An ambitious project to build a permanent astronomical observatory on St Martin’s has taken a major step forward with a £2,000 grant from the Isles of Scilly Steamship Company’s Community Fund.

Building work on the observatory, the first of its kind on Scilly, is starting imminently behind the St Martin’s Hall and Reading Room, at the heart of the island.

It is hoped the observatory will give a community hub to astronomy on Scilly, enabling more people to explore the islands’ unpolluted dark skies and enrich the tourism offer for visitors.

COSMOS, the amateur astrology group behind plans for a Community Observatory St Martin’s on Scilly, say the donation from the Steamship Group helped get the £79,000 project off the ground.

Val Thomas, chair of COSMOS, said: “The money from the Community Fund was the very first donation we received and it gave us a real kick-start. It was only then we realised that someone believed we could achieve our dream for an observatory on Scilly.

“We’ve now got enough money to start work on the project and we can’t thank the Steamship Group enough not just for the donation, but for believing in us.”

The COSMOS team was recently visited by TV presenter and bushcraft expert Ray Mears, the newly named Patron of the Isles of Scilly Steamship Group, during a visit to the island for Ray to meet some of the recipients of Community Fund grants.

Ray Mears said: “This is a really fantastic project and such a worthy cause to benefit from a grant; the Community Fund is an excellent scheme by the Steamship Group to give something back at a grass roots level to its communities, with grants making a huge difference to groups like COSMOS.

“I was enormously impressed by the passion and enthusiasm of the COSMOS team when I met with them, and it’s wonderful to see so many residents of St Martin’s becoming amateur astronomists and helping to put this island on the map as a centre of excellence for astronomy.”

The facility will provide two observation domes (one for deep sky viewing, one with the capacity for solar viewing – which can be used during the day), two plinths for anyone wishing to use their own telescope, and a warm room, to house associated computer and camera equipment.

Val added: “This will be a new resource for our island community, a centre of learning and exploration of our dark skies, for all ages. As an aspiring centre of excellence located in the heart of our unique and protected environment – an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) as well as a designated Dark Sky Discovery Zone – we hope to boost rural tourism by encouraging a brand new set of ‘astro-tourists’ to Scilly.

“Our unpolluted dark skies offer fantastic opportunities for stargazing and exploring space, and we hope to share this wonder of our natural environment with many more people.”

The Community Fund has so far awarded £30,000 to 31 different projects ranging from a set of new judo mats for a club on St Marys, to a life-saving defibrillator for the Ronnie Richards Memorial Charity in Penzance.

It was first launched in 2016 and is part of an estimated £1 million that the Steamship Group returns to the community every year through subsidised travel for islanders, NHS flights, sponsorships and charitable donations.

Bids to the Community Fund are open to voluntary groups or charities, schools and education establishments, community clubs or societies, and individuals undertaking not-for-profit projects for the benefit of the wider community.

Projects include:

  • £3,000 towards a vital piece of safety equipment installed to watch over popular Priest Cove, near St Just in West Cornwall. The CCTV camera was bought by NCI Cape Cornwall to look into a blind spot behind the watch station. The state-of-the-art camera, which relays pictures back to the station, has been hailed a “vital piece of equipment” which can see all the way to Sennen. It has been discreetly placed high on the cliffs on the southern side of Cape Cornwall.
  • £1,500 towards a creative literacy project working with children on the Isles of Scilly, Mousehole, Newlyn and Penzance, taking the history of Royal Mail Ships as inspiration. Poetry postie Sally Crabtree held workshops with pupils at Five Islands School on St Mary’s to show that poetry can be fun and doesn’t have to be boring. She then turned the children’s poetry into postcards, which she delivered at the Sea Salts and Sail Festival in Mousehole and, ultimately, to celebrate the UN’s World Post Day. The Poetry Postie character was first commissioned by the Postal Heritage Museum and Archive and has since performed at festival and events all over the country – from small village fetes to large music festivals such as Womad.
  • £650 to support a Scilly family who cycled unsupported from John O’Groats to Land’s End in July 2016 – despite only having five miles of island road to practice on. Julian and Michelle Morel and their sons Finley, 13, and Shea, 11, planned the journey to raise awareness and money for the Alzheimer’s Society and support the memory café on the islands. The family used the money to pay for all their travel expenses and said they wouldn’t have been able to embark on the ambitious 847-mile bike ride without it.
  • A donation of £1,500 to Brownies and Guides on the Isles of Scilly, who went camping together for the first time in August 2016 thanks to the arrival of a huge marquee paid for by the Isles of Scilly Steamship Company. Thirty girls from the 1st Isles of Scilly Brownies and Guides camped at Sandybanks Farm on St Mary’s, where the 18mx6m marquee was used as the kitchen, dining and craft area.

Full details, eligibility criteria and application forms are now available from our website. All projects are judged by members of an independent panel.