In 2007 Time magazine described Totnes, as one of the funkiest small towns in the world and in many ways it is, but that of course, is not all it is.
It is definitely a fascinating little place full of character and charm. At its heart lies the Civic Square, somewhat tired now, but enlivened every Friday and Saturday with its weekly market, where the dhosa stall vies for custom with Sharpham cheeses and Indian jewellery and furniture stalls spill out onto the pavements around. Posters advertising shamanic dance classes adorn the notice boards along with invitations to climate activism and humanist potluck suppers. This is the Totnes that fills newspaper bylines with cliched copy about eccentricity and transition towns and crystals and healing, but the other Totnes, the Totnes which has occupied its strategic spot on the river Dart since Brutus first wandered up the riverbank and decided it was a good place to stop, is too often overlooked.
Brutus was the perfect founder for a town which has attracted its fair share of myths and legends. He was a prince of Troy and his first step onto what would later become Totnes is commemorated by a large stone situated halfway up Totnes High Street; a dandelion pokes its way out from behind and hordes of people tread over it on their way upwards. The cheerful irreverence with which our founding stone is treated is reflected as you make your way up our historic high street. There are more listed buildings here than in any other high street in the country, sixty-six all told, but they are hidden behind hoardings and street signs, often unnoticed and unloved. They are though, a glorious jumble of styles and ages. You need to look up and you will be rewarded with the sight of medieval mullion windows, gargoyles of local unpopular townsmen and lit from underneath, fabulous moulded ceilings. The restored Elizabethan arch which commuters now rattle under on their rat run back home, breaks the line of the ancient walls of the medieval town and if you were to turn right here you can follow the walls past the back of St Mary’s, cross in front of the 16th century Guildhall and emerge at the entrance to one of the best preserved motte and bailey castles in the country.
Back on the High Street, you will notice amongst the esoteric bookshops and organic butchers, signs of neglect. We almost have too much history. We have become blase with our riches. We need someone to stand on the side of the street like a town cryer, shouting at passerbyers – ‘This is a Tudor building, look at it, appreciate it, it’s wonderful’. Set back, under a decrepit and abandoned Budgens, lies the remains of the ancient priory. An enormous medieval well, once possibly full of nourishing eels, rests under the late supermarket’s refrigeration section and the car park could presumably, contain even more archaeological riches. If it’s anything like Salisbury’s Tesco car park, we might even find a king, but nobody has looked. The original guildhall, the Gydallia of Totta, is falling into the street, one of the protected buildings above the Tudor Butterwalk is in such a bad state of repair, that its neighbours fear it will topple into them, sending them all cascading in a domino shower of medieval dust into the Narrows. We have a trio of medieval leech wells, more visited nowadays by people walking their dogs, than those who would appreciate that once lepers made their painful way up the path to pray for a miracle and bathe their sick limbs in the healing waters of Toad Well, Snake Well and Long Crippler. The streams that feed these springs run under the modern car parks, around secret, underground passageways and slip down unseen to the River Dart.
The most shaming fact of all, is that our beautiful, medieval, red sandstone church is on the At Risk register and has been there for a while. In this age of austerity, we need to protect and cherish our ancient buildings ourselves, so that we can pass on not only our legacy of ‘funkiness’, but also the rare and wonderful physical remains that lie all around us. To that end we are raising money to firstly, protect, restore and rejuvenate our church, St Mary’s so that we can take it off the At Risk register and make it more accessible and welcoming for church services. We also want to have a church that will serve the community as a space for music, theatre, shows and whatever else a 21st century Totnesian might value. We will then move on to opening up the churchyard with improved pathing, benches and landscape and a history hub with accompanying trail. Our third phase will be to embrace the history around the church, to help with heritage projects, to promote and encourage the preservation of our buildings, streets and squares. It’s an extraordinary little town, lets cherish it and make sure it continues to be, well into the future.