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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

River Avon Moor to Sea 4

The village of South Brent.


In part three I ended at the church gate, and I now carry on my wanderings around the village of South Brent itself. I have placed all the photos in a sort of walking route although they were taken on three separate visits between July and October. You may notice the changing seasons as we go.

South Brent is a large village rather than a town, and it lies just inside the border of The Dartmoor National Park. In that sense the local history started 300 million years ago when the granite that makes up the moor was created. Subsequently, humans shaped the area over a period of 10 thousand years, with various activities including farming and mining, that affected the landscape we see today.


As far as this blog goes, you are here reading this because I am making a series of posts documenting the journey of the River Avon from Dartmoor to the sea, and here in South Brent, the river winds around the town in a ravine like setting making bridge building hundreds of years ago that little bit easier. The geography of the river's course therefore explains the origins of the place we see today. If a river cuts through a steep sided rock valley, also making that river narrower, you have ready made rock walls either side from which you can build your stone arch and a shorter distance to breach. Just north of the village is Lydia Bridge an ancient packhorse bridge linking the main route between the cities of Exeter and Plymouth. This was covered in part two of the series. In part three I mentioned the church which has its origins built on the remains of a Roman shrine.


South Brent’s main period of growth was during the 13th and 14th centuries. By 1350 it had grown sufficiently large, it seems, to hold the potential for developing into more

of an urban settlement, as this is when a Royal Charter was granted to the Abbot of Buckfast to hold a three-day fair on the land between the village and Brent Hill. That growth was not sustained probably due to it's having three larger and more prosperous neighbours, Buckfastleigh, Ashburton, but mostly Totnes.


Most of the village you see today therefore, is very late in development and owes its place more to the railways of the 19th century than to earlier times. Although South Brent was a pivot of both transport and trade, being a centre for market trading, the village itself was very small, being for hundreds of years only a church and a handful of houses. This is one of those former railway station buildings, the former engine shed.

To demonstrate the late development of the village just take this fact, together with two maps I can show you. By 1247 the whole village consisted of the church and just seven houses. This first map is a tithe map of 1841 a mere 600 years later and shows the church with maybe 50 properties that's a rough rate of one property every 12 years.


This map is the 1870's only thirty years later. Notice the clearly visible railway, now snaking through the scene. Also the map makers have changed the name of the church to St Patrick's, in error, presumably not having come across St Petroc before.

The station at South Brent opened in 1848 and closed in 1964. South Brent also became the junction for the branch line to Kingsbridge in 1893 and I mention that, because later in our river journey we will see remains of that dismantled line, where it follows the Avon. The line here at South Brent is still a very busy one, albeit trains don't stop here anymore. It forms the South Devon Main Line linking the South West of the UK with the rest of the country. It's ironic, at least here in South Brent, that the route from Exeter to Plymouth is still almost the same as it was by packhorse a thousand years ago. As well as bringing economic opportunities, the railway attracted visitors and new residents intent on enjoying the moorland scenery.


Just here in the foreground, you can make out the main line crossing the Avon river and only a few hundred yards upstream to the right is Lydia Bridge.


Coming from the old station past the church you enter Wellington Square.


Although the medieval settlement had two centres focussing on the churchyard site and the marketplace at Fore Street, it is likely these joined together relatively quickly through the development of what is now the area occupied by Wellington Square.


A notable feature in Wellington Square is the Jubilee Memorial Sundial, formerly a lamp stand, known locally as the Jubilee Lamp. Unusually it commemorates both Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee and Queen Elizabeth's Silver Jubilee.

This area lies within the original medieval core of the village where almost all development was confined until well into the 19th century.


The houses in this part of the village reflect the nature of South Brent’s historic development; as a settlement occupied more by the families of artisans than by wealthy merchants. Indeed, grand or substantial houses are few, and so too smaller ones that have any form

of architectural embellishment.


Wellington House is one of only a few larger, early 19th century houses that have three window fronts, which are, typically, not quite symmetrical. Its rendered elevations and slated roof are also typical, but the decorative treatment of the entrance door and ground floor windows is quite unusual. The windows themselves, however, are 20th century replacements of what originally would have been multi-paned, vertical sliding sashes.


The geography of the river at this point also lent itself to mills and in the short stretch from Lydia Bridge north of the village to Brent Mill Bridge just south of the village there were no less than five water powered mills. The earliest was probably the Brent Mill site where a flour mill was built in the 13th century. Over time and with changing economic factors the mill uses changed and this one became a paper mill. Two others were occupied by 1580, one for cloth making and the other for grinding corn. Lydia Mill became a wheelwright and blacksmith forge while another produced leather and then changed to producing flour. This latter site eventually became an engineering site and went on to produce aeroplane parts during the second World War. The mill furthest upstream at South Brent started producing flour and changed to sail making so you can see that industry was very prolific in this small area.

In the village itself a number of specialised annual fairs brought a good deal of custom, while a weekly pannier market became so successful it rivalled those being held in Totnes and other nearby towns. Its economy was also aided by its location on the packhorse route between Exeter and Plymouth, and when the road was turnpiked in the 18th century the village enjoyed a measure of importance as a staging post.

During the 20th century South Brent’s significance as an industrial and commercial centre greatly reduced, while the importance of its position on the main rail and road networks disappeared. The market ceased to function in the early 1900’s.


There are some standout buildings such as the Methodist Chapel in Church Street. The late 19th century Chapel has one of the most decorative fronts in the village, being rendered and designed in a classical, Italianate style.


One of the most unusual buildings is The Toll House. It is grade 2 listed by English Heritage.


The Official Description - Former toll house. Circa late C18 or early C19. Granite rubble with large granite quoins. Small two-storey building projecting from street frontage on

pavement, with lean-to slate roof and raised gable at side with moulded stone

pedimental gable over bellcote with rebuilt brick piers. Below is boarded door

with wrought iron lamp-holder bracket and small window above. Two-light

casement window on front facing street with shuttered window above and large

board at side displaying toll charges and dated 1889. Britishlistedbuildings.co.uk

The tolls seem to be related to the holding of markets and fairs rather than for use of the roads. Inside the building it clearly states that road tolls were never collected here. The original function of the building is not clear and it may have been an extension to an older property since rebuilt.


Originally, tolls were collected at the Cheape House situated in the Market Square near the Anchor Hotel. That house was demolished in the late 19th century, when the toll board and bell were moved to this building, which may have briefly taken over the role. By this time markets were no longer held and it is believed that this final toll board was intended for fairs which were held several times a year.


Here is the Toll House board of fair and market dates, with tariffs for animals, stalls, and carriages, dated 12th November 1889. This one is a reproduction while the original hangs on display inside the toll house.



Another indicator of the changing seasons I mentioned earlier is the butcher's window in July and later in October.



At first I was surprised to find a working telephone in a phone box, it's a long time since I have seen one. It is far more common these days to find a defibrillator. This phone box however is also a grade 2 listed building by English Heritage as it sits within the village Conservation Area.


GV II Telephone kiosk. Type K6. Designed 1935 by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. Made by various contractors. Cast iron. Square kiosk with domed roof. Unperforated crowns to top panels and margin glazing to windows and door. Historicengland.org.uk


Here is the former Anchor Hotel, now the Village Shop. The former Anchor Hotel is also Grade 2 listed.


Former coaching inn, now an hotel. Circa early/mid C19. Stuccoed ground floor, roughcast above. Low pitched hipped slate roof with oversailing eaves. Moulded wooden string at first floor level. Corner site. Two and three storeys. South east front facing Station Road is four bays. Right hand two bays is three storeys. To left of centre a two-storey hipped roof porch on octagonal monolithic granite piers with canted first floor bay window above with sash complete with margin glazing bars. C20 glazed double doors. Historicengland.org.uk



The Village Shop and the Mare and Foal Sanctuary below now stand in an open area where three streets meet. This is the original Market Square, although it was at one time larger, as later properties gradually encroached on the space.



This is my favourite shop front, now a gallery. It's nice that the original sign has been preserved and I love the fact that A W Cranch had so many strings to his bow. Plumber and Undertaker?


On the left is an alley that leads to smaller properties at the back. The smallest dwellings in the village are the tiny cottages occupying the burgage plot alleys and courts behind the main street frontages. These cottages are an integral part of South Brent’s history and character – as indeed are the alleyways and arched entrances that pierce the street frontages to allow access to them

Shopfronts are a very significant element of South Brent’s urban appearance, creating a commercial focus with characteristics not unlike those of a town. The fronts themselves are numerous; many of them dating from the 19th century and most of these designed as complete and permanent units in a traditional classical style incorporating projecting cornices above fascias, with supporting brackets or pilasters on either side


This elaborate window display was in the window of Matthew McCann Cabinet Maker. Established 1993. It featured scenes from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, a short story by Washington Irving.


The Headless Horseman is a mythical figure who has appeared in folklore around the world since the Middle Ages. The figure is traditionally depicted as a rider upon horseback who is missing his head.


The Royal Oak Hotel replaced an older inn of the same name closed in the mid 19th Century by Temperance activists, who had already closed the London Hotel on the Exeter Road, similarly replaced by the London Inn a short distance away. The Royal Oak’s public bar has served as a courtroom, still keeping the judge’s chair near the fireplace, and also as a mailroom. Now renamed The Station House.




These two three-window fronted houses date from the late 19th century and show care being taken to achieve total symmetry of their elevations – while the taller proportions of their windows add a certain elegance to their overall design. Both rendered and slated, their materials follow local tradition, while the string bands and bracketed door hoods add a touch more decoration than was normal in former times.



Time and events have played tricks here with several layers of change imposed one on top of the other, leading to quite a pleasing confusion of shapes, angles and surfaces. Something you could only find in somewhere as old as this.


The Pack Horse Hotel is older than its 19th Century stuccoed façade by as much as two centuries. As the name implies, it served as a posting inn on the Plymouth to London coach route.


The Packhorse Inn is almost certainly the oldest inn in Brent, certainly the only one to be named in documentary references as early as 1765; two very early mentions (1650, 1671) of innkeepers probably apply to this inn. It was the property of the Petre family, Lords of the manor since 1557, until their estate was sold early in the 19th century, when it passed to John Elliott, the next Lord of the manor. The appearance of the building bears out a possible 16th or 17th century date. It is stone built and rendered, slate single span roof steeped through several levels. Sash windows throughout. Robinson, R., 1977-1979, South Brent Parish Checklist, 1978





Of note is this wall near the edge of the Conservation Area. It encloses the former barracks site between Totnes and Plymouth roads and is most imposing, particularly the length on the Plymouth Road side which stands more than four metres high at its corner.


Most properties in the village are rendered but there are a few exceptions in Plymouth Road. These are the school, the row of houses at Clifton Terrace opposite the school and the Congregational Church next to them. All are shown in the photos below.


The old school is now a community centre and currently raising money for a new roof.


Raise The Roof!

The Old School Centre began life in 1997 when a new primary school was built on land nearby. Through a sustained community campaign the funds were raised to purchase the building (which was originally opened as a school in 1876), the adjacent School House and the playground and then to undertake a first phase of refurbishment to open it as a community centre. The Centre has proved financially sustainable since its opening and has been able to repay over £140,000 borrowed from local residents towards the purchase. It is managed and run by volunteers, with the support of a part-time manager.


The Centre has developed since 1997, responding to the needs of the South Brent Community. When the doors first opened the focus was largely on adult education and support. This is still a core part of the work but the capacity of the centre has expanded over the years to serve a broad range of ages, groups and abilities, becoming a vibrant and vital hub within the village and local area.


If you are in a philanthropic mood then you can donate to the fund here.

Philanthropic is a lovely word and not one we hear much these days.


Philanthropic - (of a person or organization) seeking to promote the welfare of others; generous and benevolent. Philanthropy refers to charitable acts or other good works that help others or society as a whole. Philanthropy can include donating money to a worthy cause or volunteering time, effort, or other forms of altruism.


"love of humankind, especially as evinced in deeds of practical beneficence and work for the good of others," c. 1600, from Late Latin philanthropia, from Greek philanthrōpia "kindliness, humanity, benevolence, love to mankind" (from gods, men, or things), from philanthrōpos (adj.) "loving mankind, useful to man," from phil- "loving" (see philo-) + anthrōpos "mankind" . Originally in English in the Late Latin form; the modern spelling in English is attested from 1620s.

Attached to the wall on the front of the school is this quote. "The flowers shall bear witness, how I loved this world."


It is a poem from the collection The Wings of Death, by Rabindranath Tagore. Wings of Death was translated from Bengali to its English version by Aurobindo Bose, in 1959, and it was published in 1960 by John Murray, London. Of all the books and collections of his works – this is one of the most difficult and rare books. The ailing poet had written these verses the year leading to his death. Every poem bears the weight of the knowledge that his end was near. This not in a despondent way – but as a man who is surely and slowly walking towards his destiny.

The late 19th century Congregational Chapel in Plymouth Road has now been converted to a house, but its original stonework and gothic style have been retained so that it continues to blend well with its stone-built neighbours.

From the raised level of the school yard is this imposing view of Dartmoor, illustrating just how "on the edge of the moor" the village actually is.

Considering its importance in the founding and development of the village, it is remarkable that at no time, walking around South Brent that you even see the river nearby. It is only visible when you take the path down from the church and walk under the railway bridge and come to the river bank. There are no longer any working mills in the village and tree growth has now covered most views of it. It is worth following that path from the church to Lydia Bridge along the river and imagining what a hub of industry and travel this once was.


Part five will feature two more bridges, ancient and modern, and some violins with a French Connection.

My main sources for local history were, South Brent Conservation Area Character Appraisal and The Village Design Statement for South Brent. Additional information from Wikipedia.

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2 Comments


Unknown member
Nov 08, 2022

Another great tour but how is it there is no one around? I like the Methodist chapel and its designs. It reminds me of the witches house in Hansel and Gretel.

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Gethin Thomas
Gethin Thomas
Nov 08, 2022
Replying to

Now look. There is one whole woman, two half men, one pair of tattooed butchers calfs and a headless horseman, how many people do you want?🤣🤣🤣 and yes, that chapel does look a bit like an iced gingerbread.

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