Events in and around Totnes

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Our visit to Totnes by Conversant Traveller

Jun 7 2017

It had been a day of dappled light and dragonflies. A day of strolling beside sun drenched vineyards, lazy meandering rivers and fragrant herb gardens alive with butterflies. As Hubbie and I sipped chilled glasses of sparkling wine and tucked into tranches of local cheese, we could be forgiven for thinking we were in the south of France, rather than southern England. We’d been exploring Devon, a county famous for it’s mysterious moors, sandy beaches, and national parks, yet it was a medieval market town that had our full attention today. It turns out there are plenty of fun things to do in Totnes, without a moor, beach or park in sight!

Totnes has a colourful and legendary history, packed full of mythical kings, lords and rebels, and merchants and soldiers. Today it’s known more for its cultural scene, independent local shops and a rather unique cosmopolitan countryside vibe. The town sits on the picturesque River Dart, the sort of tranquil pastoral scene where you’d expect to encounter characters from Wind in the Willows. There are lots of things to do in Totnes, from castles and museums to steam trains and boat trips, but we had our eye on something a little different.

Vineyards, ghosts and lettuce!

Saxon in origin, Totnes has been known for both craft and industry, and was once an important and prosperous centre for trade. Although it is still a thriving market town, the Totnes of today is more popular with the artistic community and attracts visitors from near and far to enjoy the buzzing cultural scene and picturesque countryside. The focal point is Totnes castle, commanding a dominant position overlooking the town, and the intriguing range of independent shops, cafes and galleries are all within easy walking distance. There is also plenty to do in the surrounding area, so we spent a fun filled day checking out the best things to do in and around Totnes. Read more….

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The River Dart and Totnes – Trade and the Town

Mar 27 2017

As well as being a key feature of the town’s picturesque landscape the River Dart has been an important part of trade in Totnes for hundreds of years. Today Totnes is a tourist hotspot but up until the late 20th century it was an important trading post on a busy river.

Wool and Wealth

Totnes owes much of its Elizabethan charm to the River Dart, the trade it enabled making many merchants rich and allowing them to build luxurious houses that still stand to this day. In the 16th century Wool and tin were the main exports, and helped Totnes to become the second wealthiest community in the country.

As Totnes failed to respond to new trends in cloth manufacturing, and tin production in Ashburton declined, the boom failed to last and trade on the river diminished. However, as of 1636 it was still rated the country’s fifth wealthiest community. As debris from the last of the tin mines made it difficult to navigate the river, traders started to go to Dartmouth instead.

Plains Sailing

It may not have recaptured the town’s Elizabethan heyday but the area of Totnes now known as The Plains was once a thriving district of factories exporting the goods they produced via The Dart. Notable businesses included cider makers Bentall, Lloyd and Co, and Symons and Co. Today upmarket residences can now be found where the factories once stood.

Although the coming of the railway reduced the demand for traders on the river the Dart remains an important part of the town’s economy as a tourist attraction. Anyone visiting Totnes can make the most of the beautiful river, whether it’s by hiring a canoe, walking along its banks, or taking a cruise down to Dartmouth.

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Local Heroes of Totnes

Mar 27 2017

In addition to inspiring a few modern musicians Totnes has had its fair share of historic success stories. Whether it’s the early exploration of Australia, or a connection to the inventor of the computer, the town has been home to important pioneers in their field. Below are four famous local heroes who have either lived in or were born in Totnes.

William John Wills
Visitors to the town may notice the Monolith that stands at the bottom of Fore Street. This is a monument to the explorer William John Wills, born in Totnes, the son of a local doctor. In 1861 he was part of an expedition that became the first to reach the Gulf of Carpentaria and cross Australia from North to South.

Mary Wesley
Although she wasn’t born in Totnes the famous novelist Mary Wesley did call it her home, and while living in Totnes wrote ten bestsellers. During her lifetime she sold over three million copies of her books in total.

Charles Babbage
Although it’s debatable whether Babbage was born in Totnes the farther of modern computing is definitely linked to the town. Not only was his Grandfather Benjamin Babbage the mayor of Totnes in 1754 but Babbage attended the King Edward VI Grammar school as well.

Dorothy Elmhirst
Last but not least Dorothy Elmhirst will be remembered for co-founding the Dartington Hall project with her husband Leonard. After buying the hall in 1925 the Elmhirsts set about restoring the place and turned it into a project that promoted progressive education and rural reconstruction.

As Totnes continues to be an inspiring place for artists, musicians, and innovators who knows what the future might hold for those born or living in the town today. Visitors can find out more about these local heroes by visiting Totnes museum, taking a stroll out to Dartington Hall or just walking around town.

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The Dart and Totnes – Bridges and Bridgetown

Mar 7 2017

Flowing from two sources on Dartmoor, down to the sea at Dartmouth, Totnes is an important stop along the River Dart situated between the moors and the river’s mouth. The town offers an excellent jumping off point for exploration of the river whether by foot, boat or canoe, and is the point where it becomes tidal.

Even for those who just want to admire the river without getting their feet wet there are many ways to enjoy the Dart, and many things Totnes has to thank the river for – and the two bridges crossing it.

Bridges and Bridgetown

Totnes Bridge has the honour of being the last bridge to cross the Dart before it reaches open sea, as plans to build a railway bridge across the river mouth from Kingswear to Dartmouth in the late 1900s never came to fruition.

There have been multiple bridges across the river in Totnes beginning with a river ford and evolving to the familiar stone bridge today. It was once a toll bridge that separated Bridgetown from Totnes until it was opened up on October 31st 1881 for everyone to cross.

A second bridge was built in 1982 and although less picturesque than the older bridge was necessary for the increasing amounts of traffic passing through Totnes and across the Dart. It is named the Brutus Bridge after the legendary founder of the town.

Whichever side of the bridge you’re on there are many places to enjoy the river from. Vire Island is worth a visit for anyone looking for a nice spot to enjoy a picnic. Although not a proper island the 400m peninsula is named after the French town Totnes is twinned with (not Narnia) and is the perfect spot for contemplating the river from in the summer. And there are plenty of restaurants  and cafes to eat or enjoy a drink in, high tide or low, rain or shine.

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From Troy to Totnes – The Tale of the Brutus Stone

Feb 21 2017

“Here I stand and here I rest, and this good town shall be called Totnes”.
These are the words with which Totnes is said to have been founded by Brutus the Trojan while standing on Fore Street’s easily missed granite attraction – The Brutus Stone.

Brutus in Britain

According to the legend of the Brutus Stone the origins of Totnes stretch all the way back to ancient Troy. After accidentally killing his father Brutus set off to Greece with his army of followers, where he defeated the king Pendrasu. The king gave Brutus his daughter to marry, and 324 well-stocked ships, at least one of which ended up on the River Dart.

Following the advice of the oracle Diana, who suggested the Trojans should travel to an island in the Western Seas that was possessed by Giants, Brutus set sail for Great Britain – at the time called Albion.

It was on the Brutus stone that he made his proclamation after landing on Britain’s shores, undeterred by the giants and attracted to Totnes by its location and fish-filled rivers. Not only was Totnes named by Brutus, but it’s said he named Britain after himself.

Ice Age to New Age

The Brutus legend is recorded in several ancient books, though there’s little evidence to suggest any of it is true. The stone itself probably settled in its location during the great Ice Age, and may have been called several things which sounded similar to ‘Brutus’.

More recently, when Fore Street was widened in 1810, the stone was reduced in height from 18 inches above ground to the level of the pavement. Whether or not Brutus stood on the stone it’s a town custom that royal proclamations should be read there by the mayor.

No matter how true they are, the legends surrounding Brutus and the stone persist and are enjoyed to this day. Visitors to Totnes can see the stone in the pavement on their right-hand side when walking up Fore Street next to number 51.

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Famous Tunesmiths from Totnes

Jan 31 2017

The street performers of Totnes are as much a part of the town’s character as its castle, shops, and quay, and while musical tastes may differ there’s no denying that a few Totnesian troubadors have gone on to greater things. Below are two popular musicians you may have heard of but may not have known hail from Totnes, and one to watch out for.

Joe from Metronomy

Electronic music group Metronomy was formed by Joseph Mount in Totnes in 1999. In addition to being the lead singer, and playing keyboard and guitar, Joe releases remixes of songs by the likes of Gorillaz and Lady Gaga under the Metronomy name. In 2016 Metronomy released their latest album Summer 08 though it was 2014’s Love Letters that delivered their highest chart position at number 7.

If the name of Metronomy’s first album Pip Paine (Pay the £5000 You Owe) seems familiar it was inspired by the message painted onto old cars parked around town.

Ben Howard

Although not born in Totnes, Ben’s musical career did start here – one of his first musical gigs was in the Seven Stars Hotel. Since then Ben has released two critically acclaimed albums, Every Kingdom and I Forgot Where We Were. In addition to his musical achievements which include two BRIT awards and a number one album, Ben also has the honour of appearing on the Totnes £10 note.

Ben’s clearly never forgotten his roots and the video for 2011’s ‘Keep Your Head Up’ was filmed at Dartington.

Ryan Keen

Busy working on his second album and one to watch out for Ryan Keen was a guitarist and songwriter for other musicians before starting his own career in 2009. You can find Ryan on Twitter or listen to his latest song ‘Guidance’ here.

With a thriving local music scene in Totnes and the South Hams the next big thing could be attending an open mic night near you, or even busking on the streets. So keep your eyes out and your ears open when you’re walking down the high street.

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A UK first opening in Totnes

Jan 27 2017

Totnes has always attracted forward-thinking businesses with social responsibility at the core.

Soon to open in Totnes is Earth.Food.Love. It is the UK’s only, family-run, organic, bulk-buy, zero waste shop! Focusing on creating a better future, they decided to look back to the past, where eating real food with minimal packaging was normal practice. They believe returning to these simple ways will benefit not only our own health, but the planets too.

The shop stocks a wide range of products such as grains, cereals, beans, legumes, flours, sugars, herbs, spices, loose leaf teas, nut butters, syrups, oils, vinegars, cleaning products and personal care products. Everything is self served and priced by weight, eliminating the toxic and wasteful packaging. Just take along any bottle, jar, tub or container; if it can be weighed, it can be used.

Earth.Food.Love is located at 101 High St, to find out further information check out their website www.thezerowasteshop.co.uk.

You can keep up to date by by liking their Facebook page.

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Sir Francis Drake and the Totnes Orange Race

Jan 17 2017

Sir Francis Drake is famous for many things – he helped defeat the Spanish Armada, brought the potato to England, and when he wasn’t messing round with spuds inadvertently started Totnes’s famous orange race.

On the third Tuesday of every August crowds gather to watch participants chase their juicy citrus fruits down the high street. And it all started when Drake didn’t dodge a delivery boy.

A juicy legend

The story goes that Sir Francis Drake bumped into a delivery boy carrying a basket of oranges at the top of town, sending the citruses tumbling down the hill. Because oranges were an exotic and expensive fruit at the time all the town’s children decided to chase after them and a legend was born.

Another version of the story, which identifies the boy as John Hayman, says that Drake offered him an orange which he dropped (perhaps in surprise as he had not seen an orange before) and let roll down the hill.

It wasn’t until the 1970s however that the first modern race was held, organised by the Totnes Elizabethan society.

Orange Tuesdays

Although the origins of the race may be legendary, the one rule is very real – competitors cannot carry their orange. They can however kick, throw, or roll it to get ahead. And if you’re wondering how judges tell the oranges apart they don’t – the rule is simply that the first person to cross the finish line with an intact orange wins.

The course runs for 450 metres from the Market Square and everyone is welcome to join. Younger participants race from the top of the high street and finish at the market square, for older ones the finish line is at the Seven Stars hotel. Winners get trophies and the satisfaction that they can run faster than a piece of fruit, and afterwards a charity auction is held.

Of course oranges aren’t quite as valuable now, and if you don’t fancy running down the hill after one you can walk into one of the town’s food shops and find a zesty treat.

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