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Portland: Here be Dragons Poetry

© Sarah-Jane Dobner

Sarah-Jane Dobner remembers a trip to a southern gem: Portland.

An island of flint-in-mud geology, quarries and fossils. A place for dinosaurs, dragons, snakes, lizards - an ancient, reptile zoology. An oddity poking out the south of the Kingdom - straining for a fight or just offering a viewpoint?

Portland: a sport climbing paradise.  © Sarah-Jane Dobner
Portland: a sport climbing paradise.
© Sarah-Jane Dobner


It took me years to love Portland

Found it cold as a dragon's back

Felt betrayed by the gaps between bolts


Spat off. Didn't get it. Couldn't love

Its dusty roundedness, didn't trust

Those flints poking out like dragon's teeth


It seemed made of the wrong stuff

For a cliff. A dragon's head of air and fire

Stuck on the body of jurassic coast


Took two decades, a blink in time

For me to begin to understand

Its broken layers, to love the soft


Pinches and hard truths

Many routes were re-equipped. That helped

Plus I became more of a dragon myself


Dorset Wildlife Trust Visitor Centre Car Park

Habitually, we meet in the car park of the Visitor Centre

Mid-way along the causeway, turn right

As windsurfers and kitesurfers in Portland Harbour

Outstrip the vehicles. Skirt the buildings


Park nose-on to the vast bank of golden-grey pebbles

Use the facilities, update weather, fill a thermos

Check guidebooks, cross-reference projects

Then set off for Wallsend or the Cuttings or Battleship


There are threats, on posts, about parking tickets

We never pay. Barely stop. Flit in and away. But

Regretfully - like most climbers I suspect - are yet to make

The obvious hike, over the bank, to Chesil Beach

An island of flint-in-mud geology.  © Sarah-Jane Dobner
An island of flint-in-mud geology.
© Sarah-Jane Dobner


Flipping the Bird

Sticking out of the coast

Defiant middle finger

An appropriate place for prisoners

And young offenders


Every churchman and royal has coveted

Portland stone for its cachet and toughness

Over the years

They have tried


To hammer that peg

Level with the rest

Twenty quarries from Chesil to Bill

Such blasting! Such intimidation!


Yet to this day

The broken landmass flips the bird

Messes with shipping

And causes a scare


With its races

As I slept

The sea and stone seemed in cahoots

Still troublemaking


Snakeskin (Reptile Smile, Blacknor North)

A Top Fifty

Sought-after, polished and

Slippery. What on earth was I thinking?

(Onsighted Reptile Smile when I was young, gripped, too

Scared to commit, too frightened to fall. Clawed

My way up, all nails and panic)


It's usually a mistake

To return to scenes of shame. Or indeed

To scenes of glory. Yet here I am (a gown of quickdraws

And my years of climbing) at this snakeskin

Collector's item, high fashion

Catwalk of a line


Slither up the flowstone

(Palming, bridging, drop-knee, hip-swings)

Beaming! Wiliness and age better-suited to this trickery

Than being strong and keen. Sashay to the chains

Tracked by the spotlight of the sun

The eyes of the sea

'It took me years to love Portland.'  © Sarah-Jane Dobner
'It took me years to love Portland.'
© Sarah-Jane Dobner


The promontory juts out: a partly whittled item

Abandoned on the south coast


Just left. Half finished

What happened? did the rock get too hard?


The knife blunt? the dinner bell ring?

And what was the carver creating -


A spoon? a spatula? or something larger

The figurehead of a boat seems most likely


As the rough projection breasts

The beat and turn of the English Channel


Then humans joined in. Hacking away

But not in agreement as to what they were making


The Beast

An island but not an island

Rural but industrial

Sport climbing but coastal


It's disconcerting, Portland

Once you've driven down the causeway

The rules change. Hard


To put a finger on it. As if

You're being monitored. Or the rug

Might be pulled away


Even if it's just

Entirely unrelated climatic conditions

Between the east and west sides


Making it seem like two different seasons

Or worn paths on the cliff edge leading to precipices

Sections of crag


Still with bolts in

Cast on the ground. In a psychological horror

These would be signs



Part I: Coppola


Dinner at the chippy on Weston Road

Codfathers. Mafia allusions, gangster, tongue-in-cheek

Nod to Francis Ford Coppola

But fish and chips, night after night?


Monday evening. Every pub kitchen shut. No restaurants

Drive through the prefabs and estates, looking for food

And fail. Boil up some pasta and grate on cheddar

Sleep in the van, barely satisfied


Next morning in the lay-by, jot verbatim

The words of a young man to his climbing companion

Can you be fucked with more of these giant ciabattas?

As they pack their rucksacks for Cheyne Weares


A new, potty-mouthed mob. Only a question of time, surely

Before Portland gentrifies. It's coastal, beautiful

Well-connected with a magnificent climate

But it's an island, with its own code, and doesn't need outsiders

The Codfather.  © Sarah-Jane Dobner
The Codfather.
© Sarah-Jane Dobner


Part II: Morricone

Not as bad as it used to be

When you worried for your car windows each time

You set off for Blacknor North

In a gold rush for stone


A Morricone wind as we stride the clifftop path

Gunslingers, with our biceps and dyneema

Walking in the footsteps of the quarrymen

Bagging routes and bragging


Four villages: Weston, Easton, Southwell

Basic geography. Yet at the cusp lies Fortuneswell

Sandbag or golden nugget?

How is your relationship with Lady Luck?


Glacé cherry

We used to play a game as young teenagers

A pudding basin of flour, inverted, glacé cherry on top

Take turns to pare a slice of white powder onto the plate

The facets angled and cracked like rock


Obviously, as and when the cherry fell

You had to pick it up with your mouth. Grainy photos

Of each of us, white-faced, flour in our

Hair, eyelashes, nostrils, collars, sleeves, teeth


Portland has this quality. Landslips cutting slivers

From the cliffs leaving pillars, towers, drapes of limestone

Ready to collapse. It's your go

Hold steady. Don't dislodge the cherry

Portland ammonite.  © Sarah-Jane Dobner
Portland ammonite.
© Sarah-Jane Dobner



A national treasure

On the way to the Cuttings

Giant ammonites in the rock

I'm so British

Feel like we shouldn't be allowed

Half expect the crag

To be cordoned off

Behind tasselled ropes

A stately home

With signs not to touch

And yet here we are

Stroking the ribbed whorls of snails

From a hundred and forty-five

Million years ago. Softly

As if they can still feel us. Surreptitiously

Before we get told off



Splayed on the west-facing wall, the climber

Resembles a brightly-coloured lizard

Advancing patiently up the rock. Catching a fly


There are dinosaur footprints all over the island, left in the mud

Who knows which one of our casual movements

Will outlive us?

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24 Aug

I like your work, Dob cubed

Never been to Portland

You've given me a feeling of what it might be like to go

Even if I never do

25 Aug

There are threats, on posts, about parking tickets We never pay. Barely stop. Flit in and away.

Is UKC really condoning such behaviour?

25 Aug

It’s a poem. Not an editorial or part of the crag approach notes in the app.

25 Aug

It's clearly hit a nerve for quite a lot of forum regulars given the growing number of dislikes. I know where I sit on the subject of artistic endeavour vs mean button pressers.

There once was negative feature

That fed many a miserable creature

They stress and they press

And they fess and depress

A poet, the nerve! That'll teach 'er

Oh why do we keep this damn button

To the lamb of discourse, less than mutton

We don't have to like

But it's hardly a fike

To expect and respect art/exposition.


25 Aug

I hear what you're saying. But the problem with these poems is that, well, they're just not very good. It's hard to dress them up as anything else. I can appreciate good writing and poetry. There are some brilliant articles on this site. It's a shame and somewhat baffling that these particular poems still get published on here.

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