The Tale of How South Brent Became Sustainable

This is the story of a tiny town on the edge of the great Oak Moor with the heart of a village where Things Get Done.

The Avalon of Brent

The good folk of this tiny town didn’t always live where they do now; they lived on the steep moor; on Brent Moor, at a place now known as Ryders Rings. Life up there was not as you might imagine, but rather they basked in Mediterranean temperatures, growing their food and living rather well.

By and by though, as they are wont to do, things began to change. The weather turned cold and damp and eventually the folk moved down to the sheltered valley of the river Aune where their ancestors live to this day. What happened, I hear you ask, why did the climate change? Well there are those that say it was because the trees of the great Dart Forest were cut down, that the soils were over used and eroded and that overpopulation was the cause

… sound familiar?

So here they were, living down in the valley, but they didn’t forget their former home, high up the moor, and they called their new settlement Brent, after the steep, steep land where their old homes lay. Now this new settlement was around the island, or so I like to believe, where the orchard was planted, and where it is said an Iron Age Fort lay, where later St Petroc built his chapel. Times had changed; the agrarian Bronze Age had given way to the Celtic Iron Age, but still the orchard was important, for not only was it a place from where to gather fruit, it was also in some long forgotten sense, thought of as a place of healing, a kind of ancient hospital; an Avalon. In old Persian the name for an orchard is Paradise.

So, Brent had its paradise, and to this day the last remaining piece of trunk of the last apple tree lies on its side on the island, covered in moss and orange lichen. If you stand close by it and look up you can see the Brent Hill that gives the town its name.

Tales from the Brent Elders

Why do you call us a town, I hear you ask. Well, way back before our day it was, the Lord of the Manor himself did tell me so, for it was granted the right to hold court at fairs four times a year and still in living memory are tales of Brent Fair. Cattle, sheep and horses were driven down the hillsides into Brent to be sold. Ponies were sold into slavery for the Welsh coal mines, and sheep were gathered in Wellington Square, which looked a bit different then. Cattle were herded down Church Street and the householders had to barricade their windows with wood to protect their homes from fearful livestock fleeing from certain death and ending up at the butcher’s shop.

Church Street, sometimes known as Duck Street, for the 2 semi wild ducks that would regular as clockwork three times a day make their way to the cottage where their owner had food for them, also had the police station at the bottom. It had a cell inside that locked with a huge key, said the elder that lived there as a child with her father the village bobby.

Brent market, held under the Cheape House, which stood on pillars next to the Anchor Hotel, now the newsagents, rivalled that of the town not so very far away that is not too big and not too small with a river running through it and a steep, steep hill with a castle at the top, which has a Friday market. Brentonians began to feel so sorry for them that they changed their market day to a Tuesday to give the others a chance.

In living memory the Co-op had an upstairs and sold clothes and shoes and there was Nora’s chip shop a little further down where everything from paraffin to vegetables could be bought, and tu’penny drinks that were watered down and woe betide anyone brave enough to complain! Why she even sold the scribbens at the end of the night, said She of Storytelling Fun, on the night of the 10 year celebrations of Sustainable South Brent.

So many tales old Brentonians can tell; of the devil’s fingerprint on Lydia Bridge, where small boys would place their finger too and then run as fast as they could to the kissing gate at the other end of L’Aune, of a murdered vicar, of Fat Man’s Trouble, the Belgian refugees, typhoid in the village, the song men who would play at the big houses after supper, Didworthy hospital, the Tomato Farm and the Jubilee lamppost that got moved from the village centre to Wellington square and no one knows what happened to the lamp but a small girl did tell me she was the one that unveiled the plinth not so very long ago.

I’ll tell you something else too; if you can’t see the beacon tiz raining — and if you can — it soon will be!

Old Brent, New Brent, Same Brent- Wiser than Before

So, now you know which tiny town with the heart of a village I am talking about let’s get on and find out why Things Get Done here.

Well it seems there are loads of passionate people, and they get together in groups and have good ideas which they then make happen. I am sure we could go way, way back in time to find this was so but this story starts in the 1960’s, before some of you were born, perhaps. That was when the South Brent and Avon Valley group got together to save the green lanes and to work to protect some of the green fields from being developed. They were followed in the 1970’s, perhaps still before some of you were born, to buy the Toll House for the community and perchance to stop it falling into rack and ruin as the olde Cheape House had, and to buy a piece of land to be a school garden.

These, then, were the forerunners to the groups we see in Brent today; the Island Trust who got together to buy the island for the community to save it from being developed in future years, the Old School Trust who did the same a few years later when the new primary school was built, and, of course, the group we are celebrating today; Sustainable South Brent.

Now before we hear of the heroic exploits of our special birthday folk, let’s just pause for a moment to honour some of the other folk who are also heroes of our tiny town in our times; there’s Mrs South Brent and the Breakfast Cafe, that just lately raised money for bicycle repair in Africa, there’s She of Deep Caring and the South Brent Caring folk, there’s the Lord of the Old School and his many fundraising successes, and we shouldn’t forget the Lord of the Manor, the local historian.

But now we go back to the year 2006 and a tiny gathering in a house; the very beginnings of Sustainable South Brent. There was Mr Renewable Energy, Mr Determination, She Who Loved Flowers and one or two others. They talked of the Climate Change they could feel coming and what they should do.

They decided on three things. The first was to show the good townsfolk a film of the rather inconvenient truth that they would all have to face; a changing landscape, a changing culture, one of conserving, preserving and protecting and not one of stealing the future.

The second was to call a certain hero from the town with the Friday market to speak to them of what he knew, and he was called Rob of the Great Renown. And they called him just the once for they were bright and intelligent folk and He of Passion was quite sure they knew quite a bit more besides, and could do the rest themselves, and then they called a Public Meeting and told the community of what was to pass.

Well what shall we do? they asked.

And the good folk of Brent said look at Energy, look at Transport and look at Local Products and Services, and so they did. For this remember, is a place where Things Get Done.

And an awful lot of things did get done…

Lady Community helped to get together a Local Guide which showed where all the local products and all the local providers could be found and She of Gold Producing Fingers started a Local Radio project, they all went to feast at a Big Night Out at the Oak on squirrel and rabbit terrines and Frank’s carrots (of which more later) and were still eating at half an hour to midnight. And all the while at the Old School community happenings continued; pre-school, after school club, computer classes, ballet, fitness, the Arts fair, the Corridor Gallery, the First Community Library in Devon. Elsewhere there were the Brent Birders, The Rec and its youth groups, the Am Dram productions, The Methodist group, the Brownies, and Sustainable South Brent organised Cycle Rides thanks to the passion of Mr Enthusiasm whilst Lady Community caused it to happen that a large green box appeared in the Old School car park that contained the 2 bicycles of the South Brent Bike Bank that could be borrowed from half an hour to a week for free.

Now if that isn’t plenty for a tiny town on the edge of the moor this story’s hardly begun…for now I must tell you the tale of

Dr Compost and the Composteers

Now you may remember I told you of She Who Loved Flowers, I’m told she had beautiful eyes. Now she had a spouse and he was soon to become known as Dr Compost for it wasn’t long after those first three events that he got it in to his head, loving gardening as he did, that perhaps compost was a thing that town with the heart of a village would like to count amongst its local products and he knew it wasn’t hard to do for he made it himself for his garden, but he knew it wasn’t enough for everyone so off the two heroes went to visit sites all over this county called Devon to see how it was done in other parts. Tis said Proper Job in Chagford did impress them quite a lot but it was t’folk of Aveton Gifford that sold them a large second hand tumbler. Too big it was to put outside the Coop or in the school playground or in their own garden so off they went to search for the perfect site to put their new acquisition. And in case you are wondering just what this new acquisition could do …

If you go down to the Marsh

On Sunday

You’re sure of a big surprise

For from 10 -1

You’ll find them there

The composteers and their soil tumbling drum

making compost from waste In their bright yellow coats

that you can have if you care to donate

for Sunday’s the day that compost is made

in Brent

The Marsh, the newly formed Composteers soon discovered, was owned by the Dartmoor Parks but was covered in bracken, nettles and brambles and what happened next was that they began the long process of becoming a charity so they could lease the land for their composting tumbler.

A wondrous hero, the marvellous Ross, did bring about that charity status working for a year and a day to persuade that illustrious body that though their local guide had advertised businesses they were A Good Cause.

The Marsh was opened by a local MP who when she passes by still is said to ask

“How are my worms?”

The composters are proud of their Sunday morning work, tells He Of Clear Communication, shovelling and forking, and turning the handle on their second hand tumbler and that they are paid with a big bag of compost. They are proud too that their little enterprise brings compost credits which they use to fund other worthwhile projects all about the tiny town with the heart of a village.

“Where there’s muck there’s brass” they have been heard to say.

And as Brentonians bring their garden waste to the Marsh instead of driving it far away to dispose of it 20,000 car miles are saved each year. Cast your eye around the tidy little site though, now cleared of its brambles, nettles and bracken, and you will see alongside the bays full of steaming hot compost in the making, Harry’s gadget… and to tell you of this we need to know the tale of

The Brent Steepers

Now you may think you don’t know of these folk for they go by many guises; you may have heard of the Wood group, the Hedge group, the Woodland group, the Trees and Hedges group and more, but I like to think of them as the Steepers and I’ll tell you why. In Devon, you see, pleachers are steepers…

confused?

Then you obviously don’t know of one of Devon’s greatest almost lost skills. Before the world wars folk in the country would manage their hedges so they lay lengthways like living fences to keep lifestock in or out. They chose the longest growing young branches of the trees in the hedgerow and these were the steepers and to lay them the Steeper had to cut the branch almost through so they could grow again but longaways.

The Steepers became so after Dr Hedge came to talk to them and inspired them to have a go and now they manage the woods at Penstave Copse, hedgelaying and coppicing, making clearings to let light in and taking the excess wood …to go down Harry’s gadget to then be chopped into chunks with his chunking machine. Why? For fuel and soon you will be able to donate a little for a bag of said fuel for your fire this winter.

The Steepers have done more than this too; you will find traces of their work in Railway woods too and you may have been to their Wood Fair and maybe you’ve seen them at nearby Hillyfield too. So who are they? Well, there’s Jude the Story, who you may have heard at the celebration telling of their exploits, then there’s The Humble Apple Tree Man, She of Enthusiasm, the Stalwart Woodman, Harry of Many Ideas and many more who turn up to work every other Sunday up at the Copse, using two handed saws and other fine specimens of tools our granddads would have known.

The Power of the Community

I’d like to take you back now, to the beginning of this tale; to a certain Mr Renewable Energy who you may remember, was at that very first meeting. He hadn’t disappeared you see, in fact he‘d been very, very, very busy indeed.

For together with Mr Determination he had been thinking and planning and writing, and thinking and planning and writing, and wondering too. You see Mr Renewable Energy believed…we could harness the elements… and solve the first thing on the list the people of Brent mentioned; Energy.

Well, we have water, sunshine sometimes, and plenty of wind, do we not? So while the composters were making fine soil improver and Sustainable South Brent had become a charity, Mr Renewable Energy had not only rebuilt old three water wheels up at Aish, he had begun to plan how Brent might have its own Wind Mill!

This was not as easy as it may seem now to those who wander up the lane by Crowder park and catch a glimpse of elegant turning blades off in the distance over Marley way, but it took Mr Renewable Energy, Mr Determination and several other invisible heroes seven long years to make it all happen.

7 long years …

of planning and talking and writing. About what? About bats, and of how fast the wind blew, of government rules and government schemes and of where were the best second hand wind turbines to be had. They worked really hard though no one could see the work or the time they spent until finally, one day, they were ready.

But

Well, wind turbines, even second hand ones cost money, and theirs was coming from Sweden and then they still had to pay to put it up … but …there wasn’t any money!

What to do?

Now here a new group must be celebrated and they were led by Lady Community and He of Passionate Communication. For in seven weeks, yes, that‘s right, just 7 weeks, they managed to raise not just enough for the wind turbine, but for solar panels for the rooftops of some of the community buildings in Brent. Now Mr Renewable Energy and Mr Determination and the other invisible heroes didn’t know if they would get the money but they dug a great big hole anyway, and just as well, for it took 3 days to raise that V27 (for those of you who like to know the proper names of things), and 2 attempts to get it up, but raise it they did, on land with a 25 year lease.

7 years preparation, 7 weeks to collect the money to truly harness the power of community. To work hard, to truly believe in a project, takes passion and courage and perseverance. To believe in a project so much that you can collect £460.000 in 7 weeks takes inspiration, an ability to talk to all manner of folk and convince them, sheer determination (and, in this case, a cardboard model of a V27 wind turbine). And when you put the two together….you can raise nearly £7000 in community funds, you can generate 1000 million watts of energy, and you can inspire a town that anything you dream of is possible.

Brent — A Sustainable Community

And in South Brent it really does seem to be so; anything is possible and Things Get Done. I must tell you here of some of the other wonders of the tiny town with the heart of a village; have you heard What’s On? You should have for it is updated by the week, the longest list you ever did see, of the most vibrant village events you ever did see, compiled by He of Enthusiasm so that townsfolk and visitors alike can join in to their hearts’ content. Did you know about the Sustainable South Brent newsletter; the finest one you ever did read, and that when Sustainable South Brent meet they have a different person to guide the proceedings each time so they don’t get stuck on the way of just one person, and what of South Brent’s newest local radio project with She of Radio Presence, and what of the music that plays out of the Oak on a Wednesday evening, the singing that goes on in the Pack Horse and the annual Folk Festival, not to mention the Christmas Ceilidh where you can dance your pudding off and wear your new socks out! Not for nothing was it once said that the young of Brent don’t go to bed till it’s time to get up!

On this the occasion of the 10th anniversary of Sustainable South Brent I have great delight in telling you that 1 in ten of every Brentonian is a member of this group of heroes and if you’re not one of them you could become the next!

Now then, I am going to tell you how it is to so easily find yourself a part of this band of modern day heroes. It all started on a wet Brent day. You know the type of which I speak, those wet Saturdays when staying in bed seems perhaps the best plan of all.

On the island that day a band of intrepid story lovers did meet beneath brollies and hoods on the island, huddling for shelter in the Linhay were they, to hear the tales of South Brent. A couple of storytellers, a gentleman in their service, and two young visitors from across the sea, come to the land of the Britons for the love of their ways, aye and even their weather too!

Well, wonder of wonders! When they left the shelter, stories in full flow, the rain it did stop and the sun came out, and the elephant in the tree was spotted — do you know the one I mean?

Off they set to the Marsh where He of Many Ideas was waiting to tell them how compost is made and to what Mediterranean temperatures the new soil does reach. Well, by the time the merry bunch had returned to town, they were thoroughly inspired to join the Steepers in the woods the very next day to saw wood and to carry it for Harry’s chunking machine to devour!

But now, ’tis time to tell of what happened to Dr Compost…

Mr Potato Head and the School Garden

You see he hadn’t disappeared from the story, no, not at all, but only discovered yet another way to inspire others to get their hands dirty!

The band of storylovers made their way finally that day to the school garden and there was Dr Compost in a new guise; Mr Potato Head — the one who taught all the children in the school how to grow food. You see, he had met a youth one day and shown him a peapod and was shocked to find said youth was quite afraid to eat such a thing. From that day forth he swore his task would be to teach children where their food comes from!

He asked the children at the school what they would like to grow to eat. Strawberries, they said! And carrots, and peas in their pods. They grow more than that now; I’ve seen with my own eyes; beans, broccoli, garlic and leeks, and apples and pears and the old Persian apple, the medlar tree, they have. And 3 bulbs of daffodils a piece they grow, for mums on mother’s day.

It wasn’t easy at first to teach children to grow food for they didn’t want to get clean hands mucky and so was born the Dirty Hands competition for as every good gardener knows you can’t grow nothing good without getting your hands in the soil.

Tis said one young girl was so inspired she dug up her family garden and then her neighbours too, and that the favourite lesson of the kids in school now is gardening with Mr Potato Head himself and the children at the 10 year party did say it was so.

T’isn’t the only food growing our Frank, to give his real name, has caused to happen in the tiny town of Brent, you may remember Frank’s carrots were eaten at the big feast, but whether they came from the school garden or the allotments I cannot tell ye, you’ll have to ask him yourself. For another accomplishment this hero must be sung for is Brent allotments of which She of Amber Locks did tell of on the great celebration night, of how they cleared brambles, nettles and bracken and dug over the soil with pickaxes and great swings of the arm, the land Frank had helped them to get, and then how they got together and caused to be brought to town a very big drill and of how they drilled deep for pure water to water their edible plants, and of how, wondrously, this meant, that surely never again should Brent suffer from Typhoid for the water Brent had dug down to was a spring ensuring fresh water to the inhabitants from that day forth.

Dream a Little Dream of Brent

And so my story here draws almost to a close; for heroes many have been sung of. We leave our tale of a sustainable town on the edge of a moor with the heart of a village where Things Get Done, with a fresh water supply and a bunch of folk who say they are like family, a place where people smile at you even if they don’t know you. There’s a little garden here too, behind the Old School, and it’s full of plants of the edible kind, and if you go up close you will see a little plaque that you should read; for this is the memorial for She Who Loved Flowers, who, sad to tell, passed away before this tale could be told.

I shall mention one more, She of Endless Loving Service, who was honoured and made, on the night of the great 10 year party, a lifelong member of Sustainable South Brent for faithfully gathering in new folk, one by one, one by one, one by one.

Now it’s your turn, to add your gold to the treasure already gathered, for you see there’s yet one more unsung act of heroism; She of Gold Producing Fingers, for she is the reason so many ideas of late have happened, she started the radio project and a wild flower garden, but what she is especially celebrated for is bringing in the gold to make things happen.

Perhaps now is the moment to help her a little; what ideas are lying lurking in the back of your imagination, not quite daring to come out… perhaps you’d like to see the train line open once more, or more food production about these parts? Perchance, like Harry of Many Ideas, you have great ideas that can seem almost too big to mention, like providing underfloor heating to all those without any gas to heat their homes…

Well, let me share with you now what the good folk of Brent did share with me on the night of the 10 year celebration of Sustainable South Brent; let’s plant an apple tree they said, start a new orchard, let’s have more allotments said a ten year old grandson, and let’s ask the children to teach the adults to cook with fresh food again said someone else, and what about the traffic that speeds up when a pedestrian tries to cross the road, we could have zebra crossings forming a star all across the village centre. A library of things would be good, and how about electric bikes, yes, one a’piece! Well, I’d like a Hub where we can talk of things sustainable, said another, with a cafe so we can talk and eat.

And now, dear reader, it is your turn. I have shared my tale, told of the heroes of Brent under moor, the village with a heart of gold where Things Get Done. Where is your tale, what have you done, or what would you have done? Dream a little dream of Brent and make it happen. Together we can change this world for the better and your voice counts.