On the ‘Welcome to Totnes’ sign that greets people to the town somebody added ‘Twinned with Narnia’ below it. It’s been removed since by those who don’t have a sense of humour, but to me it’s a perfect description of Totnes.
The town has been described as ‘New Age’, ‘Alternative’ and even ‘eccentric’ but however you like to describe it, Totnes is different to any other town in the South Hams, or even Devon for that matter.
The alternative lifestyle that many people in and around Totnes have adopted originally stems from the Dartington Hall Estate, and in particular the ideas of Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst who came here in 1925. Dartington is just a couple of miles outside of Totnes and is worthy of a separate article, but for now I’ll just say that it’s somewhere that specializes in the ‘arts, social justice and sustainability’.
Students from Dartington have walked the streets of Totnes (barefoot sometimes) for many years, and their unorthodox lifestyle spilled over into the type of clothes they wore, the food they ate, and the life they led – and others followed.
Rob Hopkins, an activist and writer on environmental issues, moved to Totnes in 2005 and the following year created the ‘Transition Town Movement’, making Totnes his first Transition Town. The network has now expanded into around 1,400 communities in over 50 countries.
It was this ecologically motivated organisation that introduced the Totnes Pound, and the idea spawned any number of local currencies elsewhere, but unfortunately for Rob and his followers the modern day has finally caught up with them because as people use cash less and less then the need for the Totnes Pound (or any cash for that matter) has diminished, and the currency ceased to exist on 30th June 2019. It’s a shame in a way because it helped small businesses in the town, and I’ve never heard of any fraud, insider dealing, or money laundering activities going on: Neither by the way, could you have an offshore account, unless there was one on Burgh Island that I haven’t heard about.
It may be that it’s one battle lost, but the environmentally aware and ethical people of Totnes are not in any danger of allowing globalization to take over the town any time soon. Back in 2012 they saw off Costa Coffee even though the company’s plans to open an outlet in the High Street were approved.
High Street and Fore Street has attracted all sorts of other businesses that follow the green credentials the alternative followers of fashion require.
In the seventies and eighties these people would have been called hippies or nats (New Age Travellers), but these days they are just as likely to be well-heeled DFLs (Down from London) shopping for ‘Conker’ shoes, crystals or ‘New Age Chic’ clothes.
That’s not to say that everyone in Totnes follows the same path. There are people who “want their town back”, and are more than happy to have a Costa Coffee, and buy their pork sausages in the local butchers; but although there’s a lot more to Totnes than its alternative lifestyle (and which I’ll be writing about in due course), there’s no denying that it likes to live up to its reputation as the New Age capital of Britain, as some people call it.
As you might imagine, alternative remedies are a thriving business in Totnes, and no self-respecting alternative society should be without a magical well to meditate over, and you’ll be glad to know that Totnes has its very own shrine – The Leechwell.
Situated at the top end of town The Leechwell has been associated with healing properties for centuries.
There are 3 springs which have their own granite trough – The Snake (for snake bites), The Toad (for skin problems) and Long Crippler (Local name for Slow Worm – for eye problems).
These days the local New Age fraternity think of them somewhat differently. One is still for healing; another one is for Good Luck and the third is for its spirituality.
As if to enforce its mystical properties they have taken to adorning the well with ribbons. What effect that’s supposed to have I have absolutely no idea, but who cares if it keeps ‘em off the magic mushrooms? – Welcome to Narnia!