Brentor’s History

Location & setting
The parish of Brentor is situated in West Devon, about 4 miles (6km) north of the market town of Tavistock on the north west edge of the Dartmoor National Park. To the east is the River Burn (a tributary of the River Tavy), and Gibbet Hill backed by an impressive range of granite Dartmoor Tors. To the north and west is the River Lyd (a tributary of the River Tamar) and an ‘area of outstanding natural beauty’ in the Lyd Valley.

The Tor itself is a dramatic conical volcanic plug 1100 feet (335m) high. In contrast to the neighbouring granite tors of Dartmoor, Brent Tor was formed from pillow lava extruded under a shallow sea some 350 million years ago.  The result is an ‘excellent and rare example of …submarine volcanic deposits’ and has been registered as a site of special scientific interest (SSSI).

Blocks of lava and pumice have been incorporated into many of the stone walls and houses in the parish.

The prominent and rugged nature of Brent Tor has made it a focus for human activity for more than 2,000 years.  Notable earthworks around the Tor include late iron age ramparts dating from 500BC, and later enclosed platforms probably established in the Dark Ages or the medieval period.  These earthworks constitute a scheduled monument.

The most striking human feature is the 12th century church of St Michael de Rupe, which is both the smallest and highest complete parish church in England.  This early Norman chantry was built in 1130 by Robert Giffard on the summit of Brent Tor, giving it a unique and dramatic silhouette.  The church is only 4.6 metres (15 feet) wide and 11.3 metres (37 feet) long, with a 12.2 metre (40 foot) tower housing three bells. St Michael’s remains the official Brentor parish church despite the later construction of Christchurch in North Brentor

Map 1 – Parish map showing changes in boundaries and locations of settlements

The parish

The current parish has an area of 13.46 sq km and the population was estimated to be 385 in 2020, in 220 households centred on the village of North Brentor.

Smaller numbers are distributed in the surrounding hamlets:
To the south – South Brentor, close to Brent Tor.
To the west – Liddaton, in the Lyd valley.
To the north – Lydford Station (Lydford Junction).

There are also numerous outlying houses and farms.  With the exception of Liddaton all the settlements are within the Dartmoor National Park.

The agricultural settlements were connected by a network of rugged routes for pack horses until the late eighteenth century, when the demands of the industrial revolution triggered extensive enclosures of common land and demands for raw materials.  Mining for manganese, ochre and copper became important sources of wealth and employment in the nineteenth century, with at least five mines active in the parish.  These developments resulted in the construction of a turnpike toll road past Brent Tor in the late eighteenth century and of two railway lines along the Burn valley in the nineteenth century.

Boundary changes
The resulting changes in the local economy affected the livelihoods and distribution of the population and triggered major alterations to the parish boundaries and to the main population centre at North Brentor.

Prior to the boundary changes of the 1880s, Brentor parish was a relatively thin sliver of land encompassing Brent Tor in the south and reaching up to the River Lyd in the north.  Its only settlement was Liddaton, since both North & South Brentor and Lydford Station lay in a detached portion of the neighbouring Lamerton parish.

White’s Directory of 1850 describes Brentor as ‘containing 169 souls, and 2180 acres of land, rising in bold hills on the western confines of Dartmoor’.  The parish church was St Michael de Rupe (at the summit of Brent Tor).

The boundary changes of the 1880s (ecclesiastical boundary change 1883, civil boundary transfer 1885) transferred the detached portion of Lamerton to the Parish of Brentor, more than doubling its size and population.  Further boundary changes in 1987 saw the area east of the ‘White Lady Waterfall’ on the River Lyd transferred to Lydford parish and Blackdown, up to the road, transferred to Brentor from Mary Tavy parish.

North Brentor
The historic core of North Brentor (within the circle on Map 2 below) was built around a small cluster of farms, possibly dating from the medieval period. The village expanded considerably during the 19th Century.

The centre of North Brentor was designated a Conservation Area in August 1993.

Map 2 – North Brentor Conservation Area showing key features

Key to features in the Conservation Area:
1. Christchurch (Grade II listed building)
Christchurch was built in 1856, and consecrated in 1857, to replace a small ‘Chapel of Ease’ which had been built in 1825 for the Church of St Peter in Lamerton some four miles away. The building of Christchurch was financed largely by donations from Mrs Isabella Howell, and it was designed in the ‘eclectic gothic’ style by Richard Gosling of Torquay.

2. School (Grade II listed building)
A National School was opened in 1832. This church school continued to serve the village until 1955 when it was closed and was converted into the Church Hall. The building was sold in 2004 and converted into a private dwelling.

The eastern parish boundary between Mary Tavy & Brentor ran along the River Burn and there was controversy over which parish should provide schooling for the children living on Blackdown. The Mary Tavy board eventually funded the building of West Blackdown School in 1890. It had difficulties from the start and the first school mistress Annie Gerry (1890 to 1901) received the lowest salary of any school in Devon. West Blackdown School closed in 1918.

3. Vicarage
The Vicarage was built in the late 19th Century and its grounds provide a continuation of the green space at the centre of the village.

4. Brentor Methodist Chapel (Grade II listed building)
The first ‘Bible Christian’ Chapel in Brentor was opened in 1827.  It was replaced by a new Chapel built 1841.  This became a Methodist Chapel in 1907 and was extended in the early 20th century.  At this stage it supported a large ‘Band of Hope’.  The Chapel continued to provide a very active and well-supported focus for the community until the 1990s.

The chapel organ in 2008 during conversion to a dwelling

The building was sold for conversion to a private dwelling in 2006 and is now a private dwelling. The associated cemetery further up the road was then adopted by the Parish Council as a parish burial ground.

Miners cottages

5. Miners’ cottages
This row of solidly built nineteenth century cottages has provided accommodation for several village shops through to the middle of the twentieth century, with a small bakery located at its southern end.  The last village shop and post office was closed in the early 1980s.

6. Village Hall
The original Brentor Men’s Reading Room was built on a piece of glebe land sold to Parish Council in 1901.  The building was paid for by public subscription at a cost of £210, and was opened in 1912.  In 1952 the Reading Room became the Village Hall, and remains the focus of most community activities in the village.

A Playing Field was donated to the Village by Frank & Mary Ward in the 1920s and was the site of an annual sports day until the 1980s.  It is situated some way north from the village centre past Hammer Park.

7. War memorial
This small granite memorial, commissioned by the people of Brentor,  was built in 1920 by the South Devon Granite Company, and dedicated in the same year.

The view from the war memorial site down to Christ Church has remained virtually unchanged over the past 150 years.

South Brentor
A loose collection of four farms and several cottages makes up the hamlet of South Brentor, which lies to the south east of Brent Tor. Brinsabatch is the only remaining working farm, and its residents still retain the right to be buried in the small graveyard at the church of St Michael De Rupe.

This small collection of farms and cottages deep in the Lyd Valley formed the only settlement in the original parish of Brentor. A ‘Bible Christian’ Chapel (Providence Chapel) was opened nearby at Broad Park, Coryton in 1868. It became a Methodist Chapel in 1907. It was closed in 1979 and was demolished to its foundations in the early twenty first century although the graveyard still remains.

Lydford Station
The hamlet now known as Lydford Station (GWR) developed as a significant railway junction in the late nineteenth century.  A ‘Bible Christian’ Chapel was opened at Lydford Station in 1878.  It became a Methodist Chapel in 1907 and was closed in 1979.

This hamlet includes the southern entrance to the National Trust property of Lydford Gorge, and the beautiful White Lady Waterfall lies on the parish boundary.

Transport and Communications

Turnpike road
The turnpike road from Tavistock to Lydford (see map 1) was opened in 1762, with a Toll House at ‘Riccard’s House’ (Brentor Inn).  There were four gates where the pack horse track from Mary Tavy to Coryton crossed the turnpike road.  The Tavistock Turnpike Trust was wound up in 1867, following the completion of the railway line from Tavistock to Launceston along the Burn Valley.  (From information given in ‘Tavistock’s Yesterdays‘ vol 3, pages 17-36 by G. Woodcock)

South Devon Railway (linked to GWR)
The South Devon Railway built a goods siding but no station in Brentor on its Tavistock to Launceston line in 1865.  This later became a GWR line with a station opened at Lydford Junction (also in Brentor Parish, E on Map 1.) in 1876.  A joint SDR LSWR goods yard at Lydford was used until 1879.  (From information given in ‘The Okehampton Line‘ by J Nicholas G Reeve, Irwell Press Ltd)

The Station, about 1910

Brentor Station (LSWR)
A double track line opened for goods traffic on 12 May 1890 to the east of the GWR line and parallel to it. Brentor Station opened for passenger traffic on 2 June 1890. This was the busiest station on the LSWR line between Tavistock & Okehampton….. The LSWR line was one of the main routes from Plymouth to London.  The goods yard was closed on 4 April 1960 and the signal box on 10 June 1961.  Both the line & station were closed on 6 May 1968 following the Beeching ‘rationalisation’ of the railway system.  (From information given in ‘The Okehampton Line’ by J Nicholas G Reeve, Irwell Press Ltd).

A Facet of Brentor History
The following is an edited version of a manuscript written by the late Dennis Young in 1987 – the original is stored in the Brentor Living Archive.  Photos by Steve Mason.

 The parish of Brentor as we know it today is a fusion of two parishes, Brentor and part of Lamerton.  The tor stands on Brentor land which was held by Geoffrey (Gosifrid), two smallholders and three slaves.  The Domesday entry for this land is Liddaton (Lideltona).  Before 1241 Liddaton had passed from the Abbot into other hands. In 1228 however, a certain L’Archediakne granted the land back to the Abbey.

In early times it formed part of Lifton (Listone) Hundred, but between 1114 and 1120 it became part of the newly formed hundred of Tavistock (Tavistoke) created by Henry I to cover the estates held by the Abbey.  This part of modern Brentor, the original part, stretched three miles and was a strip of land between Liddaton and Brinsabach, which strip effectively divided the parish of Lamerton into two parts. The outlier of this parish (or outlying northern part) later became known as North Brentor.

St Michael de Rupe crowning Brentor

At the dissolution of the monastries in 1539, Liddaton was granted, subject to a rent charge, to John Russell, Knight, along with all the other Abbey lands plus many other estates, all later to be known collectively as the Bedford estates.

Triple earthwork defences around Brentor

The church of St Michael de Rupe which crowns the tor was built by one Robert Gifford in about 1130 who, as Lord of the Manor of Lamerton, gave it to the Abbey along with some of the surrounding land together with about thirty acres of his land at Lamerton. St Michael’s became a chapelry of Tavistock.  Around the church are the remains of a massive triple earthwork defence system dated by Lady Aileen Fox as being middle to late Iron Age.

Three of the tumuli (arrowed) at The Beacon

Nearby, just a mile away on Week Farm (itself a very interesting Saxon settlement) within the area known as Heathfield are a range of burial mounds or tumuli, surveyed by the writer some years ago and apparently undisturbed.  These tumuli belong to the Bronze Age and predate the earthworks by over a thousand years and the church by over two thousand.  The site of one of the mounds is known as The Beacon and marks the boundary for the most south-westerly part of the parish.  Historically, the site was used to position one of the Spanish Armada warning beacons, part of a network of fire signals to be ignited in the event of a seaborne attack.

Burnville Farm has an interesting history. It stands on land once part of the outlier of the parish of Lamerton.  At the time of the Norman Conquest, Lamerton (Lambretona) was held by the Saxon thane Ordulf. In the Doomsday entry for this manor it is shown as being held by Roald L’Adobed (or Rhiwallon) from the King. On this period of history the outlier was mute and was probably not settled land, the nearest settlements being Liddaton (Lideltona), Willsworthy (Wyvelesworth Stondon), Lydford (Lideforda), Warne, Mary Tavy (Wagesfella) and Week (Wyk Dabernon).

The old East Langstone farmhouse at Burnville (c 400 years old)

In 1100, Roald L’Adobed entered religion and his group of estates, including Lamerton, vested in the crown and were granted to William Gifford. The Giffords held the manor for over 150 years. The outlying part of this manor however, was not granted to William Gifford but to Plympton Priory. The date of this gift is not known but it was before 1156 and it was not mentioned in the disposal of Roald’s lands so was possibly given to the Prior by Roald himself, the Doomsday holder of Lamerton.

Later, in a confirmatory charter signed by Henry II and dated to about 1155 confirming the estates held by the Prior of Plympton, we find the following:

(225) The whole land of Watrifalla (Waterfall in Brentor parish) and
(226) Langstan (Langstone Manor in Brentor parish) and
(227) Wuddemanneswella with the Furze Brake (Woodsmanswell in Brentor parish) and
(228) Rughadona (Rowden in Brentor parish)

These lands are the ⅓ part of Lamerton (the whole outlier) and recorded at the Dissolution as being worth £9-11-2d and being part of the Manor of the Waterfall.   Also listed is a shilling’s worth of land at Brent (part of Brentor parish).  Although granted to one Arthur Champernowne at the Dissolution, they were later divided and did not remain in one person’s hands as was the fate of Tavistock Abbey possessions.

River Lyd feeder stream passing under Lydford viaduct – the northernmost point of the pre-1987 boundary

The outlier boundaries are typically Saxon and cover an area stretching from the River Lyd, starting at the ford near Lipscliffe, following the river upstream past the waterfall and Lydford Bridge at the other end of the gorge, under the viaduct, then turning south-east up the feeder stream and across the A386 to Willsworthy Camp, then westwards to another feeder stream following it down past Hall Farm and the clapper bridge to near the Manor Hotel [Mucky Duck Inn].

Here the boundary turns back on itself to the River Burn following it downstream to meet with the Liddaton lands at Brinsabach. From there the outlier boundary follows the feeder stream to Holyeat, turning north-east to skirt the tor, then north-west past the Brentor Inn to skirt Rowden and join a nearby feeder stream at its head and then following the stream down past Burcombe to rejoin the River Lyd at the ford. These feeder streams, chosen all those centuries ago as boundary markers, are still flowing today.

In Benjamin Donn’s Survey of Devon – 1765, Burnville is shown as East Longstone, and Langstone Manor as West Longstone, where the Herring family is listed as being in residence.  Also in this survey, Burn Lane, surrounded by Burnville land, is shown as a settlement or hamlet. The late Freddie Wrench of Burn Lane once told the writer he was convinced of the truth of this and that the verges and strips of land fringing the lane held many ‘hovels’, the homes of the labouring class.  Such primitive shelters, made of cob, wattle and daub and thatched with branches and turves, would leave no trace, apart from some possible sherds or artefacts.

For many years the Herring family held Langstone and its lands. In 1873, Phillip Herring is listed  in Return of the Owners Land as holding 474 acres of land in Devon, approximately the combined acreage of both Burnville and Langstone. The land on which Burn Lane House now stands was first leased (three lives lease) and then purchased from the Herring family.  So the tie with Burnville land is significant.  The Brentor Inn used to be called the Herring Arms.

Langstone Manor

The Ward family (Ward and Chowen, D Ward and Son) purchased Burnville in 1907 and in 1944 sold the whole estate to the Church Commissioners for £15,500, as did the owners of Langstone Manor, the latter remaining as sitting tenants. In recent years the Commissioners have been selling land, including Burnville, Langstone, Week, Burns Hall etc in order to release money for other investments. It is interesting to note that the Russell family, the Bedfords, along with others, still own the sole rights for the extraction of minerals on Burnville land.

John Bodman, the previous owner of Burnville, who bought the estate from the Church Commissioners, told the writer in the 1960s, at the time the University of Belfast was conducting a ‘dig’ at Lydford for remains of the Saxon settlement, that they would find more Saxon history on his land than they ever would at Lydford!

Up to the last war, Burnville employed many men and horses.  The house is a listed late Georgian or Regency building and replaced the earlier farmhouse, which still exists close by, now sadly neglected and showing its years.

In the 1880s, many parishes were realigned and the Lamerton outlier fused with Brentor to form the parish we know today.  We are very shortly [1987] to change our boundaries once again taking in the area known as West Blackdown from Mary Tavy and loosing all that land to the north and east of the clapper bridge to Lydford.

It would seem that the history pages of Brentor are once again being turned with the sale of both Tavistock Abbey and Plympton Priory lands. It is always sad when land changes hands. We can never really claim outright ownership, only perhaps act as trustees for our allotted span. The land goes on and with it the love, toil, memories, hopes and aspirations of the previous owners, tenants and farm workers over the centuries.

Modern day Burnville Farm

Web Links to Brentor
Brentor Genealogy UK page

Legendary Dartmoor

Geography Brentor pages

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