To quote the Daily Telegraph, Totnes “has earned a reputation for a level of eccentricity beyond the usual cream tea and antiques shop fare that characterises a day trip in this part of the world – but in recent years it has also developed more pedigree and poise than many of its south-west siblings.”
In 2007 Time magazine described Totnes as the capital of new age chic and in 2008 the British Airways magazine Highlife declared it one of the world's Top 10 Funky Towns, and newspapers such as the Sunday Times still regularly list Totnes as being one of the best places to live in Britain.
The spine of the town runs up Fore Street, under Eastgate, along the High Street, past Market Square, and on to The Narrows. Lining its length are independent shops, pubs, cafés, boutiques and galleries with the vast majority of the usual high street names conspicuous by their absence.
Regular outdoor markets are hosted in the market square on both Fridays and Saturdays, while between May and September each Tuesday there is also an Elizabethan market, with traders going about their business dressed in Elizabethan costume.
According to legend Totnes was where Brutus of Troy, the mythical founder of Britain, first stepped on to our shores, a landing marked by the locally famous Brutus Stone, to be found on Fore Street, below Eastgate.
However the recorded history of Totnes dates back to 907AD, when its first castle was built on a hill rising from the west bank of the River Dart by King Edward the Elder, who chose the site as it was on an ancient trackway which forded the river at low tide. It remains one of the best surviving examples of an early Norman motte-and-bailey structure.
By the twelfth century Totnes was an important market town thanks to its position on one of the main roads in the South West, the ease of navigation on the River Dart and the ease of access to the surrounding countryside.
By 1523 the town was the second richest in Devon after Exeter, and the sixteenth richest in England, ahead for example of Lincoln, Worcester and Gloucester. Much of its wealth was derived from the export of both wool from Dartmoor and locally mined tin.
During the English Civil War soldiers were billeted in the town and, in 1646, Oliver Cromwell visited for discussions with the general and parliamentary commander-in-chief Thomas Fairfax.
Many historic buildings are still standing, with examples of properties dating back to Norman, Medieval and Tudor times. No fewer than 66 houses were built before 1700, including the half-timbered Elizabethan House, once the residence of a Tudor merchant, and now home to the Totnes Museum.
In his Tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain, published in three volumes between 1724 and 1727, Daniel Defoe wrote of Totnes: “This is a very good town; of some trade, but has more gentlemen in it than tradesmen of note; they have a very fine stone-bridge here over the river, which being within seven or eight miles of the sea, is very large, and the tide flows 10 or 12 foot at the bridge.”
He continued: “We were carryed hither at low water, where we saw about 50 or 60 small salmon, about 17 to 20 inches long, which the country people call salmon peal, and to catch these, the person who went with us, who was our landlord at a great inn next the bridge, put in a net on a hoop at the end of a pole, the pole going cross the hoop, which we call in this country a shove net… This excessive plenty of so good fish, and other provisions being likewise very cheap in proportion, makes the town of Totness a very good place to live in; especially for such as have large families, and but small estates, and many such are said to come into those parts on purpose for saving money, and to live in proportion to their income.”
In recent times many businesses central to the town’s economy such as Reeves Timber Yard, Harris’ Bacon Factory, the Dairy Crest milk processing plant and Dartington College of Arts have either left or ceased to exist. As a result tourism, a number of small and medium enterprises and its continued role as a market town are now the mainstays of the economy, although many residents now have to commute to either Exeter or Plymouth for work.
Dominant on the skyline, Totnes Castle offers excellent views of the town and the Dart Valley from it ramparts.
The covered pavement arcades of The Butterwalk and Poultry Walk, with stone pillars supporting the overhanging storeys of the houses, were once home to sheltered markets.