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Built on a hill above the River Dart, Totnes is the lowest bridging point of the River Dart which is tidal up to herer. It is still very much a regional centre with a wide range of independent shops with a focus on fair trade goods, handmade crafts and ethical products alongside quality clothes and seasonal food.


Totnes history dates back to the early C10th when King Edward the Elder, son of Alfred the Great, fortified the town with ditch, ramparts and gates, as part of a defensive ring of Saxon Burghs around Devon. The name is Saxon. ‘Tot’ means lookout and ‘Nes’ in a promontory. The site was chosen because it was on an ancient trackway which forded the river at low tide. It was on higher ground surrounded by low lying marshy areas. The surrounding area of rolling hills with sheltered valleys and fertile soils provided and very rich agricultural farmland.

As a royal burgh it had its own laws and system of taxation. It also minted its own coins until the end of the C11th.

With the arrival of the Normans, William granted the burgh to Juhel, a Norman knight, who had fought with him at the Battle of Hastings. Juhel was expected to maintain law and order and collect taxes on behalf of William. He was probably responsible for building the first motte and bailey castle,
as well as founding a Benedictine monastery on what is now St Mary’s Church. A small walled town grew up under the shelter of the castle.


By the C12th, Totnes was an important market town, extending beyond the small walled town. East Gate marks the extent of the original town.


Much of the medieval street layout still survives at the top of the town


Narrow streets run off Fore and High Street.



Surrounding marshy ground was drained and a stone bridge built across the river linking Totnes with the smaller rival borough of Bridgetown across the river. There was now a now a quay used for shipping goods to and from Dartmouth.

The town was granted Royal Charter and Borough status by King John in 1206. Merchants obtained the right to set up their own guilds, and wealthy merchants increasingly dominated the administration of the town. Their town houses can still be seen along Fore Street and High Street.


The parish church was rebuilt.


As trade increased, new quays and warehouses were built along the river front, along with mills for both grinding corn and fulling cloth. A weir was built across the River in 1581 upstream from the town, to supply eight new mills with water. Cloth and export of tin and slate were the main sources of wealth along with fishing.

In a 1523 tax assessment, Totnes was the second richest town in Devon and the 16th richest in England - mainly due to export of tin.

The Benedictine Monastery was dissolved by Henry VIII and in 1553, Edward VI granted a charter allowing it to be used as a Guildhall and school. It later became the magistrates’ court and a prison

Until the arrival of the railway in the mid C19th, almost transport was by water.

The castle on the highest spot, still dominates the top of the town.

Today there are two road bridges, a railway bridge and a footbridge over the river in the town. Totnes Bridge is the nearest bridge to the sea and was built in 1826–28 by Charles Fowler. At low tide the foundations of the previous C13th stone bridge are visible just upstream. This probably replaced a wooden bridge with a ford for heavy vehicles.

In the 1980s a new concrete bridge was built upstream as part of the inner relief road. Further upstream from that is the railway bridge carrying the Exeter to Plymouth railway line. Adjacent to it is a footbridge giving access to the terminus of the South Devon Steam Railway.

In recent years, Totnes has very much gained a reputation as a centre for arts and alternative lifestyles. In 2006 Totnes become the first transition town of the Transition Initiative. This encouraged the use of renewable energy, re-localising the food system and creating a sense of community and self awareness.

The following year, it was the first town in Britain to introduce its own local alternative currency, the Totnes pound, to support the local economy of the town. This initiative was designed to encourage money to circulate within the community by increasing local trade and reducing food and trade miles. It lasted until 2019 when declining usage caused by the rise of the cashless society made it no longer viable.

Walking around the town, the visitor is very aware of the different ethos and new lifestyle approach.

A walk around Totnes

There is a town trail and I used this to explore.

The main bus station is on Coronation Road and this is where the trail begins, by the Town Mill. This is a large stone building and there seems to be some confusion as to whether it dates from the C16th or C18th. It is the only mill to survive. It was a tidal mill and in use until the mid C20th, although a steam turbine had replaced water power. It has since been restored along with a new waterwheel and now houses the Totnes Image Bank.



By the busy roundabout, near Totnes Bridge, is the Wills Obelisk.


William Wills was born in Totnes in 1834. He was a surveyor and second in command of the Burke and Wills expedition to cross the continent of Australia on foot, from Melbourne in the south to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north. It was a distance of about 2000 miles across an area virtually unknown to European settlers. The both died on the way back.

From the monument, Fore Street climbs steadily uphill. The splendid C16th and C17th merchant’s houses are now shops. The Gothic House is set back from the street on the right and dates from the mid C19th.


Across the road from it is the brick built The Mansion. For many years it was part of King Edward VI grammar school, but has now been bought for community use.


Just up the road from the Mansion is the Methodist Church which was built in 1901 and is open on Friday mornings for coffee. There is no information in the church and very little about it on the web.



There is even less information about the United Free Church built a few years earlier.


The Elizabethan House is a lovely timber frame building just infront of East Gate Arch which houses the museum (#11). This was built in 1575 for the Kelland family, who were wealthy cloth merchants. It retains many original features, including the lovely wood carvings supporting the first floor window.



The East Gate Arch marked the gateway through the walls into the Medieval town and was reconstructed after a devastating fire in 1990. Steep stairs lead up to Ramparts Walk. This follows the line of the old town wall round St Mary’s Church to the Guildhall. (#8)



Passing under the East Gate Arch, Fore Street now becomes High Street.


St Mary’s Parish Church (#5) was once the site of the Benedictine monastery and the lovely red sandstone building with its large square tower was rebuilt in the C15th.


Opposite the present market square and civic hall is the covered arcade of the Butterwalk. This was built during the Tudor period to provide cover stalls selling butter and other dairy products.


At the top of High Street is circular shell keep of Totnes Castle (#3) appearing above the house roofs.


As part of its alternative lifestyle and emphasis on quality of life and wellbeing, Totnes has several small community gardens scattered round the town centre. The largest is Leechwell Gardens reached down narrow alleys behind the civic centre. It is an attractive garden with a pergola, grass, trees and shrubs as well as a children’s play area.


Three springs run through the gardens and were renowned for their curative properties for skin and eye conditions.




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Totnes Castle

Totnes Castle is built on the high ground overlooking the town and commanding the head of the navigable reaches of the River Dart.

It stands on a a man made motte, nearly 60 feet high. Not only was it intended to be seen, from its ramparts, it commanded a splendid view over the town and surrounding area. It is one of the best surviving examples of a Norman motte and bailey castle.

After the Norman Conquest, William I granted Totnes to Juhel who had come with him from Normandy. Tasked with keeping law and order, he was probably responsible for the first motte and bailey castle, protected by a moat.


This would originally have been a wooden structure but was replaced by stone shell keep in 1219 and refortified in 1326.


A walled town grew up under the protection of the castle.


The castle was never intended to withstand a siege and equally, was never intended as a residence. The main buildings were in the the inner bailey and constructed of timber. These would include stables, blacksmith’s forge, kitchens, brewhouse, bakehouse as well as a hall used by the Lord and officials when visiting Totnes. By 1273, most of the buildings in the inner bailey were falling into ruin. Presumably the Lord no longer wished to pay for repairs to a castle he did not wish to live in.


In 1264 during the Baron’s War between King Henry III and his rebel barons, the castle was besieged and captured by the royalists. It changed hands several times during the war and was finally recaptured by the king’s forces in 1265. The castle remained in royal hands until 1322, when it was granted to Edmund of Woodstock, Earl of Kent. Edmund did extensive repairs and alterations to the castle, including constructing a new gatehouse.

In 1385, Totnes Castle was attacked and captured by Richard II's supporters, who opposed King Henry IV’s seizure of power. The castle remained in rebel hands until 1388 when royalist forces retook it.

After the Wars of the Roses, the castle was no longer needed and the internal structures fell into disrepair. It was occupied for a time during by Royalist forces during the Civil War, before being besieged and taken by the Parliamentary army. They gutted the castle to prevent it again being used as a military fortress.

The castle was used as a courthouse and prison until 1825 when it was sold to the Duke of Somerset, whose family owned nearby Berry Pomeroy Castle. The Duke carried out some restoration work, and it gradually became a popular tourist destination. It passed into the care of the Ministry of Works after the War and is now managed by English Heritage.

Totnes Castle cont...

The castle is reached through a small and almost inconspicuous gateway off Castle Street.


A steep flight of steps climbs up the motte from the inner bailey.


Nothing is left of the internal buildings apart from a few foundations .


A passageway in the walls leads to a latrine.


On either side of the main gateway are steep stone steps leading up to the rampart walk around the top of the shell keep. This gives good views of the town and
surrounding ountryside. (It is worth the climb just for that).





The inner bailey is now a large grassy area and still surrounded by a stone wall. There is nothing left of any of the wooden buildings.



A gateway at the far end of the inner bailey leads out to the moat.


In many ways there isn’t a lot to see here - a ring of stone and a large expanse of grass with trees... Never-the-less it is still worth visiting as one of the best preserved Norman motte and bailey castles. Do choose a dry day as there is noi shelter!
St Mary’s Church.

Standing at the top of High Street, The tower of St Mary’s Church is a prominent landmark in the town.

There has probably been a church on this site since Saxon times, when there was a Minster here. St Mary’s has existed as a parish and priory church since around the time of the Norman Conquest, when Jules of Totnes built a motte and bailey castle and Benedictine priory here.

The church of St Mary was used by the population and stood to the north east side of the priory buildings. The present building dates from the mid C15th when the townsfolk reached agreement with the Priory to rebuild their church, beginning with the nave followed by the chancel and the tower. This is reputed to be one of the finest in Devon and the master mason had been sent to look at towers of other churches and select the finest features of each… .

At the Dissolution of the Monasteries the Priory and some of its lands were purchased by Walter Smythe, a merchant of Totnes, who is buried in the church and gifted the priory ruins to the town. All that is left of the priory buildings is the guildhall.

By the mid C19th the church building was in a state of serious disrepair and in need of a major restoration carried out by Sir George Gilbert Scott. The north aisle was added to accommodate growing population of Totnes. The roof was replaced along with pews, new windows and reredos. A stained glass window was installed in the previously blank east wall at the end of the chance, which had adjoined the church of the Benedictine priory.

Today the church is a splendid red sandstone building.



Entry is through the south porch, with the town’s war memorial by it.


The sturdy wooden doors date from the late C16th. The bottom half has been restored but the lovely carving at the top is the original.



St Mary's Church cont...

Inside, it is a large church, reflecting the wealth and importance of Totnes. Tall fluted pillars separate the nave from the side aisles. The brass candelabrum in the nave dates from 1701.


The stone rood screen dates from 1459/60 and stretches across the nave and side aisles. It is one of the few stone screens found in Devon and is regarded as one of the finest with its delicate tracery at the top. It would originally have been painted and traces of paint can still be seen. The empty niches probably contained small statues of saints but these would have been removed during the Reformation, along with the rood.




The lovely oak waggon roof is the work of Gilbert Scott during his restoration in the C19th, and is typical of roofs in many Devon churches. The chancel is more elaborate than the nave with gilded bosses and carved wood angels above the stone corbels. These each hold a shield with different symbols of Christ’s Passion.


The civic pews in the centre of the nave date from 1636 and were made for the Mayor and Aldermen of the town and were moved to their present position during the C19th restoration. They are elaborately carved reflecting their status.



The organ is on the west wall and dates from the C19th. The coat of arms below it are those of Charles I.


The stone pulpit is a similar age to the rood screen, although it has been recarved.


The stone font at the back of the church is slightly older and sits on a Victorian base. The wood cover is thought to be Jacobean.


On the west wall behind the font is the terracotta memorial to two brothers, John and Walter Venning, who set up the Society for the Improvement of Prison Discipline in London. John Venning went on to establish the Russian Prison Society and worked for better prison and lunatic asylum conditions. There is a dedication in Russian at bottom. Walter died of typhus in 1821, picked up when visiting a prison in St Petersburg. He is buried in Totnes. John died 1858 in Norfolk.


On the north wall is the splendid monument to Christopher Blackhall, a prominent Totnes citizen who died in 1633. Kneeling in a line below him are his four wives. The monument was originally in the chancel but was moved here in 1955 for some unknown reason.


There are other monuments to the great and good of Totnes on the walls.


At the end of the north aisle is a small chapel with an alter with a painted reredos above. This is now the Children’s Area.


St Mary's Church cont...

The chancel reflects the restoration work of Gilbert Scott with the stained glass window of the crucifixion in what was previously a blank wall.


The wooden reredos has the Lord’s Prayer, Creed and the Ten Commandments inscribed on it.



On the north side of the chancel is the painted stair which would have led to the top of the Rood screen. This is heavily carved and the paintwork may be part of the Gilbert Scott restoration. It is stunning.



On the left side of the chancel is the Chapel dedicated to St Lawrence. This has a simple table altar with a sunburst with the Lamb of God in the centre. The brass chandelier dates from 1732. It was given to the church by the bell ringers and has their names inscribed on it. It originally hung in the belfry. On the wall is C15th piscina with the traces of paint. On the north wall is a box tomb, but nothing is known about who it was for.




In a display case are two Bibles given by Lady Anne Seymour in 1690. The earliest dates from 1613 and is known as the ‘Judas’Bible as in Matthew 26 v36 Jesus was incorrectly printed as Judas. A slip of paper was pasted over the misprint.


The second Bible is dates 1674.


To the right of the Chancel is St George’s Chapel. This originally had a vestry above it, which is why there is a small window high up on the east wall. There is also a squint giving a view of the high altar.




The scallop shell decoration on the stone screen was the traditional symbol of pilgrims. Alternatively it has been suggested they are a reference to the coat of arms of Shapleigh family who were prominent merchants and may have paid for this part of the screen.


On the south wall is the splendid tomb of William Smythe, a wealthy merchant, who died in 1555. He bought the remains of the Priory after the Dissolution and gifted them to the town for use as a Guildhall.



There are information boards in the church but it is worth buying a copy of ‘Secret St Mary’s’ booklet available in the church and using the map at the back to discover all the things of interest both inside and out around the church that are so easily missed .
Totnes Guildhall

Totnes Guildhall behind St Mary’s Church once housed the Guildhall, magistrate's court and prison as was being the centre of the town’s administrative, legal and ceremonial life. It is still used for meetings of Totnes Town Council and other ceremonial events. It is a popular wedding venue.


In 1206, the Burghers of Totnes obtained a charter from King John granting them the right to form a guild of merchants. This had over 120 members and their first guildhall stood on High Street near St Mary’s Church. It was later rebuilt as a private residence.

After the dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536, Walter Smythe, a merchant of Totnes, bought the priory ruins and gifted them to the town. Edward VI granted a charter allowing reuse of the priory refectory as a Guildhall and the Prior’s residence as a school.

By the early C17th, trade from Totnes was booming and the building was extended to provide a larger meeting space for the merchants. Part of the ground floor became the magistrate’s court and a prison cell was added.

In the C19th, a front loggia was added using pillars from the Exchange Building that was being demolished. The School moved to The Mansion on Fore Street and its buildings were demolished and replaced by a police station with additional cells. The building continued to be used as a prison until 1887. It now houses the council offices. The the magistrates court remained here until 1974.


Visiting the Guildhall

A study wood door leads into the Magistrates court with the bench at the far end. On either side are boards listing mayors of Totnes. The first name is 1359. There is then a gap until 1377 when the number of deaths caused by the Black Death effectively made Totnes a ghost town. The coat of arms is that of Edward VI.




At the back is the public gallery.


Beneath this are display cases with examples of handcuffs and truncheons as well as ceremonial maces and batons and the ceremonial uniform of the town clerk and sergeant at arms.


There is the clock mechanism from the clock above the East Gate Arch which was destroyed by fire in 1990.


At the back are the town stocks which were in High Street near the church.


There is a reconstruction of the town pillory which was designed so the offender was unable to hide his face with his hands. Their use was abolished in 1837.


On a shelf is an example of a man tap used to deter poachers and trespassers. They were popular in the C18th as they were cheaper than employing gamekeepers.


On the back wall are two doorways. One led to the original passage and stairs to the upper floor.


The other leads to the prison cells, in what was originally the priory kitchens.


The first cell is that for male prisoners who were held here while awaiting trial or serving short sentences. Later prisoners were kept here awaiting deportation to Australia. The only light was through the window in the door and the cell was known as the ‘dark house’. Walls would have been whitewashed in an attempt to prevent the spread of disease.



Beyond is what was the administration area and the original iron bars can still be seen on the outside of the windows. It is now an exhibition area with display boards covering the history of Totnes.


At the far end was the women’s cell which later became a mortuary. This had an external door.


Visiting the Guildhall cont..

A door from the public gallery on the first floor leads into the council chamber where the town council still meet every month. Photographs of previous mayors hang on the walls. Above the mayor's chair is the Totnes town badge. There is a lovely ornamental plaster frieze around the top of the walls as well as the Totnes coat of arms.




The large table is reputed to have been used by Oliver Cromwell in 1646 when he met with Thomas Fairfax, commander-in-chief of the parliamentary army, when they were billeted in the Guildhall during the English Civil War.


In the public gallery outside is a large model giraffe. Apparently this is wheeled into the council chamber as a warning if a member drones on for too long...


A step leads up from the council chamber into the mayor’s parlour which has an iron door leading into the muniment room which was used to store important documents and charters.


This has display cases with mayor’s robes and chain of office.



This was a fascinating visit , Not only is it an interesting building it has an equally interesting history. The building is open to visitors weekdays 11-3 during the summer months, although that does depend on having volunteers available to open up. Entry is free so please leave a donation.
Totnes Museum

Totnes Museum is in a carefully restored timber frame Elizabethan merchant’s House on Fore Street. This was built around 1575 for the Kelland Family. The front of the house would have been the shop and offices with living accommodation above.


Behind is a courtyard garden with another building which contained the kitchen and domestic quarters.


This has a reconstructed kitchen area as well as a small laundry.




A first floor gallery connects both parts of the house. This has information panels covering the history of Totnes.


The rest of the museum has artefacts covering the social history of Totnes from coins minted in the Saxon town to a room dedicated to the work of C19th mathematician, inventor and mechanical engineer Charles Babbage, who went to school in Totnes and invented the Difference Engine and Analytical Engine, which were the precursors of modern computers.

In the main entrance hall is a wool loom, reflecting the importance of the wool industry in medieval times.


Behind the loom is a clock mechanism made by C17th local clockmaker William Strumbles, who was considered one of the best clock makers of his time.


The room behind contains display panels about the River Dart, railways and trade. There are displays of weights and measures as well as civic seals.




The first floor room at the front of the house has C17th furniture including a tester bed and beautifully carved wooden chests. The wooden structure at the foot of the bed is thought to be an early baby walker. Being upright was probably safer and more healthy than crawling around on very dirty floors...



The small carved box on the window ledge is a Dole cupboard. These were usually found in the church with bread for the poor.


There is also a list of the mayor’s accounts from 1601.


There is a reconstructed Victorian shop as well as display of long clocks and children’s toys.


The room on the second floor is dedicated to the work of Charles Babbage.


There are detailed display panels describing all his different inventions as well as artefacts and a copy of a very successful consumer’s guide to business he wrote in 1826 which explained all the jargon and pointed out pitfalls.


Charles Babbage is beset known for his work on the Difference Engine and Analytical machine which were the precursors to modern computers. Adding machines had been around before Babbage, they could only ‘solve’ single arithmetic operations. The Difference Engine contained six wheels and was estimated to have been capable of computing 20 places of figures and six orders of difference.


It required expert tool makers to make the intricate mechanisms. One spin off was the standardisation of screw threads.

His next project was the Analytical Engine and this is the machine that was the forerunner of the modern computer. It used punched cards, similar to those used in weaving patterned cloth. Not only did the cards deliver instructions, they also acted as a memory unit to store numbers and the many other fundamental components found in modern computers. They enabled a wide range of mathematical calculations up to 50 decimal places, with the ability to hold over 1000 numbers at a time. Unfortunately his ideas for this never developed beyond plans on a drawing board. The finished machine would have been massive and probably weighed about weighed two tons.

Babbage is also credited with many other inventions - some more successful than others. He created a working device for different coloured lighting on a theatre stage, although this was discontinued as a fire risk. He produced a prototype submarine, although modern naval experts think it wouldn’t have worked.

In the early years of the postal service, Babbage looked at the relative costs for delivering letters and parcels across the country and found the cost of handling was more expensive than the cost of transportation. He suggested introducing a uniform charge for items of the same weight. His idea was introduced eight years later by Sir Rowland Hill with the penny post. The method he used is now called ‘operations research’ and is commonly used to find the best way to use resources.

He designed an opthalmoscope for use in examining the eye. He pioneered lighthouse signalling. He proposed the use of tidal power once coal reserves were exhausted and a tugboat for winching vehicles upstream,

He was a passenger at the grand opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830 when William Husskisson stepped in front of the train and was killed. He designed a ‘cow catcher’ to prevent future accidents like this. Although not adopted in Britain, the idea was quickly taken up by American railways. He also designed an instrument with Isambard Kingdom Brunel to record the speed of trains. This developed into the Black Box used in aeroplanes.

He was always interested in codes and ciphers and often asked to crack an unknown code. In 1854 he testified in court as an expert with his solution to some love letters written in code. His most important achievement was to be the first person to solve the ‘Vigenere’ cipher named after C16th scholar and believed to be impossible to crack.

Allow plenty of time for a visit. There is a lot to see and take in - the Charles Babbage room could easily take up half a day to read and understand everything.

Entry is free, so do consider leaving a donation.

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Totnes looks absolutely wonderful! I had removed it from my list but am putting it back in (I did remove something else - another manor house, which I think I have too many of). The castle is gorgeous, and the parish church quite beautiful. I really like the look of the city (town?) as well - I think it would be a good place to visit. Thank for the article!
The castle is a splendid setting, but there isn't a lot to see . It is described as a shell keep - basically a round stone shell. The views from teh top are good.

The church is delightful and it is also worth visiting the guildhall if it is open.

Totnes has a very diffeent feel to elsewhere with its new age culture ethos.
Well, the photo of the castle keep is gorgeous, Eleanor, and what a beautiful view in that magazine! Oh, I remember now reading about Totnes and its new age ideals. I'd forgotten about that. Not a dealbreaker for me - more of an enhancement. :)

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