If you’ve come to Totnes and wondered why the town has become a place of alternative lifestyles then look no further than Dartington, a village just a couple of miles outside of town.
The village is dominated by the Dartington Hall Estate which occupies 880 acres of this part of South Devon. With a long history dating back over a thousand years, it was bought by Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst in 1925 and since then has earned a reputation for being a centre for individual thinking and freedom of expression in music, art and all things ethical.
Many people who come to Dartington to visit the craft shopping outlet that used to be called the Cider Press Centre, probably don’t realise that Dartington Hall and gardens are open to the public and, apart from the car park, is completely free of charge.
To get there, you need to take the road out of the village towards Buckfastleigh from the roundabout at Shinner’s Bridge, and just past the Cider Press Centre (which is now imaginatively called the Shops at Dartington) is a turning on the right-hand side next to St Mary’s Church which leads down to the hub of the estate.
Most of the buildings are used and occupied by students, but you can’t fail to be impressed by the Great Hall as you walk into the courtyard. That said, it’s not quite as grand inside as it might first appear, and that’s because when the Elmhirsts bought this medieval mansion and estate, the Hall was in ruins and needed some serious renovation. Nevertheless, they did a good job, and it’s also interesting to note that previous owners included two of Henry VIII’s wives – Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr.
One of the joys of taking a look around the estate is the chance to wander around the tranquil gardens. They may not be quite up to the standard that you would expect from a National Trust property perhaps, but they are one of the area’s best kept secrets, and a real pleasure to walk around, especially as very few people come here.
The word ‘Garden’ probably conjures up an area of formal design with herbaceous borders and the like, but in reality, the 25 acres that it covers is more of an informal arrangement. Spring is especially alluring when banks of snowdrops give way to crocuses, daffodils, primroses and some especially magnificent magnolias.
Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst rejuvenated the medieval estate with ideas of their own, and there are some interesting sculptures dotted around that are no doubt there to get you thinking.
Try not to miss the one entitled Flora which is on the site of the Elmhirst’s ashes.
If your first port of call at Dartington Estate was the Great Hall, then it may also be your final one as well because attatched to it is the White Hart. As you might imagine, the food on offer and everything connected with it is done as ethically as possible, which doesn’t necessarily translate as cheap, but any profits that they do make gets ploughed back into the system that is held so dear here – to help make society a better place – and who could argue with that?
I couldn’t possibly let you leave Dartington though without mentioning another pub – the Cott Inn, which is located in Cott Road on the other side of the roundabout at Shinner’s Bridge.
According to the date above the entrance, this pub has had a licence since 1320, and was apparently named after a Dutchman called Johannes Cott, who converted the original cottages into a staging post for shepherds and their flocks on their way to the port at Totnes.
There are older pubs elsewhere but what I like about The Cott is that its appearance would have hardly changed over the years. You won’t find a longer thatched pub roof anywhere – at least not in England, and the inside has many genuine reminders of how long the building has stood here.
I haven’t brought you to Dartington for a pub crawl though, because for me, the Dartington Estate is a hidden gem in this corner of the South Devon countryside: The Elmhirsts were, in a way, ahead of their time, and their philosophy is one that we should aspire to – if only most of us didn’t have to live in the real world instead
POSTED – FEB 2021