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Every year, thousands of walkers start at the picturesque Shipley Bridge car park and head up the valley, following the River Avon, towards the Avon Dam. Built in 1957 to provide water for the growing population of the South Hams area, the construction spelt the end for Brentmoor House, even though it was over two miles away.
Brentmoor House had originally been a small 17th-century farmstead. In 1855, Francis Meynell (b.1821 - d.1870) returned from his navel career and purchased the house and estate. Meynell had joined the navy in 1836 and spent a year in home waters before sailing to the Far East. From 1837-39, he was aboard the Alligator, around Australia, which was then deployed as a midshipman to the Calliope as part of the China War between 1840-43. Having been then assigned as a mate he spent two years off the west African coast, between 1844-1845, aboard the Penelope which was conducting anti-slavery operations. He was then awarded a commission in 1846, given the rank of Lieutenant, and assigned back to the Penelope until 1847. He appears to have not been part of the navy between 1847-53, but he then rejoined and served between 1853-55 onboard the Royal George in the Baltic as part of the Crimean campaign, after which he retired.
Meynell was a noted artist who painted a number of watercolours and his illustrated journal is held by the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. His artistic skills, naval commission, and sporadic career suggests that there was additional sources of wealth in his background. Certainly there appears to be no clear indication of how, by the time he finally left the navy in 1855, he had accumulated sufficient funds to enable the purchase of the estate on Dartmoor. That said, the remote location meant that land would be cheaper than in the more traditional farming areas of Devon. The estate at the time of Meynell's purchase was said to extend to around 3,000 acres.
Certainly, Meynell seems to have embraced the life of country squire, with his wife Caroline, rebuilding the farmstead to become a substantial house. He also produced a number of paintings of the slavery he encountered in his naval career as part of his own campaign against the abhorrent trade. However, his was an unhappy period of ownership. His 5-year old daughter, Mary, contracted tonsilitis and laryngitis and died in a local santorium on 27 March 1863 - her passing marked by a memorial which can still be seen today near the site of the house. Tragedy was again to strike later that year when in December his 15-month old son, Geoffrey, also died. After this, the family left the house, though Francis remained to administer the estate. This melancholy and lonely existence in a remote house came to an end in 1870 when Francis also moved to the seaside town of Dawlish, where he died soon after, on 26 February.
Brentmoor was then left empty for a number of years (in the 1881 census it was listed as 'uninhabited') but in the 1880s or 1890s, the house was owned by Mr. C.A. Mohun-Harris who commissioned the Hunter's Stone memorial which can be seen at the bottom of the track which passes by house which was in place by 1896. By the turn of the century, it was used as accommodation for the Master of the Dartmoor Foxhounds. Other owners are not known though the name Tuke has been given (though no indication if this is the same family which ran a compassionate asylum at Chiswick House between 1892-1928 or the Tukes who were part of Saffron Walden & North Essex Bank (Gibson, Tuke & Gibson)) but it was leased to William Ambrose Pritchard between 1914-1940. Interestingly, one possibility is that it was owned by the Duchy of Cornwall which apparently took ownership of properties given up by their previous owners (though not clear if this was via the 'bona vacantia' process) such as Archerton House and Prince Hall.
During WWII, from 1941-44, the house was leased by the Friends Relief Service (FRS) as an evacuation home for 16 deaf children from Hartley House school in Plymouth, plus three teachers and five staff from the FRS. After the war, the house became part of the Youth Hostel Association network until 1955 when population growth and urban expansion many miles away now created a new challenge for the house in the valley.
Dartmoor - wet, windswept, desolate and beautiful - has long been a resource for the rest of Devon. Granite quarrying, tin mining, and agriculture have shaped the landscape for generations. Its use as a potential source of water for growing urban areas had been recognised as far back as the 16th-century when the 17.5-mile Drake's Leat opened in 1591, providing fresh water to Plymouth. The leat, plus the Devonport Leat which was completed in the 1790s, supplied much of Plymouth's water until the 1880s when it was increasingly apparent that the infrastructure was insufficient and a new reservoir at Burrator became operational in 1894. This was followed by further reservoirs being completed but there was a continuous demand for more capacity. A new dam on the Avon river was proposed in 1948 and approved by the government in 1950. Construction started in 1954 on the concrete gravity wall which rises to the spillway, 94ft above the river level, and was completed in 1957 and now holds 305 million gallons.
Given the dam is two miles away from Brent Moor House, it may seem far-fetched to blame it for the demise of the house. However, given that the house was being used as a youth hostel, if there had been a catastrophic failure of the dam wall, the water would have thundered at immense speed down the valley and destroyed the house quicker than any alarm could warn the inhabitants. The house was closed up and dereliction and vandalism took their toll before the Royal Marines were brought in to finish the task with explosives in 1968, leaving the skeletal, moss-covered ruins now seen by thousands of walkers on their way to see the dam which condemned the house.
The Brent Moor (and neighbouring Dock Ridge) estate was last for sale in 2011, when it was advertised as 2,763 acres for £600,000. Interestingly, as of March 2021, both estates, with exactly the same acreage, are again for sale, this time for £750,000,