Index

Next

 
Dorset Maritime History

IN considering accessibility to invasion the development of shipbuilding in relation to harbours must, as well as other facts, be borne in mind. In early centuries the minor Dorset ports and river mouths admitted the vessels of small tonnage then in use, or in some places they could be beached ; from the sixteenth century onwards a whole stretch of coast such as the West Bay, extending from Portland to the border of Devon, passed out of the sphere of possible operations because to be caught there in a gale from the westward was certain destruction as the larger ships then built could find no shelter except, in limited number, at Lyme. The eastern half of the-county offered, in recent centuries, equally few advantages to an invader. Poole, at high tide, looks a capacious harbour, but its waterways are narrow and its anchorage limited, while the contracted entrance is further obstructed by a shifting bar which has not more than 14 ft. of water on it at high water spring tides. Studland and Swanage bays are sheltered from the westward ; but the former will not admit anything drawing more than raft., and the latter gives but a shallow and indifferent anchorage. From Durlstone Head to Weymouth Roads runs a line of lofty cliffs broken by a few coves and landing-places which may have received the vessels of Saxon and Danish marauders, and later coasters, but are of no 'avail for modern shipping. As in the case of the West Bay it would be the object of an invader to keep clear of this coast rather than to approach it. Thus of the 75 miles of Dorset coast at least three-fourths became a negligible quantity as facilities of transport increased and the national risk of invasion grew greater generally.

From the point of view of naval war, therefore, the interest strategically is confined to the projecting point of Portland, with its accessories Portland Roads and Weymouth Roads. The modern naval base is seldom a great commercial port ; the mediaeval base, unless far outside the radius of action and merely a feeder to supply the fleets, was invariably a place of commerce because its offensive capacity in war grew out of its success in the paths of peace. Thus Sandwich, Rye, Winchelsea, Weymouth, and Plymouth became bases for offence as they increased in maritime strength, as commerce caused the accumulation of ships, men, and materiel, all interchangeable for trade or war, and as the area of maritime action widened. Melcombe, when ruined by the French in the fourteenth century, was becoming an important naval centre ; its harbour, suitable for the vessels of that age and probably deeper than it is now, held the position relative to Cherbourg and St. Malo that Plymouth, later, stood in towards Brest ; and Weymouth Roads, like Portland Roads covered from all winds except those from east to south, was of equal

175

^ back to top ^