Totnes Things to Do

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    The Guildhall

    by EasyMalc Written Jul 8, 2014

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    The Guildhall is one of the gems of Totnes and definitely worth seeking out.
    To get there climb the steps under the Eastgate Arch onto the Ramparts Walk and walk along to the end of the lane.
    Overshadowing it is St. May’s Church which was a Norman Benedictine priory before it was re-built, and the adjacent land where the Guildhall now stands was part of the priory’s refectory, kitchen, bakery & brewery. Little remains of the original buildings thanks to Henry VIII.
    In 1542 some wealthy local merchants bought what was left of it and turned into a meeting place for the guild of merchants, and thanks to King Edward VI who signed a charter giving the land to the town in 1553, it also became a meeting place for the council and a gaol.
    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.
    There are two prison cells, one male and one female, but they were made redundant in 1887. There’s plenty to look at including a couple of boards in the old courthouse with the names of over 600 mayors stretching right back to 1359.
    The Guildhall is open to the public thanks to volunteers but they’re not always available. If that’s the case 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 though.

    The Old Courthouse King Edward VI Crest The Male Prison Cell The Council Chamber
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    River Dart Boat Trip

    by EasyMalc Updated Jul 7, 2014

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    If there’s one thing I recommend you do when in the area it’s to take a boat trip along the River Dart. It’s definitely one of the highlights of any visit to South Devon.
    Most trips start out at Dartmouth near the mouth of the river but when the tide’s right it’s possible to travel all the way up to Totnes.
    What that means of course is that you can do it the other way round as well and take the boat from Totnes to Dartmouth. Does it make any difference which way you do it? No not really but it’s much easier to park at Totnes and usually a bit quieter.
    The boat leaves Steamer Quay and the trip to Dartmouth takes an hour and a half, but you’ll need to study the timetable carefully for the return times. Sometimes you can stay on the boat and return straight away if that’s what you want to do, but a lot of the time you’ll have to spend some time in Dartmouth before being able to return. Plenty of people do the ‘Round Robin’ though which involves the boat to Dartmouth, ferry across to Kingswear, steam train to Paignton, and then the bus back to Totnes. Whichever way you decide to do it, the tide will always dictate when the boat can go to Totnes.
    Dart is an old Celtic name for oak and so it won’t come as any surprise to find that the valley has large numbers of oak trees stretching right down to the water’s edge. There are points of interest on both banks so there is no point in recommending which side of the boat you should sit on.
    There’s a running commentary on board but to help I’ll give you some of my favourite parts of the river that you shouldn’t miss.
    The first thing you shouldn’t miss is the Sharpham Estate with its vineyard, house and boathouse. This is also arguably the most picturesque part of the river and why you should do the full trip. Afterwards look out for the tiny village of Duncannon. It’s only officially a village and not a hamlet because someone made a typo in the Domesday Book. Instead of 10 people living here they inadvertently added an extra zero.
    Talking of villages it won’t be long before Dittisham comes into view (I’ve started a page on Dittisham so I won’t add anything else here), and on the other bank is the Greenway Estate, the holiday home of Agatha Christie. You can find some more info on Greenway here :- http://members.virtualtourist.com/m/p/m/23a543/
    Eventually you’ll arrive at Dartmouth and if you’ve not been here before I highly recommend spending some time looking around before returning to Totnes. You can check out my Dartmouth pages as well if you like but they’re nowhere near finished yet I’m afraid.
    If you pick a nice day with not too many people around I’m sure you’ll agree that this is one thing visitors to this part of the world shouldn’t miss. There’s some beautiful scenery and many points of interest - and of course there is an historical town to visit at either end. Perfect.

    Duncannon Dittisham
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    Totnes Museum

    by EasyMalc Written Jul 4, 2014

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    I think it’s always worthwhile dropping into small local museums because you can find out the important aspects of the town’s history in a conveniently short time. Admittedly some are more interesting than others and Totnes Museum sits somewhere in between.
    The museum is situated just below the Eastgate Arch in Fore St. It’s not a large building and you can comfortably see all the important items in an hour or so.
    My personal favourite thing about the museum is the house 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.
    Walking into the museum from Fore St brings you into what would have been the merchant’s shop, but now the reception. Admission used to be free but now costs £3 (June 2014).
    A wooden winding staircase leads from the ground floor to another two floors so the museum isn’t really suitable for people with reduced mobility. The Bennett Room, which is on the ground floor, does have some interesting items on display though 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 - probably because I’m a man.
    I’m not going to describe everything on display here because a lot of it is what you would expect. However 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 be disappointed.
    As regards the rest of the museum there’s some fine Jacobean furniture in the Fore Hall but my favourite room has to be the kitchen. To me it represents what it would have been like to live in a well to do house in the Elizabethan period.
    If you do have an hour to spare the museum is definitely worth visiting, even if it’s only just out of curiosity to see what an Elizabethan house looks like on the inside.

    The Lee Ring
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    The Leechwell

    by EasyMalc Updated Jan 16, 2014

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    No self-respecting alternative society should be without a magical well to meditate over and you’ll be glad to know that Totnes has its very own shrine - The Leechwell.
    Situated at the top end of the town The Leechwell has been associated with healing properties for centuries and was probably the reason why there was a leper hospital nearby in medieval times.
    There are 3 springs which have their own granite trough - The Snake ( for snake bites), The Toad (for skin problems) and Long Crippler (Local name for Slow Worm - for eye problems).
    These days the local New Age fraternity think of them somewhat differently. One is still for healing, another one is for Good Luck and the third is for its spirituality.
    As if to enforce its mystical properties they have taken to adorning the well with ribbons. What effect that’s supposed to have I have absolutely no idea.

    Toad, Long Crippler and Snake (from L to R)
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    High St

    by EasyMalc Written Jan 5, 2014

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    Walking under the Eastgate Arch from Fore St brings you into High St and the oldest part of the town.
    On the right hand side is St. Mary’s Church. This 15th cent 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 cent stone Rood Screen.
    Opposite the church at No.16 is 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 Anne and after his death she married Sir Thomas Bodley of Exeter. With her wealth and his enterprise they helped to found the world famous Bodleian Library in Oxford.
    If you carry on up the High St to the Civic Square look across the street to The Butterwalk. This covered walkway was built in Tudor times to cover the dairy stalls from the weather. Look out for Bogan House at No 43 which is a museum of period costume.
    The Civic 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 bland square housing the Civic Hall. It does however double up as the market square on Fridays and Saturdays - and if you happen to be here on a Tuesday in the summer you’ll also be able to witness the Elizabethan market where the stallholders dress up in Elizabethan costume.
    Walking uphill from the square will bring you to another covered walkway - the Poultrywalk. These Tudor buildings have largely changed their appearance with the addition of hung slates on the facades. These slated fronts are a feature of Totnes and can be seen in other towns and villages around the area. These slates were quarried locally and were used to protect the buildings from the elements.
    Opposite is Castle St which, as its name suggests leads to the castle (see separate tip).
    Continuing around to the left brings you to ’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.
    If you walk up around here it’ll become plainly obvious where it got its name from. It’s full of quaint and unusual shops and cafes which Totnes is famous for and it’s worth coming up this far to check it out.
    The Narrows (and High St) ends at The Rotherfold, a square that was used as a cattle market for hundreds of years, not that there’s anything much to see here these days. You may need a pit stop though and there are several options catering for most tastes nearby.

    St. Mary's Church Anne Ball's House High St Facade Shopping in the Poultrywalk
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    The Brutus Stone

    by EasyMalc Updated Jan 4, 2014

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    Next to No. 51 Fore St. and walked upon by countless thousands of people, most of whom probably never realise it’s here, is the so-called Brutus Stone.
    According to legend, after their defeat 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.
    The granite slab which is now known as the Brutus Stone is supposedly where he first set foot on British soil and proclaimed “Here I stand and here I rest, and this town shall be called Totnes”
    Brutus is regarded as the founder of the Britons and consequently the first King of Britain.
    Most of this information derives from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘Historia Regum Britanniae' but it might be worth remembering that Geoffrey of Monmouth also perpetuated the myth of Merlin and King Arthur.
    That’s another story but I reckon there was a King Arthur but I’m not so sure about Merlin - so what about Brutus? Was he real? Who knows. All I do know is that the Brutus Stone is halfway up the hill between the river and the castle - so how did he land here? All sorts of things are possible I suppose. I’ll leave you to make up your own mind.

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    Fore St

    by EasyMalc Updated Jan 3, 2014

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    I think it’s worth explaining where Fore St. fits into the layout of Totnes because it will help you understand the difference between Fore St. and High St.
    In Devon and Cornwall the High Street of a village or town is very often known as Fore St., but just to confuse things Totnes has both a Fore St and a High St.
    I’ve not come up with an unequivocal answer as to why Totnes has both but I’m going to hazard a guess.
    If you were lucky enough to view the town from above you would see that the old Saxon town is still pretty much intact within its original boundaries. I’m not saying that everything within the original boundary is Saxon obviously, but the layout is much the same as it was back then.
    Basically the old Saxon part of the town was at the top of the hill surrounded by its fortifications and outside of that a road was connected down to the river, most likely after the Normans arrived. This road is now the present day Fore St.
    The dividing line between the old Saxon town and Fore St. is the Eastgate Arch. Uphill from the Eastgate Arch is High St., part of the original Saxon town.
    If you’ve started your journey from ‘The Plains’ (see separate tip) then walking up Fore St will take you up to the Eastgate Arch, but first there are a couple of points I would like to make:-
    Firstly - the bad news. Due to its position at the lowest crossing point of The Dart the town can have a traffic problem and even though it has a sort of by-pass, traffic will still use Fore St. as a short cut.
    Secondly - Totnes has a reputation for being the ethical capital of Devon (and beyond) with everything from holistic remedies and a plethora of vegetarian cafes and restaurants - so you might not expect to see butchers and delicatessens selling all sorts of meat, pies and pasties. On the other hand you will see a great mixture of architecture.
    If you can avert your eyes away from the empty shop front on the right hand side where Costa Coffee wasn’t made welcome recently (corporate companies are discouraged here) then you’ll be relieved to see some better options as you wander up the street.
    Your eyes will always be drawn to the Eastgate Arch but there are some other things that you should look out for on the way. Check out the Gothic House down an alleyway on the left hand side and The Mansion, just a bit further up on the same side of the street. Just before you reach the arch is the museum and on the opposite side is The Brutus Stone. These last two points of interest I intend to cover in separate tips.

    Totnes Street Life The Gothic House 'Alternative' Shopping in Fore St
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    The Plains

    by EasyMalc Written Dec 31, 2013

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    At the bottom of Fore St. is an area known as The Plains and if you have a look at an old map you’ll see that this area was once a tidal marsh.
    Situated next to the river and the bridge that replaced the original lowest crossing point, this area was drained and used to build warehouses for the port. Today the warehouses have been converted into a small enclave of accommodation and businesses and the area has become somewhat of a focal point for the town.
    The Royal Seven Stars Hotel wouldn’t have escaped your attention but the two stone pillars from the old Marsh Gate may do. Once you know where they are you can’t miss them and yet I think many people do. My photograph will show you where they’re situated. One of the granite pillars has a tower and key engraved on it and the other has a date that appears to be 1681 but could be 1687. They represented the gateway to the Town Marsh.
    Much more obvious is the Wills Monument on an island near to the roundabout opposite the Royal Seven Stars. William J Mills lived on The Plains (look for the blue plaque on the building on the Fore St side of the monument) - but who was he? His name may not be on the tip of everyone’s tongue but for those of you who are interested he was a 19th cent explorer and one half of the Burke and Wills expedition to cross Australia from south to north in 1860. Unfortunately they both perished on their way back in 1861 as did other members of their team.
    The Plains is a good starting point for exploring Totnes with Fore St leading up past the Royal Seven Stars into the old town proper.

    Old Marsh Gate Wills Monument
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    Totnes Castle

    by EasyMalc Updated Dec 30, 2013

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    Soon after the Norman Conquest in 1066 Totnes Castle was built to control the local Saxon population and the crossing point of the River Dart.
    This first castle was built by one of William’s Breton commanders by the name of Juhel and would have been constructed in wood on top of a Motte and Bailey earthwork.
    This original Motte and Bailey still survives and is one of the best preserved in England but the wooden tower and palisade was replaced by a more robust construction in the early 13th cent. This was also replaced about a hundred years later by the present stone structure that we see today.
    The castle passed through various owners over the centuries but there is no record of it ever having been used for military purposes. All of the buildings inside the castle walls and bailey became neglected over the years and basically all that is left is the circular tower, the bailey and the ditch.
    The castle has commanding views over the town but photography is challenging due to the fact that most of the decent angles face into the sun.
    Today this Grade I listed building is under the stewardship of English Heritage and all the up to date details can be found on their website below.

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    The River Dart

    by EasyMalc Written Dec 23, 2013

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    Totnes exists primarily because it was the lowest fordable point on the River Dart and was a port long before Dartmouth.
    Having said that don’t expect to see the same hive of activity that you will in Dartmouth because its heyday as a port is long gone. The export of tin, slate and wool cloth made it one of Devon’s wealthiest towns, but these days the former mills have been converted into living accommodation and businesses.
    The river here is tidal which meant that most of the area was traditionally marshy ground and although much of the area adjacent to the river has been drained over the years most of the town is fortunately at a higher level.
    Totnes Bridge is the last bridge before reaching the sea. Built between 1826-28 it replaced several earlier ones going back many centuries. Today a modern road bridge just upstream has taken the brunt of the traffic, not just away from this bridge, but from the town centre as well.
    The river at Totnes Bridge is bisected by Vire Island which is a pleasant place to sit and feed the ducks but if it’s a boat trip you want you’ll need to cross the bridge into Bridgetown where at Steamer Quay boats will transfer you down to Dartmouth when the tides are right.

    The View over Vire Island Upstream of Totnes
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    Eastgate Arch

    by grayfo Written Aug 22, 2013

    The Eastgate Arch is a prominent feature of the town; it is an arch spanning the middle of the main street. This Elizabethan entrance to the walled town was destroyed in a fire in September 1990, and had to be rebuilt. The actual arch lies in the ownership of the Duke of Somerset; part of this building was leased by the Town Council in 1879 in order to provide a clock for the town. It is still maintained by the Town Council to this day.

    June 2012

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    Church of Saint Mary

    by grayfo Written Aug 18, 2013

    The building of St Mary’s Church was completed in about 1450 by the townspeople although the site is where Christians have worshipped for over a thousand years. Visitor attractions include the magnificent 15th century sandstone roodscreen; the Kempe stained glass window; the Willis organ built in 1861; the restored oak wagon roof; the fine brass candelabrum in the nave; the Blackhall monument and the memorial plaque to Walter Venning (1781-1821), Russian prison reformer.

    Sunday to Saturday: 8:45 am to 5:00 pm

    email enquiries@stmarystotnes.org.uk

    June 2012

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    Totnes Castle

    by grayfo Written Aug 15, 2013

    Totnes Castle is a classic Norman motte and bailey castle, built soon after the Conquest to command over the Saxon town. A later stone shell-keep crowns its steep mound, giving sweeping views across the town rooftops to the River Dart. The surviving stone keep and curtain wall date from around the 14th century. The impressive motte on which the present day castle stands, is the original Norman earthwork and would have been topped by a wooden castle and later replaced in stone

    March to September: 10:00 am to 6:00 pm
    October to November: 10:00 am to 5:00 pm

    Adults: £3.60
    Children (5-15): £2.20

    June 2012

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    Totnes Castle - Closed When I Was There :-(

    by johngayton Written Sep 12, 2012

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    The castle here is regarded as one of the best examples of a Norman "Motte and Bailey" construction. The "Motte" is the earthen mound on which the castle sits whilst the "Bailey" is the enclosed courtyard surrounding it.

    The original castle was built in 1068, soon after the Norman conquest when the town was gifted by William the Conqueror to one of his lieutenants, Judhael. The castle would have served two purposes - firstly by using forced labour in its construction Judhael would have effectively demonstrated his power over the locals and secondly because of its position would have been an easily defended stronghold with commanding views over its approach.

    The first castle was probably a simpler affair than its present-day incarnation with the existing stone keep having been dated to the early 14th century.

    It is now maintained by English Heritage and is open to the public - but during the winter only at weekends. I of course was there mid-week in November :-(

    Website has details of opening times etc.

    The Castle Keep
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    Go For A Pint In A Proper Pub!

    by johngayton Written Sep 12, 2012

    For a friendly local boozer the King William IV Hotel is perfect. This is a no-frills town centre pub but very convivial, with excellent beer which was very reasonably priced and a laid back ambience. It might look a little scruffy but is immaculately clean and serves good honest pub grub at once again very reasonable prices.

    I only popped in for a quick pint, which turned into two - well the first one seemed to just disappear and I was still thirsty ;-HIC!

    Pub Frontage
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