipped from King's Pier.


The pier fell into disuse and decay after the opening of inland quarries and the Merchants Railway. Stones were taken from the pier for buildings elsewhere on Portland leaving the small stone groyne we see today.





This is the view south from King’s Pier. Note the Kimmeridge Clay outcrop. All of Portland sits on this stratum of soft clay. A geologist once told me that if Portland were to be given a big enough push it would slide over this soft clay base and slip into the sea.



According to the sign at the top of the path to the sea, this leads to 'Ye Old Donovan's Drain'. I have been unable to find out who Donovan is or where the drain is to be found.

However, a posting on the Facebook Group “Portland - Past and Present” dated 8th Auust 2015 suggested that this might refers to an employee of the Works Department at the adjacent Youth Offenders Institute for many years and one of his jobs might have been involved in drainage schemes.


In 1989 I discovered this open conduit bringing water down from the - now demolished - HMS OPSREY Main Builging to the sea close to King’s Pier.

Could this be Donovan’s Drain?

I did not visit this site again for a few years and, when I returned, I could find no trace of this drain.

However, in 2004 I received the following two pictures taken by Sally Norris and her husband.


The culvert is still there but hidden by brambles. The steel plate has been put over the culvert where it crosses the public footpath.

Many thanks to Sally for her permission to use these pictures.




There is another drain in the area. This one came down to the sea from the demolished HMS OSPREY buildings.



This is the southern entrance to the Royal Naval Dockyard which is now unused by Portland Port.

On the right is a World War 2 pillbox whose history is described here. This known as a "Yarnold Sanger" type which is said to originate from Sqdn Ldr Yarnold of the Royal Air Force who invented it.




The Portland Port security fence has been built against the entrance so it cannot be explored except by holding a camera through an observation slit and clicking.


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Keywords Nicodemus Knob HMS Osprey Portland Port Portland Dorset