The History of Brent Island
An update in 2015: Since the history below was written in 1994 much work has been carried out on the Island. The linhay has been fully restored, the weir has been rebuilt and the flow of the river cleared of fallen trees and debris. There is also a management plan to maintain the meadow and scrub areas for the benefit of wildlife and the community.
From the Souvenir booklet issued to mark the opening of The Island on Sunday 5th June 1994:
The best way to see the history of South Brent is to look at the lie of the land. Stand on the Island and look up at the church and see how steep and high that bank is and how the platform of higher land runs right round from the railway to the end of the churchyard wall. From Church Street or Wellington Square it is not so obvious but go to the edge of the church yard behind the tower and see how suddenly the land plunges down to the weir below and the reason why people chose this place for a settlement becomes very clear. When - perhaps about two and a half thousand years ago - the first people came along this river looking for a place to live, they would have seen this shelf of land offering security but close to the river and the rich grassland beside it. To the east, where most of the village is now, the untouched forest would have been deep and dense.
They probably went down to the meadow by the same way that we follow. As the lane goes by the churchyard, look at the field on the left and see how the level falls away showing that this is a spur of land leading down to the meadows and to the river. At the end of the churchyard the lane comes up to the top of the bank and turns to the left to angle down quite steeply across the bank until it reaches the level of the meadow.
The church is dedicated to St Petroc indicating a Celtic foundation. Petroc was a hermit saint who loved wild places and wild creatures. He sheltered a stag to protect it from the huntsmen. He would have approved of the idea of prorecting and enjoying the wildlife of the Island.
When Petroc died, the Saxons had been settling in this country for about a hundred years but another hundred would pass before they came into Devon taking this land from the Welsh. By that time they had become Christians too and the life of the village, its work and its worship would not have been very different from the pattern set by the Celts.
The Settlement prospered and grew. The first atlas of England which was made in 1579 by Christopher Saxton marks Brent on the map of England as a second ranking town. The atlas was made because of the danger of invasion - the Armada was expected - so it did need to be accurate. It was designed to give reliable information about the coastline, the rivers, the settlements and the bridges. There were six orders of settlements. Exeter was the only place in Devon that was put in the first rank. Brent along with twenty six other towns was placed in the second rank. The others in this area were Ashburton, Totnes, Kingsbridge, Modbury and Plympton. Paignton was in the third rank and Ivybridge in the fourth. The map also classified bridges as major (in yellow) and minor (in white) and it showed quite precisely where the bridges were in relation to the settlements. It showed the Bridge at Brent in yellow and placed it to the north. Lydia Bridge would then have been the only bridge where people from Brent could cross the river at any season and of course it provided access to the moor as well as to the meadows on the far side of the river.
Within perhaps a generation of the drawing of that map a massive work was undertaken on the meadow below the church. It must have been a thriving and optimistic community to do such a thing but the river was divided, the weir built and the leat constructed to power the mill at Millswood and to power Brent Mill. The way the new river bed was cut through the rock can still be seen below the bridge. By bringing half the river round this way, they were able to take the leat off at a higher level and produce more power. They also created the Island. It was a considerable change. It gave Brent the power for industry and it created a new settlement at Brent Mill with a bridge that encouraged the town to develop towards the south and east. The land between Brent and Lydia Bridge belonged by this time to the vicarage but the path still seems to have been there. In the Glebe Terrier of 1601 it was described as "a walk by the river planted with trees" and in 1679 as "an alley". There was an "alleygate" where the kissing gate to the Lawn is now.
The map of 1887 shows how the island was changed when the railway came. The line of the railway would have crossed the Island requiring a viaduct so they shortened the Island. The river could then be crossed by a single arch. The old end of the Island can still be seen from the footpath to Lydia Bridge. Go past the ruins of Town Mill, past the wall of the miller's garden and then look across the river and there is the point of the Island as it was before the railway came. Beyond it the fence still turns showing where the river used to run before it was blocked by the railway embankment. From the north bank of the Island looking towards the railway, the separated part can still be seen sloping down to where the river was before it was covered by the railway embankment.
In 1930, the Island was owned by Ernest Mead of Wellington House which is probably the house that John Hingston owned in 1842. Between 1930 and 1940, Roland Lewis used the Island for horse breaking. At that time, the Island was neat and well maintained with the grass closely grazed by sheep.
In recent years the land has not been grazed. Brambles and nettles and bracken have encroached. Dead trees have blocked the river below the weir which has also deteriorated. The linhay has become a ruin.
The purchase of the Island by public subscription on April 12th 1994 has started a new phase in its history. It belongs as it did long ago to the people of Brent and it belongs as it did before that to the wild. We hope that it can be maintained for the benefit and the pleasure of the public and to increase the variety and the profusion of wild flowers, birds, insects and animals.
A very clear and detailed picture of South Brent as it was two hundred years later is provided by the tithe map of 1842. This recorded every field and every hedge and every building, giving the names of owners and occupiers and stating how everything was being used. The meadow by Millswood (1) was owned by John Eliot of Barleycombe. The Island was divided between John Hingston who lived in Wellington Square and the vicar who lived at Somerswood and in the vicarage which was then the house that is now called the Manor.
John Hingston had the western end of the Island (4) as a meadow and he had the linhay (5) and a garden (3) and Island Meadow (2) and the waste land below the church wall (14). Over the river John Hingston had a coppice (6) and an orchard (7). The Rev. George Baker had the eastern end of the Island as an orchard. He had another orchard over the river (8). He also owned the Tucking Mill (10) and the miller's house and the miller's garden (9) and another garden (11) which was occupied by the railway. The line had not yet come but obviously preparations were being made. The Rev. George Baker also owned the waste (13) and Higher Rack Park (15).
From the Souvenir booklet issued to mark the opening of The Island on Sunday 5th June 1994:
The Island? What Island? That was the usual response from those invited to venture down Millswood Lane for events such as the memorable church picnics held there in past years. But once visited, the Island is never forgotten, and there were a number of people in Brent who felt that if it ever came on the market it should be acquired for the community. So when Christine Halstead passed on the news that the Island was for sale, and that she was prepared to make a handsome donation towards the purchase, things started moving.
Peter Stevens raised the issue at a Parish Council meeting in September (1993). While a number of councillors were enthusiastic, they were narrowly defeated on a proposal that the council should consider acquiring the Island. Undaunted, those members who supported the purchase agreed to explore the possibility of launching a public appeal and Peter Stevens, Cathie Pannell, David Hewitt and Lorraine Willcocks arranged a meeting with interested parties and local conservation groups, at which there was strong support for the concept. And so a public meeting was called for Monday, 1st November, in the Methodist Hall, with Cathie Pannell, Parish, District and County Councillor, in the chair.
Widespread publicity and eyecatching posters attracted some fifty people to the meeting. After a thorough debate on the merits and drawbacks of the purchase, and with the encouragement of the South Hams Environment Trust, represented by Spencer Keys, those present voted by 42 to 2 in favour of the proposal. A committee of Peter Stevens, Lorraine Willcocks, Mavis Hewitt, Don Stansbury, Rosemary Ridell, Ross Kennerley, Jill Elms and Cliff Bailey was elected, with Guy Pannell in the chair, to try to achieve that aim.
From that point on the campaign took on a momentum of its own. Publicity in the local press brought in offers of help and financial support. Well over 100 people came down to explore the Island for themselves when we arranged a public viewing on the afternoon of Sunday 26th November. We had been told that the sale would be by auction. But how do you bid for something at auction when you don’t have the money? And how can you start to raise the money when you can’t tell people how much you need? So the committee approached the agents and negotiated the purchase of an option to buy Lot 1, the Island and all the land east of the garages, for a fixed price of £25,000. The option cost us £1,500 but it was to prove the catalyst in reaching our goal. We had three months in which to raise our target – and if we did the land would be ours.
The response from the people of the village, and wider afield, was dramatic. We delivered pledge forms to just about every local address and the offers of support poured in. South Hams Environment Trust offered to try to find £10,000 from outside sources, and we received an important boost with a promise of £2,000 from Dartmoor National Park Authority.
Sixty people came to another public meeting in January and supported proposals that dogs should be allowed on to the Island, if properly controlled, and that we should explore the possibility of vesting ownership in the South Hams Environment Trust. We had co-opted the trust’s development Manager, Lesley Whittaker, on to the committee and her help and advice was to prove invaluable.
A series of events helped boost our funds. Items on Westcountry Television and on BBC Spotlight and Radio Devon gave the campaign another boost to add to the excellent publicity we had received from local newspapers. Cheques arrived from many local groups who supported our aims and from sympathetic conservation groups such as the Aune Conservation Association, the South Hams Society and the Devon Wildlife Trust. A local mum, Shruti Gordon, volunteered to raise sponsorship by running the London Marathon.
But with time running out before we had to take up the option in March we were still about seven thousand pounds short of our target. We needn’t have worried. The inspired idea of a Yard Sale at the Stansburys, Eldertons and Kennerleys in Church Street raised £450. Coffee mornings and concerts brought in hundreds more and then came the wonderful news that meant we were home - grants of £2,500 each from Devon County Council and South Hams District Council. So we signed in March, paid our ten per cent deposit and four weeks later became the proud owners.
The island was officially opened by the naturalist Kelvin Boot on Sunday 5th June 1994.