Totnes has a reputation for being one of the country’s quirkiest towns, and even its foundation has a mythical story attatched to it. According to legend, after being defeated in the Trojan War, the Trojans sailed off to find another home, and one of them, a prince by the name of Brutus, landed at Totnes, where he proclaimed “Here I stand and here I rest, and this town shall be called Totnes”.
Thanks largely to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century account Historia Regum Britanniae, Brutus was regarded as the founder of the Britons and therefore the first King of Britain. If you subscribe to this part of our island’s history, and want to embrace it even more, then there’s a granite slab in Fore Street called the Brutus Stone, which is supposed to be the spot where he came ashore. Seeing that it lies several hundred yards uphill from the river, either the stone or the river has moved since then, but I suppose that wouldn’t bother anyone who has magic mushrooms on toast for breakfast.
As I wasn’t around at the time of Brutus, and there’s no concrete evidence to support the claim, I’m going to move on to AD 907 when King Edward the Elder is known to have replaced the burg at Halwell with one here at Totnes.
Burghs were Anglo-Saxon fortified settlements, and it was Edward the Elder’s father, Alfred the Great, who created a network of these burghs around Devon (and elsewhere) for protection against Viking raids.
The burgh at Totnes would have been ideally placed to thwart any Viking incursions up the River Dart, as it was as far as the tide would be able to take them. If you take a look at the town from above on Google Maps you should be able to make out the extent of the original Saxon burgh with the castle at the top of the hill. The Norman castle wasn’t here then of course, but it seems like a good place to start our tour of the town.
The first Norman castle was constructed by a man named Juhel, one of William the Conqueror’s Breton commanders, and was built to keep both the local Saxon population under control and to guard the crossing point over the river.
His impressive motte and bailey earthwork still survives and is one of the best preserved in England, but the original wooden tower and palisade was replaced by a more robust construction in the early 13th century. This was also replaced about a hundred years later by the stone structure that is still here today.
The castle never saw any serious military action and so there’s no history of any real consequence either, but you would be wrong to think it’s not worth paying it a visit because the motte and bailey earthwork and remaining circular stone tower are both in excellent condition – and of course, there are also those fabulous views from the top.
As the title of this post suggests, Totnes is somewhere to wander through rather than around, and that’s because the road that runs down in a straight line from the castle at the top of the town to the river at the bottom covers most of the things of interest that visitors would want to see.
This spinal cord is in two parts; High Street runs from the top of the town to Eastgate Arch (and is the original Saxon and Medieval part of town) and then Fore Street which takes over and continues down to The Plains which lies next to the river.
The natural way to go after visiting the castle is to turn left at the top of Castle Street and start walking down High Street, but if you’re not in a hurry then I suggest you turn right instead and walk along The Narrows. Officially speaking, it’s still the High St but it’s been known as The Narrows for so long that everybody just calls it that, and it’ll soon become obvious why.
It’s an area full of old buildings, unusual shops and vegetarian cafes, and ends in a short distance at The Rotherfold, a square that was used as a cattle market for hundreds of years, not that you would realise it nowadays.
After taking the short diversion up through the Narrows, we need to return back to Castle Street where the High Street starts to descend down towards the Eastgate Arch, but don’t be in too much of a hurry, because this top end of town is not just the oldest, but in my view, also the most interesting.
On either side of the High Street are two covered walkways: On the right-hand side is the Poultrywalk and on the left-hand side, the Butterwalk, both of which were built during Tudor times to protect their market goods from being exposed to the elements.
The buildings themselves have also been adapted to protect them from the weather using slates hung on the timber-framed facades. This is not an unusual feature in South Devon, but Totnes has to be one of the best places to see them. Bogan House at Number 43 in the Butterwalk is also a museum of period costume if you’re into that sort of thing.
If period costume really is your thing and you’re here on a Tuesday morning during the summer months, then you might want to nip across the road from the Butterwalk to Market Square where stallholders dress up in Tudor costume for the weekly Elizabethan market.
The square used to be known as The Shambles, the traditional name for the meat market, but after several changes, especially after a fire in the 1950s it has become a rather nondescript square housing the Civic Hall. Fridays and Saturdays hold a more traditional open-air market, but traditional in Totnes may be slightly different to what the word means elsewhere.
I don’t normally use my camera for taking videos, but I’ve included this lame effort as an experiment, and also to show you what Totnes Market and the Butterwalk are like. Apologies for the rather abrupt ending.
Continuing on down High Street, you won’t be able to miss the handsome-looking St. Mary’s Church on the left-hand side. The 15th century red sandstone building is at least the third church on this site, replacing the Norman one which had already replaced the original Saxon St. Mary’s. If you have time it’s worth looking inside if only to see the superb 15th century stone Rood Screen.
If you’ve been following my blogs you should realise by now that I know very little about anything of any consequence, and nothing about anything that is – and here’s another example that will probably only interest somebody who plays Trivial Pursuits.
Until recently, the building opposite the church at No.16 was Barclays Bank, which is quite appropriate because it belonged to a wealthy merchant by the name of Nicholas Ball. He lived here with his wife Ann, but after his death she married Sir Thomas Bodley of Exeter; and with her wealth and his enterprise, they helped to found the world-famous Bodleian Library in Oxford. Now you can’t say that I didn’t warn you.
Of more interest is the Eastgate Arch which is just a short distance downhill and probably the town’s most famous landmark.
If you think this archway which led up into the medieval town looks new, that’s because it is. It wasn’t new though when fire devastated it in September 1990. My heart sank when I saw the news reports on TV, because no matter what anyone says, reconstruction can never be quite the same as the original.
Below is a picture that the Totnes Fire Brigade took during that fateful night.
It might not be the same but there’s no denying that an excellent job was done on restoring it, and below are two pictures of how it looks today. The first one is looking downhill from High Street, and the second one is looking uphill from Fore Street.
Before heading down through the arch into Fore Street I want to take you on another short diversion: Underneath the archway are some steps that lead up to the Ramparts Walk which leads round to the Guildhall, which in my view is one of the hidden gems of Totnes.
St Mary’s Church, which overshadows the Guildhall, was at one time a Norman Benedictine priory, and the adjacent land where the Guildhall now stands included a refectory with a kitchen, bakery and brewery that served the monks that lived here. Thanks to good ol’ Henry VIII, little remains of the original buildings, but in 1542 some wealthy local businessmen bought what was left and created a meeting place for the guild of merchants: When King Edward VI signed a charter giving the land to the town in 1553, the buildings also became a meeting place for the council.
In 1624 the Guildhall became a courthouse and remained so until 1974, and the council still meets in the upper chamber in front of two tables supposedly used by Oliver Cromwell and Lord Fairfax at the time of the Civil War. It’s also worth making a note of the boards showing the names of over 600 mayors stretching right back to 1359.
Courts are places that also have prison cells, and there are two here – one male and one female, neither of which have been used since 1887.
This Grade I listed building relies on volunteers to show visitors around, but they aren’t always available, and if that’s the case then enter the red door to the right of the Guildhall and speak to someone from the council. They’re very obliging and will help you gain entry so that you can have a self-guided tour. The offices will only be open during weekdays, but try not to miss it.
After visiting the Guildhall, return to the Eastgate Arch and then walk through into Fore Street, where a few doors down at number 69, is a shop called Narnia which also used to feature the Timehouse, a museum which the owners referred to as a time travel experience. The museum has been closed for a while but it’s rumoured to be re-opening again in 2021 – who knows? If you want to know why there’s a shop called Narnia here, then take a look at my post Totnes – Twinned with Narnia.
If traditional museums are more to your liking then across the street is the official Totnes Museum.
The thing I like about this museum the most is the building itself. It was built in the 16th cent for a wealthy merchant at about the time that Totnes was the second most important town in Devon (after Exeter). Obviously, there’s been some restoration over the years to this Grade I listed building, but many original features still exist, including a winding wooden staircase that would make it difficult for people with reduced mobility.
If you can’t make it upstairs, then the Bennet Room at the back of the building does have a few interesting items on display including some Saxon coins and the Lee Ring. This ring is one of two rings made for the daughters of merchant Richard Lee around 1640: The other one is in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Judging from its prominent position, the museum seems to have a high regard for this item, but it was all a bit lost on me I’m afraid.
There’s no point in going into detail about all what’s on display here but there is one room you should know about – The Babbage Room. Charles Babbage is without doubt the most illustrious person to come out of Totnes. He’s most famous for inventing the ‘Difference Engine’ which was a huge calculating machine, and many people regard him as the “father of the computer”. Although he wasn’t born in Totnes he went to King Edward VI Grammar school in the town before going on to Trinity College, Cambridge.
The life and inventions of Charles Babbage would take up a whole book, so I’m not going to go into it all here. This is where the Babbage Room in the museum will help, but if you’re hoping to see a lot of items from his life, I’m afraid you’ll come away disappointed.
This isn’t a large museum by any means and if you’re happy to pay the modest admission fee to help keep the place going, then a quick visit will reward you with at least an insight into what a Totnes merchant’s house would have looked like back in Elizabethan times
In Devon and Cornwall, the High Street of a village or town is very often known as Fore Street, but just to confuse things, Totnes has both a Fore Street and a High Street. As we’ve seen, High Street is the main thoroughfare through the original Saxon and Medieval town, but now that we’re on the other side of the Eastgate, the road becomes Fore Street, and consequently has a different feel to it.
There are still a couple of things to look out for: The Brutus Stone is outside number 51 (not 57 as Google maps say), and an interesting looking early 19th century villa called the Gothic House in Bank Lane (which is located between numbers 28 and 30).
At the bottom of Fore Street is Totnes Bridge, Vire Island and The Plains. I’ve described some of this area’s features in my post Along the Lower Dart, but there are a couple more worthy of mention.
The first of these is a pair of granite pillars that I doubt anybody notices very much, but they represent the gateway to the town marsh. On one of them, the date 1681 (or it could be 1687) is engraved, and on the other you should be able to make out a castle and keys which represent the town’s coat of arms.
Much more obvious, and possibly of interest to somebody from the Antipodes, is the Wills Monument on an island near to the roundabout opposite the Royal Seven Stars. William J Wills lived on The Plains (look for the blue plaque on the building on the Fore St side of the monument) and was one half of the Burke and Wills expedition who crossed Australia from south to north in 1860. Unfortunately, they both perished on their way back in 1861 as did other members of their team. Whether they have monuments in Australia recognizing their achievement I wouldn’t know, but at least there’s one here.
This is where we conclude our tour of Totnes, and although I’ve done this walk from the top of the town to the bottom in order to follow a chronological order, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be done the other way round if it makes more sense to you.
I’ve also tried to cover most of the things people would want to see on a day’s visit without spending too much time on each point of interest, and of course, there’s plenty more to see within a short distance of the town, some of which I’ve covered elsewhere.
There’s only one thing left to do, and that is to finish off with a drink and a bite to eat somewhere. There’s certainly no shortage of places on offer, but as we’re at the bottom of the town, I have to mention the Royal Seven Stars, which you can’t miss, and perhaps shouldn’t.
The building itself has been here for about 350 years and it was an inn when Daniel Defoe stayed here back in 1720. As soon as you walk in through the front entrance it becomes pretty obvious that in years gone by it would have catered for horses as well as humans, and indeed it became a Posting House in the 1840s with stagecoaches running to both Plymouth and Exeter. When the railway came to Totnes the stagecoaches disappeared and the Royal Seven Stars became a hotel.
As regards its name, it probably derives from connections to St. Mary’s Church. It was customary during the Middle Ages for places of religion to act as hostels for pilgrims and travellers, and there was just such a hostelry located near to where the present hotel is now. Apparently, although I’m not conversant with this sort of thing, St. Mary wore a crown with seven stars in it, hence its name. Nobody knows for sure where the Royal prefix comes from but Charles II, William of Orange and Edward VII have all had connections here, but I’m still not convinced that Brutus first set foot on British soil nearby.
I like this hostelry, and whether Brutus landed here or not, to me, it seems a fitting place to end a leisurely wander through Totnes.
POSTED – JANUARY 2021