Visiting my friend Dianne in Plymouth I suggested we visit the ancient town of Totnes – recently famous as first British town to introduce its own local alternative currency the Totnes Pound. This is a beautiful town set above the river Dart & said to have more listed buildings than any other in the county. To start at the beginning – generally a good perspective, takes us to “A History of Britain” written by Geoffrey of Monmouth in 1136, (I’d like to be known in similar terms as Zena of London – because I am!) In this he says that the ‘Coast of Totnes’ is where Brutus of Troy, the (mythical?) founder of Britain first came ashore. The ‘Brutus Stone’ – a small granite boulder, which Brutus is said to have stepped on as he left his ship, is set in the pavement in the main street. He is said to have declared: “Here I stand & here I rest – this town shall be called Totnes”. Personally I’m all for an ancient myth, they add flavour,colour & mystery to what usually degenerates into lauding of the Romans & there’s always a surfeit of that!
In the 12th Century this was a very important market town (something we have no concept of today due to modern modes of delivery). In 1523 it was the 2nd richest town in Devon – no-one decried the town for being ‘different’ then! The Guildhall Council Chambers dates from 30 yrs. later, though some of its walls are from 1088. In 1624 it was converted to a Magistrates Court & during the English Civil War soldiers were billeted here. The large oak table still in the Guildhall was used by Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector & his Commissioner-in-chief, Lord Fairfax for meetings to discuss their plans. The Guildhall was used as a Magistrates court for 450 yrs. & has integral cells for holding felons. It is purported to be haunted!
On the main street is the red, Devonian, sandstone medieval church of St. Mary, which was featured on “How to read churches” (BBC Richard Taylor) due to its rare, surviving stone rood screen – astonishing! The locals took it down & hid it during the reformation. The Elizabethan Eastgate is a fine arch spanning the main high street & close to the Elizabethan House museum. This building dates to 1575 & belonged to one of the wealthy merchants of the town. The photo shows one of the reconstructed rooms in this amazing old house – a view of an apothecary’s shop.
There is a fine example of a Motte & Bailey castle high above the high street, not far from Totnes railway station. So, when you climb that wonderfully historic street full of unique shops & buildings, don’t stop until you have reached the castle!!