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MERLIN HELICOPTERS HELP MEND OUR MOUNTAINS

Two Merlin MK3 Helicopters from the Commando Helicopter Force (CHF) have been working high up on Exmoor despite challenging weather conditions. The trainee pilots and aircrewmen from CHF’s 846 Naval Air Squadron and Mobile Air Operations Team (MAOT) have been helping National Park Rangers shift 80 tonnes of crushed stone along a 2km stretch of the Tarka Trail in North Devon that had become badly eroded.

It’s part of a training exercise that forms the final stage before these pilots and aircrewmen get their ‘wings’ and are signed off as fully operational pilots ready for frontline duties.

The repair work that will now follow has been made possible through the British Mountaineering Council (BMC)’s Mend Our Mountains: Make One Million campaign, which has been raising money for vital path repair works throughout the family of 15 UK National Parks.

The project will resurface sections of a bridleway that forms part of the Tarka Trail, popular with walkers, horse riders and mountain bikers for its sense of remoteness and panoramic views. The route is naturally very wet and has become eroded, with instances of having to close the path to avoid horses becoming stuck and diverting users onto other fragile routes.

Not far from the site is the National Park’s Pinkery Centre for Outdoor Learning, which provides around 9,000 schoolchildren a year with a taste of life off-grid in the National Park and frequently uses the trail. It is also in the heart of its International Dark Sky Reserve amid pristine starry skies.

Dan Barnett, Exmoor National Park’s Access and Recreation Manager, said: “The area of ‘The Chains’ where this work is happening lies above 1,500 feet and, before 846 Naval Air Squadron stepped in, we had no way of getting such a quantity of stone up there. So it’s great they have been able to help us as part of their training exercise and that Mend Our Mountains has provided the funding for this project.

“This ancient site has long been home to our iconic Red Deer and ponies, and is littered with signs of Neolithic man, and with the backing of these two partners we’re pleased to be able to secure safe passage for another generation.”

Commander Ed Vaughan RN, Commanding Officer 846 NAS said: “Injecting real life tasks into flying training and the development of aircrews is invaluable. It cannot be replicated in routine training and the variable, quick-changing weather on the moor adds a significant dimension to testing competencies and capabilities. Working with and alongside the National Park is something that the Squadron looks forward to, especially as we are able to contribute something to the region in which we also live and train.”

The work is expected to continue next month, weather permitting.

EXMOOR DARK SKIES FESTIVAL PROGRAMME ANNOUNCED

Over 50 events in celebration of Exmoor’s spectacular starry skies are set to take place across the National Park this autumn, as bookings open for the region’s third annual Dark Skies Festival.

From 14 October to 3 November, venues across the National Park will take advantage of its status as one of three designated International Dark Skies Reserves in the country, to host a range of experiences inspired by the wonders of the night sky.

Following many sell-out events during the first two years, the Festival will this year span three weeks, covering the half term breaks for both Devon and Somerset as well as some quieter spells when the children are back to school.

Sarah Bryan, Chief Executive of Exmoor National Park Authority, said: “The tranquillity and stunning landscapes of Exmoor make it the perfect place to walk, stargaze and take a break from the bustle of busy modern lives and we hope that through the Festival many more people will discover the magic of its night skies.”

The Festival caters for a wide range of ages and interests, with highlights for families including this year’s Astro Party at Wimbleball Lake, a 360-degree planetarium experience in Dunster, Bampton or Barnstaple, or the National Park’s first ever Dark Skies Big Adventure with the National Trust.

Wildlife lovers may wish to partake in a guided starlit walk or dusk safari, ending with warming local produce supper or hot chocolate and marshmallows. Meanwhile, the more adventurous might enjoy night mountain biking or a guided walk with an Exmoor National Park Ranger to see the Orionids meteor shower in peak flow.

Foodies will find countless opportunities to indulge in delicious astronomy-inspired suppers married with expert talks and stargazing.

And not forgetting astronomy enthusiasts, who will be spoilt for choice with guided stargazing opportunities, talks on choosing the right telescope or the latest astronomy apps, plus the chance to hone astrophotography skills.

This year children up to 16 years can also enter an Exmoor dark skies-inspired story writing competition, with the winner getting a free astronomy and space workshop for their school, hosted by Jo Richardson of Somerset-based company ‘Space Detectives’.

Katrina Munro of Exmoor National Park Authority coordinates the festival, which is sponsored by rural broadband providers Airband UK. She said: “Many people have never experienced what it’s like to look up into a truly dark sky, see the thousands of stars and feel that inevitable sense of wonder. Exmoor tourism businesses, farms and organisations including the National Trust, Forestry England, South West Lakes Trust and Exmoor Pony Centre have all teamed up with the National Park to ensure there’s something for everyone throughout the three-week festival period.

“We have such a variety of great places to stay, many within the darkest areas of the National Park, but all within easy access of the various events. Events can all be booked separately, allowing people to pick and choose those that interest them most.”

The full programme of events is available at www.exmoor-nationalpark.gov.uk/darkskiesfestival or from National Park Centres at Dulverton, Dunster or Lynmouth. Details of places to stay are included and further accommodation can be found at www.visit-exmoor.co.uk . For more information phone the Lynmouth National Park Centre on 01598 752509, open 7 days a week.

PHOTO: Dark Skies over Exmoor by Peter Hendrie.

COMMUNITIES CASH IN WITH GRANTS FOR SHOPPING AND SAILING ON EXMOOR

Exmoor National Park has invested in a community shop and an accessible sailing boat with the latest grants from the Exmoor National Park Partnership Fund. Roadwater Community Shop and Wimbleball Sailability have both been awarded funding of up to £2,500 in support of projects helping Exmoor communities thrive and opening up fresh opportunities for people to experience the National Park.

Wimbleball Sailability has offered sailing experiences for disabled people at Wimbleball Lake on Exmoor for over 30 years. The new funding will help towards the purchase of a new eight-seater sailing boat, ensuring many more people can experience the thrill of a day out on the water.

David Mather, who helps run the programme, said: “Disabled people from across Somerset and North Devon, including many care-home residents, regularly enjoy sailing trips with the help of our dedicated team of volunteers. Thanks to this funding we look forward to introducing many more people from the disabled community to Exmoor and the opportunities that exist to enjoy the freedom and fun of sailing.”

The funding will also help pay for a community hub and information point for the National Park within Roadwater Community Shop & Post Office, as part of work to upgrade and extend the existing building, which is run with the support of more than 60 volunteers.

Shop volunteer Robert Wetheridge said: “Since the village took over ownership and running of the shop last year, officers at Exmoor National Park have supported us in countless ways – through their Partnership Fund, planning advice, community project planning fee reimbursement and advice on access to Carbon Reduction funding that has paid for installation of a small solar panel.

“Once complete the building upgrade will increase accessibility to all, provide a small cafe and community hub area, plus an outdoor patio with a view over the village hall recreation ground and swings. We all have our fingers crossed that construction can begin in early autumn and are so grateful for all the ongoing support.”

Philip Kiberd, Funding Officer at Exmoor National Park Authority, said: “These two projects show how a relatively small contribution of up to £2,500 can make a real difference to those living in the National Park or coming to enjoy what it has to offer. We’re particularly looking for projects that can enhance the landscape, help nature, investigate heritage or introduce new people to the National Park and would love to hear from anyone with a great idea.”

You can apply to the Partnership Fund Small Grants scheme at any time. Funding decisions are made around four times a year with the next due in the autumn. Apply at www.exmoor-nationalpark.gov.uk/partnership-fund or for friendly advice contact the Funding Officer on 01398 322237 or by emailing partnershipfund@exmoor-nationalpark.gov.uk.