Wyvern Barracks opens its gates to the public for the first time

Wyvern Barracks opens its gates to the public for the first time

Exeter’s Wyvern Barracks, home of the reservist battalion 6 Rifles, is opening its imposing metal gates to the public this summer, in the first event of its kind at the site.

The military base in Topsham Road is staging three evenings of open-air concerts and displays which, in the words of its Commanding Officer, are designed to show people what’s behind the ‘big red-brick wall’ and engage with the community.

Thousands of people walk or drive past the Barracks every day. Yet the vast majority of the local community have never been inside the base and have little or no awareness of its work, or its important role in today’s military service.

This sense of separation is what was on the mind of the Commanding Officer of 6 Rifles, Lt Col Jon Penhale, when he came up with the idea of the events taking place on July 5th, 6th and 7th.

“I’ve been in command of the battalion for the last 18 months,” he said.  “I know the unit well, I know the area well. But I’ve spoken to people outside, whether that’s the city council, the county council, businesses or employer networks, and nobody has any idea of what goes on behind the big red-brick wall of Wyvern Barracks, or even that it still functions as an Army base in 2018. So I thought, why not spin this on its head and invite people in, and showcase what the Army is good at, who we are, what we’re about, what we’ve achieved in the last 100 years, and why we’re relevant today in the 21st century.”

“The Rifles have a very rich heritage and I think in 2018, on the centenary of the end of the First World War, it’s wholly appropriate that we explain what we do today, and how it links back to the past.”

The three evening events will be held in the Barracks’ huge car park, where there will be a military village and displays on the regiment’s current role in the Army. But the  main feature will be a seated open-air concert of music, with a commentary by Radio Devon presenter David Fitzgerald, telling the story of Wyvern Barracks and its soldiers, from 1918 to the present day.

This will focus on the First World War battle of Bois des Buttes, part of the Aisne offensive in May 1918, in which what was then the 2nd Battalion the Devonshire Regiment played a vital, and well-recognised, role. The concert will then move on to the regiment’s Second World War service and its other activities up to the present day, which include front-line deployments to the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. It will also trace the evolvement of 6 Rifles, through the amalgamation of the Devon and Dorset regiments in 1958, and the creation of the large Rifles regiment through a further merger in 2007.  6 Rifles is The Rifles’ Reserve Infantry Battalion of the South West.

The headline performance on the Thursday and Friday evenings will be the hugely successful, multi-award-winning Exeter acoustic roots/folk duo Show of Hands, whose singer/songwriter Steve Knightley has composed a song specially for the event called ‘Swift and Bold’ – which is the motto of the Rifles Battalion.

Mr Knightley said; “My grandfather served with the Devonshires in WW1 and my stepbrother was a sergeant in the Royal Greenjackets. So, growing up in East Devon, I have always felt a great connection to both the Wyvern Barracks and the Rifles, and we were delighted to be asked to perform at such a prestigious occasion.”

Also performing are the Dartmoor folk choir The Lost Sound. Director Sandra Smith said, “We’re  honoured to have been invited to sing in this unique event. We will be supporting Show of Hands on Thursday and Friday, and on Saturday we will perform our own set – a beautiful and powerful collection of songs of love, joy and bravery.”

The entertainment will also feature music from the Army Cadet Force band, Wyvern Barracks’ own Salamanca Band and Bugles, and the Isca Academy choir. The audience will be invited to sing along to well-known WW2 songs including ‘Pack up your Troubles’ and ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’.

“It won’t just be a sit-there performance – we’re going to get the audience involved,” said Lt Col Penhale. “We’re going to engage, we’re going to entertain and we’re going to educate.”

While the event will open up the Barracks to the public, there will of course be an element of security. Tickets will be sold in advance through the Eventbrite website and attendees will have to show ID when they arrive. There will be the same type of searches and scrutiny that are carried out as a matter of course at most events where large crowds come together. Visitors will not be allowed to roam the site at will or enter the buildings, but there will be a bar and catering facilities outside.

As Lt Col Penhale is keen to involve Exeter businesses and other organisations, the food and drink will be provided by local companies, including The Exeter Brewery. A strong youth element is provided by the involvement of the Isca Academy choir, the Devon Army Cadet Force and the Air Training Corps.

This wide-ranging involvement was a key factor in attracting a grant from the Armed Forces Covenant Fund, which helps finance projects which are mutually beneficial to the armed forces and their surrounding communities. Funding has also been secured from other sources, with none of the money coming from the Ministry of Defence budget.

Lt Col Penhale thinks there will be some surprises in store for first-time visitors to the Barracks.

“Firstly, they’ll be surprised by the size of the site. Many people think it’s all been sold off, so they’ll be surprised it’s not a housing estate. The site was split in 2004 and some houses were built on the old football pitches up to the north, but this is still a large site. Secondly, they’ll be surprised at the number of units and the number of people that actually work here on a day to day basis. They may also be surprised by its vibrancy and its relevance today. The facilities here sit within the heart of the community and I’m keen for them to understand how they fit in with that community.”

While the over-riding aim is to ‘engage, entertain and educate’ the Exeter community, Lt Col Penhale is hoping there may also be an indirect benefit in terms of Army Reservist recruitment. Wyvern Barracks already has the best recruitment rates in the country, but he thinks the open evenings may engage further interest in people who have never considered a career in the military.

“I’m keen to show people that the Army of today is still a huge, competent organisation offering fantastic opportunities, whether on the regular full-time side or in the reserve part-time side, and it just piques the interest of a few people, that will have achieved something,” he said.

“I hope people will go away from these events understanding that the Barracks is still active, and also that it’s not isolated or detached; we are living among them, people are in and out of here all the time, not just soldiers but civilian staff and cadets, there is engagement with all parts of society here. And if they also see an opportunity to get involved with something within the Barracks, that’s ‘job done’ from my perspective.”

Wyvern Barracks would like to thank Bovis Homes and Gregory Distribution, who are sponsoring the concerts, and would also like to thank Devon County Council and Exeter City Council for their support.

Tickets for the concerts are priced at £6 for adults, and £4 for concessions (children, OAPs, students and members of the Armed Forces). A family ticket for two adults and two children is £18.

Tickets can be bought from Eventbrite https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/wyvern-18-tickets-44215834752

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