A FORMER showjumper from a village near Taunton has been jailed for the sustained sexual abuse of a schoolgirl over a four-year-period.

Nicholas Francis, 45, of Huntham in Stoke St Gregory was found guilty by a jury of 14 counts of child sex offences including several counts of rape.

Prosecuting, Christopher Smyth told the Taunton Crown Court that Francis had groomed the girl for his own sexual gratification, the abuse starting when she was under the age of 13 and happening on a weekly basis.

Francis was in his early thirties at the time of the offending.

In mitigation, Virginia Cornwall said Francis knew he would be serving a substantial term in custody.

"He has had mental health difficulties for a number of years now. He has lived in the village all his life but has lost his family and will have very little to turn to when he comes out of prison."

Sentencing, Judge David Evans said the victim had been starstruck with the fact Francis was a showjumper.

"As with many of these sorts of crimes, the true effects are only felt later. She confided in you and you took advantage of her infatuation and naivety," Judge Evans said.

"You told her that you loved her and that you would run away with her but you were just using her for sex.

"When you were exposed after text messages were discovered, you destroyed the phone, made threats, and even convinced your father to go with you to the girl's house to try and use your family's standing in the community as leverage."

Throughout the trial Francis had denied the allegations, saying he barely even knew the girl.

Judge Evans added: "I have read the victim's statement which describes a legacy of self-harm, depression and an inability to trust."

Francis was sentenced to a total of 15 years in prison for three charges of indecent assault, two of sexual intercourse with a child under the age of 13, seven of raping a child under the age of 13 and two of engaging in sexual activity with a child.

An NSPCC spokesperson for South West England said: “Nicholas Francis’s disgraceful behaviour was carried out with no regard for the consequences his actions would inevitably have on his victim and it is right that he is now behind bars.

“Sexual abuse can ruin childhoods and this young girl must be given all available help and support to recover.

“The NSPCC’s Speak Out Stay Safe service teaches children about what abuse is and who they can turn to for help if it is happening to them.”

In the 2016/17 academic year, the Speak Out Stay Safe service reached 12,399 children in Somerset through 76 school visits.

Any adult worried about a child can contact the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000 or email help@nspcc.org.uk. Help for children and young people is available from Childline either online or on 0800 1111.