Even before the breakwater was formed between 1868 and 1879 using convict labour, there is evidence of naval and maritime usage of the natural topography of what we now call Portland Port going back to 780AD when the Vikings made their first raids on the English mainland. Portland is a Royal Manor, reflecting its continued maritime importance to the Crown since before the 1066 Conquest.
Portland Harbour and the Naval Base, incorporating defence research establishments such as the Admiralty Underwater Weapon Establishment (AUWE), Crystal (a floating research vessel located in the harbour), the Naval Helicopter station and various MOD and Royal Naval training facilities employed directly or indirectly over 2,500 (significantly more when the fleet was in!) people for whom many made the daily trek to work through Castletown.
Castletown thrived. There were 5 pubs, a handful of hotels, cafes, fish and chip shops, various small businesses, a sports facility of Olympic standards and purpose-built accommodation blocks to house hundreds of matelots.
Then it came to an abrupt end.
The Navy ceased operations on Portland on 21st July 1995, and the MOD AUWE closed in the same year too. RNAS Portland (HMS Opsrey) closed in 1999, transferring to RNAS Yeovilton (HMS Heron).
As a consequence, Castletown gradually lost a number of businesses. Some pubs, shops and cafes closed forever, others soldiered on but with little custom; lack of reinvestment for maintenance is clearly evident.
Today, if you take a stroll through Castletown from, say, the Portland Castle, down to the dockyard gates, you will see boarded-up pubs and shops, dilapidated houses and business facades, a poorly maintained public phone booth, permanently closed public toilets, a semi redundant and partly demolished warehouse, a (most often) empty public car park, a public slipway (the immediate area to which is covered with sheds and various nautical ‘stuff’) all of which is dominated and overshadowed by an enormous derelict ex-Naval apartment block.
It is not all bad of course. There is a thriving boat yard, an office block employing over 75 staff, 3 trading pubs, the Aqua Hotel does a lively trade and the Osprey Leisure Centre provides an excellent, if under-used, facility. The popular tourist destination, the Grade 1 listed Portland Castle commissioned by Henry VIII in the 16th century received 27,370 visitors in 2012 in addition to regularly hosting private events, such as wedding receptions.
However, the fact remains that Castletown projects a generally run down impression despite the persistence of the remaining traders, many of whom have been there during the Navy days.
Because of its history and the tenacity of the indigenous traders and inhabitants who remain, there is the sense of a presence of ‘soul’ in Castletown and, whilst this might be a ‘lost soul’ at present, with an injection of vitality, Castletown could once again have a purpose, direction and a healthy commercial future.
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