Our next stop was the town of Totnes, which contains the last physical crossing over the River Dart before it runs down between Dartmouth/Kingswear, which are linked by the Dart Ferries, and then out into the English Channel. Totnes Castle is a major landmark, in a prominent position above the town…
Status: South Hams District, Devon, Town, England
Eating & Sleeping: N/A
Attractions: Totnes Castle, River Dart, Totnes Pound, Guildhall, Jubilee Fountain, Dartmouth Inn, Wills Obelisk, St Marys Church, Mill Trail, High Street etc
Our exploration of Totnes began on a road called New Walk, which runs parallel to the river. As we made our way towards the town centre we found a pleasant little side street, which contained an elegant Fountain, dating back to 1904. It stands as a Memorial to the 60 years on the throne by Queen Victoria (1819 – 1901) between 1837 and 1897, which culminated in her Diamond Jubilee Celebrations all over the UK and the rest of the British Empire.
Behind the Fountain, at the end of the street is a large cream, Grade II Listed building called the “Dartmouth Inn” which began life around the time that Victoria took the throne, sometime after 1834. It consists of 3 storeys, and it remains a popular local pub just a few minutes away from the historic sites of the town, and the riverside. For anyone interested in dropping in for a drink, you can visit their official website here.
At the end of New Walk, we reached a small roundabout where (clockwise from New Walk) Fore Street, Coronation Road and Bridgetown all meet up. If you follow Coronation Road you will reach the Totnes Tourist Information Centre in around 2 minutes, with the local Hospital located another minute past that.
Looking out over the roundabout is our 2nd monument of the day, taking the form of a tall Granite Obelisk, completed in 1864. It is dedicated to a man called William John Wills (1834 – 1861) a local born in Totnes who is famous for being the 2nd in Command of the Burke & Wills Expedition. The object was to traverse the length of Australia from South: Melbourne to North: Flinders River. This made William, along with his co-explorer and 1st in Command, Robert O’Hara Burke (1821 – 1861, Irish Police Officer), the 1st White Men to traverse this area of Australia. Sadly both men perished on the return trip, and out of the 19 men who started the expedition only 1 returned to Melbourne alive, as 7 members died and the rest resigned at the Northern end.
As its name suggests, the road called Bridgetown leads straight to a bridge that crosses the River Dart over to the Eastern portion of the town. The Bridge is known as the Totnes Bridge, and was both designed and built by Charles Fowler (1792 – 1867, English Architect from nearby Cullompton), and completed in 1828. Interestly, it is also the final bridge that crosses the Dart, despite the river flowing for at least another 10 miles, and exiting into the English Channel between the town of Dartmouth and the village of Kingswear, which can only access each other using 1 of the 3 Dart Ferries. This creates a problem for travellers in the Dartmouth area trying to reach Torquay (or vice versus) as if they miss the final ferry of the day through Kingswear then it’s a significant detour to go round via Totnes.
Before you reach the main portion of the river here, you first cross the “Mill Tail” which is a side channel of the Dart. The area between the Mill Tail and the river is called Vire Island, which is technically a small peninsula. The Tail gets its name from the old Mills and Factories that line this side of the riverbank, with the main building being the Town Mill, which currently houses the Tourist Information Office. Completed in the 16th Century, the building was in use for several centuries afterwards, until around 1945 when it was amalgamated with the adjacent Bacon Factory until 1990. Fully restored, the Information Office moved in a decade later . Other local warehouses and factories include Holmans Warehouse (Mid 19th Century), the old Cider Factory (Early 19th Century), as well as the aforementioned Bacon Factory Main Premises Warehouse (1850’s, extended 20th Century).
This is a view of the main section of the Dart, with various small boats moored up in the centre. It’s a picturesque area of Devon to explore, and traversing the river by boat downstream of Totnes will uncover various scenic and historical gems, until you eventually reach Dartmouth, where you may even spot the Kingswear-Paignton Steam Railway, with trains running along the riverbank next to you. Regular cruises on a ferry down the river are available, and you can find out more here.
Moving onto the high street (Fore Street), there is a plethora of old and interesting buildings as you ascend towards the Church, Guildhall and eventually the Castle at the top of the hill. Nearly all the buildings on this street are Grade I or II Listed, so wherever you look, you are looking at a piece of history. A few examples of this include:
1) The building directly to the left of Peacocks is “Number 27 Fore Street”, a 19th Century addition to the street which has a red brick front, and a roof tiled with Welsh Slate.
2) To the left of that is “Number 29 Fore Street” which is much older, dating back to either the late 16th or early 17th Century. The frontage however is an 18th Century addition, although the structure of the original building survives behind. It is now occupied by a Superdrug, and has a large modern extension to the rear of the property.
3) One of the grandest buildings on this row is the Lloyds Bank Building, to the left of Number 29. It is one of many Banks that occupies a number of grand stone buildings around the Country, many of which were custom built for the Banks themselves. This particular one is mid 19th Century, and was designed in the “Florentine Renaissance” style.
Directly across from Lloyds Bank is the “King Edward VI School”, a 3 storey Red Brick Mansion built in 1797, to replace the old 17th Century complex of an Orchard, Chapel and House which belonged to Henry James, the Mayor of Totnes in both 1637 and 1651.
It has gone through several name changes throughout its life, from “The Mansion” when it was first built, to “Hele’s School” in the 1870s and 80s, to the King Edward VI Grammar School by 1887. The School itself had been founded in 1553, in honour of the passing of King Edward VI (1537 – 1553) who became King at the age of 9 and died of sickness aged only 15.
The School has since had the Grammar dropped from the name, and was greatly expanded in 1902. Today it is part of a larger set of buildings that forms the “King Edward VI Community College”.
Further up the street, on the same side as Mansion House, you will come across the Totnes Museum, housed in one of the oldest buildings in the town. Built around 1575, this stunning building was originally the home of the Kelland Family.
After much restoration it is now presented as an “Authentic Elizabethan Merchants House” and contains the towns Museum, which includes 12 different galleries, showcasing inventions from Charles Babbage (1791 – 1871, English Mathematician, who invented the 1st ever Mechanical Computer” and studied at the King Edward VI School) and many others, as well as a history of the town and finds going back centuries from the local area. Along with these you could visit the Herb Garden outside, or the old Courtyard.
The building is exquisite, and behind the vertical windows on the 2nd storey can be found the Victorian Nursery, furnished with items relevant to the period.
Just slightly further up the street is the famous Totnes Clock, housed in the “Eastgate” which also forms part of “Number 2, High Street”. The Gate is part of the original Town defences from around the 14th century, a few different parts of which exist, such as the North Gate on Castle Street. There was a West Gate a bit further back down the hill but it was demolished in 1810. The Eastgate was given a new Victorian front from around 1835, with the Clock being added around 1880. Tragedy struck in 1990 when it was gutted by fire, along with surrounding buildings but thankfully the whole lot was restored, with even a new Clock from the right era being gifted by the University at Kingston-upon-Thames in London. Walking underneath it is a common route used to get to the Castle, although we took a slightly different route…
Just opposite the Totnes Museum is a set of steps that leads up to a road called the “Guildhall Yard” which runs around the edge of the Churchyard of St Mary’s Church, shown above. It began life as a Benedictine Priory sometime before 1432, most likely around 1088. The local Mayor, John Burhed, gave permission for the building to be rebuilt in the 15th Century and all the major sections of the building, from the Nave to the Chancel were rebuilt by 1448, with the tower being completed in 1459, to designs by Roger Crowden. The building uses some rather unusual materials, compared to a lot of other Churches we have seen, with the roof again being Welsh Slate, and the rest of the structure is made out of a red sandstone from the surrounding county.
Across the way from the Church, down the right hand side when looking at the picture above, lies the Medieval Guildhall from the 16th Century. Before it was converted, the building was once part of the complex of buildings that made up the Priory, until 1553 when King Edward VI allowed it to be used as the new Guildhall. By 1624 the building also contained a Magistrates Court, and was in use during the English Civil War (1642 – 1651) as a Prison, a function which it retained until 1887. Court functions later ceased in 1974, but it is mostly famous for its lower hall, which has been used throughout history for conferring the title of Mayor on an individual, with some counts suggesting over 600 such ceremonies have taken place here.
The Guildhall and St Marys are both tucked away away from the high street, surrounded by other buildings on all sides and if it hadn’t been for our curiosity in seeing the steps leading up to the churchyard we most likely wouldn’t have even known the Guildhall was here. Thats what makes exploration so interesting, heading away from the main routes through towns and cities, and discovering little gems like these.
We exited the Churchyard round by the front of the Church, past the Guildhall, and used a small passageway to then rejoin the high street and continue our journey up the hill towards the Castle. On the way, we passed Totnes Civic Centre, home of Totnes Town Council. Just outside the town South Hams District Council also have their headquarters. So far I am unable to find a completion date for the building, but whilst it’s a modern building its style fits in well with the rest of the town, and there is a pleasant square outside known as Civic Centre square.
We finally reached the top of the hill, and gazed up in awe at the almost intact ruins of Totnes Castle. This imposing figure looks out over the town, keeping watch on the valley below. It predates the town defences, back to the 11th Century, when the original Norman version was constructed, and the earth works from this time still survive. A Motte & Bailey Castle, a common feature around the UK including Clitheroe in Lancashire and Carrickfergus in N. Ireland followed, before being replaced in the 13th Century by the original stone version, in the shape of a large circle. This is the same design that survives today, although this is actually the version from the 14th Century, after a rebuild of the previous incarnation. Incredibly most of the building is actually intact, and the way it looks now is pretty much how it would have been centuries ago.There are two storeys, the ground floor, and then an outer rim where you can look out over the ramparts, accessible via a short stone spiral staircase.
It is an English Heritage owned property so there is a small charge to visit the Castle, although it is certainly worth it. Once you get past the entrance gate you come out at the bottom of the steps, and ascend up through the main Castle entrance into the inner courtyard. There are outlines in stone on the floor so presumably there were other inner walls once upon a time. You can then climb one of the spiral staircases to the ramparts, and gaze out over the town. You can see the length of the high street, and St Mary’s is the most obvious landmark from here, rising high above the rest of the town. You can even see as far down as the river Dart, and looking North West (not pictured) you can spot the local train station.
The view from us here is fantastic, and you can see how the town is surrounded on all sides by luscious green hills, in the heart of the Devon countryside. This marked the end to an interesting few hours of exploration through Totnes, and we made our way back down the hill towards the car.
Like the city of Bristol, Totnes has its own local currency, an initiative launched to try and keep money in the local economy. Totnes Pounds can only be spent in Totnes, so the aim is to get locals and tourists alike to start using the currency so that more money is spent in Totnes itself and the local area. Bank of England money can be traded in for the currency, at a rate of £1 = 1 Totnes Pound and they can be bought at various local shops. There are at least 4 different notes, the Blue £1, the Green £5, the Orange £10 and the new Purple £21. There are no coins issued as part of the currency so any change received from spending the notes is in Bank of England money. Other places around the UK with their own currency include Bristol, Brixton, Eko (Scotland), Lewes and Stroud. (All credit to http://www.samskara-design.com for the picture!)
Totnes has a local railway station which 1st opened in 1847 and lies on the line between Exeter and Plymouth, as well as Cross Country routes from Penzance in Cornwall, through Devon and up to Edinburgh/Aberdeen in Scotland via most major towns and cities in the East & West Midlands, Yorkshire and the North East. Local buses operate to nearby towns such as Dartmouth and Torquay, and the nearest motorway is the M5 which begins 25 miles away in the city of Exeter and then runs up towards Birmingham, past interchanges with the M4 (For South Wales and London) and connects with the M6 (For Manchester, Liverpool, Lancashire, Cumbria and Scotland). Exeter also has an International Airport, and Bristol International Airport is a further 65 miles up the M5.
Totnes is a beautiful little town, in a great location, with views to match from the top of Totnes Castle, and a plethora of listed buildings lining the high street. Our next stop was the town of Paignton, as we made our way towards the major town of Torquay…