Totnes. Past and Present. Points in Wikipedia. 35 years of residence. Explorations in recent decades.

A new Totnes resident told me this week to take a look at the Wikipedia page on Totnes (Devon, England). I learnt quite a lot more about the history of Totnes,where I live and love.

I have listed below some of the features of Totnes, past and present, on Wikipedia. I have also followed the list up with a few paragraphs on Totnes and my connection with the town.

Various Points in Wikipedia on Totnes

  • Totnes has a long-recorded history, dating back to AD 907, when its first castle was built.
  • Totnes was an important market town by the 12th century.
  • Today, the town is a thriving centre for music, art, theatre and natural health.
  • It has a sizeable alternative community,
  • It is known as a place where one can live a bohemian lifestyle.
  • At the 2011 census, the combined population of Totnes and Bridgetown (just over the bridge from Totnes) was 8,076 residents.
  • According to the Historia Regum Britanniae, written by Geoffrey of Monmouth in around 1136, Brutus of Troy, the mythical founder of Britain, first came ashore in Totnes. (Brutus became name of Britain).
  • Set into the pavement of Fore Street is the ‘Brutus Stone’, a small granite boulder onto which, according to local legend, Brutus first stepped from his ship.
  • The stone is first mentioned in John Prince’s Worthies of Devon in 1697.
  • The name Totnes (first recorded in AD 979) comes from the Old English personal name Totta and ness or headland
  • By 1523, according to a tax assessment, Totnes was the second richest town in Devon, and the sixteenth richest in England.
  • A Benedictine priory building, founded in 1088, was used as Totnes Guildhall and a school.
  • In 1624, the Guildhall was converted to a magistrate’s court. Soldiers were billeted here during the English Civil War and Oliver Cromwell visited for discussions.
  • Until 1887, the Guildhall was also used as the town prison with the addition of prison cells. It stayed a magistrate’s court until 1974.
  • In August 2009, Totnes became the first constituency to select the Conservative PPC (Parliamentary candidate) through an open primary organised by the local Conservative Association.
  • In 2009, Totnes Rural was the only county division in Devon to elect a Green councillor.
  • Totnes is twinned with the French town of Vire.
  • Totnes is twinned with the fantasy land of Narnia. A local joke.
  • The stone bridge in Totnes was built in 1826. At low tide the foundations of the earlier stone bridge are visible just upstream—it was probably built in the early 13th century and widened in 1692.
  • Totnes has facilities for artists, painters and musicians, and there is a twice-weekly market offering antiques, musical instruments, second-hand books, handmade clothing from across the world, and local organically produced products.
  • In 2007, Time magazine declared Totnes the Capital of New Age Chic.
  • In 2005, Highlife, the British Airways magazine, declared it Top 10 Funky Towns.
  • In March 2007 Totnes was the first town in Britain to introduce its own local alternative currency, the Totnes pound, to support the local economy of the town.
  • By May 2008, 70 businesses within the town were trading in the “Totnes Pound,” accepting them as payment and offering them to shoppers as change from their purchases.
  • The initiative is part of the Transition Towns concept.
  • Loss of revenue from Dartington College of Arts which moved to Falmouth in 2010, was partially offset by increased visitors due to interest in Totnes’s worldwide status as a Transition Town.
  • A prominent feature of the town is the Eastgate—an arch spanning the middle of the main street. This Elizabethan entrance to the walled town was destroyed in a fire in September 1990, but was rebuilt.
  • The ancient Leechwell, so named because of the supposed medicinal properties of its water, and apparently where lepers once came to wash, still provides fresh water.
  • Totnes Elizabethan House Museum is in one of the many authentic Elizabethan merchant’s houses in the town, built around 1575.
  • King Edward VI Community College more popularly known as KEVICC, is the local secondary school which shares its name with the former grammar school set up by King Edward VI over 450 years ago.
  • At the western edge of the town is the Dartington Hall Estate, which includes the Schumacher College and, until July 2010, included Dartington College of Arts.
  • The Totnes Wikipedia page lists around 35 ‘notable people’ of Totnes, both past and present.

Coffee Shops and Making Contacts

Between 1996 and 2014, I made the daily pilgrimage for a latte to The Barrel House on Totnes high street. I spent many hours there over the years talking with friends, writing essays and poems. I mentioned the Barrel House in the acknowledgments in about three of my books. After the Barrel House became a pub specialising in different beers, I moved to a new coffee shop, The Curator, on the Plains, just around the corner at the bottom of the high street, for my soya latte.

Italian based, the Curator developed quickly an international reputation for offering coffee cuisine. The Curator provides a sublime coffee while some of us there plot a spiritual revolution and the downfall of right wing politics.

We have around 26 coffee shops/teashops/café/restaurants in Totnes, portable coffee shop on a bike, organic food shops, 11 charity shops and cinema of thoughtful films, often requested by locals, on the Dartington Estate.

People come from all over the country and worldwide to experience the beauty, tranquillity and culture of south Devon. The population of Totnes doubles in the spring/summer/autumn months.

It is easy to get a flavour of Totnes. See the countless number of posters, advertisements, brochures and flyers on the walls or in certain shop windows advertising every inner transformation of the mind/body/spirit along with a depth of exploration of the creativity, the arts, community, meetings including consciousness café, death café, Palestinian Support Group, Combatants for Peace, annual Gay Parade, allotments, classical concerts, contemporary music, traditional dancing, such as Morris Dancing, the markets and street entertainment. See advertisements in local magazines, the Totnes directory, as well as google Totnes.

Numerous protests and demonstrations have taken place on the high street.I can recall emailing on a Friday evening a single, last minute message asking people to join me in a silent, slow, single file walking vigil with posters against one of the wars the British government had sanctioned. A whole line of  people turned up at 11 am on the Saturday morning. Others joined us as we walked.

Totnes lit the spark for the Transition Town movement, founded by Rob Hopkins in 2006, with more than 1000 cities and towns worldwide, who have since taken up similar initiatives for a sustainable world.

Last year, hundreds of Totnesians attended a public meeting in the Civic Hall to develop ways to support refugees and asylum seekers from the war-torn Arab nations.

The Red Cross director told us it was the biggest meeting he had spoken to in 13 years in the West Country of Britain where he had spoken in various cities and large towns.

There were various local efforts to offer hospitality and other initiatives to make refugees welcome. A small group of women drove a truck of goods from Totnes to Calais to support the asylum seekers there

Home for 35 years

I have had the privilege of living in Totnes since 1982 – around 35 years, and nearly half my life.

Apart from a few months upon arrival with Gwanwyn and our daughter, Nshorna, then a year old, I have lived in the same terraced house, five minutes’ walk from the high street. As soon as we arrived, I knew that we had found the right place to live. Gwanwyn still lives nearby.

In 1982, two friends, Murray and Shanti (parents of Mitra, then aged 3), encouraged us to come and visit Totnes a few weeks after they rented a winter-let. Andrew Page introduce me to meet Maurice Ash, the owner of the Sharpham Estate and chairperson of the Dartington Estate.

Through the extraordinary hospitality of Maurice, we set up in 1983 a community on the top floor of his Palladian style house with the grandest staircase imaginable. The community offered Dharma teachings, workshops, courses, mindfulness/meditation and much more. Today, Sharpham House has become an important centre for mindfulness courses as well as various other initiatives.

Through the great generosity of Maurice, he also paid for the conversion into a retreat centre. of a 18th century barn and access to the Barn on his estate. We offered residential retreats with teachings, community life, meditation and work on the land – overlooking the winding River Dart. The Barn continues and is often full for many weeks in the year.

We set up Gaia House, nine miles north of Totnes when Dharma friends kindly donated money to buy in 1993 the vicarage in the village. We ran a full programme of Buddhist retreats throughout the year.

In 1996, Gaia House, a registered charity, bought the 54-bedroom convent with a church attached. Gaia House has established itself as one of the major retreat centres in the UK including longer term personal retreats.

I stood twice for Parliament for the Green Party in the Totnes constituency in 1986 and 1992. I might have knocked on most doors in Totnes and Bridgetown and many houses elsewhere or pushed leaflets through doors with a team of green activists. Around 80,00 people live in the constituency with around 10% resident in Totnes/Bridgetown.

It is not a good time to knock on a front door when East Enders, a soap opera is on BBC TV. A few occupants do not even answer the door while others say “No thank you” before a word is said and rush back to the TV.

Totnes and environment continues to reinvent itself

There is a wish to explore the best of the past with a determination to develop progressive ideas in the inner and outer world. In very general terms, here is an expression of developments in and around Totnes in recently decades with much overlapping.

  • A 1000 year old market and boat building town, 
  • 1920-30s. Purchase of estate to start Dartington School as the country’s most progressive school. Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore inspired the school, which Mr. and Mrs Leonard Elmhirst launched. Elmhirst declined the title of Baronet in the late 1940s.  “It would not be easy for my friends to comprehend” he wrote to the Prime Minister.  Leonard Elmhirst lived in the Totnes area. If he accepted the baronet, he would be addressed as “Sir” rather than Leonard or Mr. Elmhirst.
  • 1970s, First natural health centre in the UK, funded by Ruth Ash of Sharpham Estate, women’s book shop, Cranks vegetarian food and Sacks organic food shop, complementary medicine. The media named Totnes as Britain’s New Age capital.
  • 1980s, Establishing of centres for retreats, training in mind/body, psychotherapy, Alexander Technique, developing of progressive schools such as Steiner School, Park School. Upsurge of mind/body/spirit, healers, psychotherapy, homeopaths, yoga etc. Expansion of such initiatives beyond Totnes into South Devon.
  • 1990s Developing spirituality/ecology/inner-outer awareness/green politics/protests against wars, nuclear power and environmental destruction, vegetarian/vegan diet, home births, festivals and gatherings.  Development of small communities, shared housing with shared values. Classes in Hindi for those on a spiritual journey to India.
  • 2000s. Launch of Transition Town movement in 2006, consciousness raising groups, meditation, non-duality, ayahuasca, meetings for social/political change, green local council, recycling, transition streets, co-operation between small businesses, energy renewal, spirituality, education, and development of green agenda for local issues.
  • 2010 and after. Expansion of arts and culture after departure in 2008 of Dartington Art College to Cornwall. (Art students deleted the word ‘art’ from all street signposts to Dartington in protest at the move).  Totnes radio. Campaign to protest local small businesses from big businesses, such as coffee chains. Beautiful design of Totnes currency in various size notes (by Rick Lawrence of Totnes). More  people are migrating from major cities to Totnes and south Devon to explore a different lifestyle. More people coming to Totnes to learn from the culture rather than for a holiday. Continued exploration of local and global issues.


Best of all, come to Totnes.

Spend a few days in the area or much longer.

Join some of the groups, meetings, workshops, courses taking place.

Experience the natural beauty, the soft rolling hills, the River, nearby Dartmoor with its expanse of solitude and the bare cliff tops mile after mile along the south Devon coast.

Keep your eyes and ears open for a whole range of thoughtful, funky, innovative, caring and conscious people and a whole range of worthwhile small businesses.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.