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Totnes has a long history; it was one of the five Devonshire towns originally mentioned in the Doomsday Book. It was one of the wealthiest towns in medieval and Tudor Devon (second only to Exeter) The town's wealth, and prosperity, built upon the export of wool from sheep reared on nearby Dartmoor and the export of locally mined tin. The town's location helped contribute to this success - being both the highest port navigable, and the lowest bridging place on the river Dart.
Totnes has a long recorded history, dating back to 907AD when its first castle was built; it was already an important market town by the 12th century. Indications of its former wealth and importance are given by the number of merchants' houses built in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Today Totnes is a market town at the head of the estuary of the River Dart.The town, with its population of some 8,000, is a thriving centre for music, art, theatre and natural health. It has a sizeable alternative and “New Age community, and is known as a place where one can live a bohemian lifestyle.
The town is built on a hill rising from the west bank of the River Dart which separates Totnes from the suburb of Bridgetown. It is at the lowest bridging point of the river which here is tidal and forms a winding estuary down to the sea at Dartmouth. The river continues to be tidal for about 1 mile (1.6 km) above the town, until it meets Totnes Weir built in the 17th century.
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 is a road bridge built in 1826-28 by Charles Fowler. At low tide the foundations of the previous stone bridge are visible just upstream—it was probably built in the early 13th century and widened in 1692. Before the first stone bridge was built there was almost certainly a wooden bridge here, and a tidal ford for heavy vehicles was just downstream. In 1982 a new concrete bridge was built about 1,000 feet (300 m) upstream as part of the Totnes inner relief road. Its name, Brutus Bridge, was chosen by the local residents.
A sizeable alternative community, with the town being known as a place where one can live a bohemian lifestyle. There are a number of facilities for artists, painters and musicians, and there is a twice-weekly market offering antiques, musical instruments, second-hand books, handmade clothing from across the world, and local organically produced products.
In March 2007 Totnes was the first town in the UK to introduce its own local alternative currency, the Totne Pound, to support the local economy of the town.[ Fourteen months later, 70 businesses within the town were trading in the "Totnes pound," accepting them as payment and offering them to shoppers as change from their purchases.The initiative is part of the Transition Towns concept, which was pioneered by Rob Hopkins, who had recently moved to Totnes.[
As a visitor to this fascinating town, take time to hunt out the Leechwells, uncover the legend of the Brutus stone; browse amongst the delightful shops for arts, crafts and unusual gifts or just listen to buskers, especially on market days. The riverside offers you the chance to take a boat trip from the Steamer Quay to the historic town of Dartmouth or for land lubbers, why not take the steam train to Buckfastleigh?
The Butterwalk And Poultry Walk
A striking feature from Totnes' past is the Butterwalk (on the north side of High Street) and the Poultry Walk. The Butterwalk is a Tudor covered walkway that was built to protect the dairy products once sold here from the sun and rain. These are two covered pavement arcades with stone pillars carrying the overhanging storeys of the houses, .these walkways once sheltered markets that were held there. Similar pillared ambulatories can be seen in nearby owns of Dartmouth and Kingsbridge.
The Ancient Leech Wells
The ancient Leechwell so named because of the supposed medicinal properties of its water, and apparently where lepers once came to wash, still provides fresh water
The Leech Wells can be found at the top of the town in an area known as the 'Narrows', a collection of claustrophobically narrow streets echoing back to Tones' past. If you follow the High Street up to the top of the town, it levels out and curves round to the left. If you walk along Leechwell Street, you will come to Totnes' oldest pub, the 17th century Kingsbridge Inn. Adjacent to the pub, you will find the narrow passage known as Leechwell Lane, leading back down the hill. The passage leads you to the site of Totnes' three ancient wells, where water flows from springs into three granite troughs. The waters in the wells were believed to have medicinal properties and as such, were administered by specially appointed Town Wardens. The healing waters in the Leech Wells were for a long time a point of pilgrimage for Lepers, in an attempt to cleanse themselves of their terrible affliction.
A visit to the town is best started from the river side - at the bottom of the town. Here you will find the old steamer quay, in what was once the thriving river port. The quay is now the centre for the local river cruisers - who daily carry the summer visitors on pleasure trips from Totnes to Dartmouth some 6 miles down stream.
From the quay, Fore Street rises up into the centre of the town, passing underneath the East Gate Arch - a splendid Tudor structure. On its way up into the town the street winds it way past many fine examples of 16th and 17th century merchant's houses, including the restored Elizabethan House, which serves as the museum.
The Guild Hall
The Guild Hall, on Ramparts Walk (just after the East gate Arch) in the High Street, is a well-preserved 16th century building. The Hall, which was constructed in 1533, still serves as a council chamber. Visitors to the Guild Hall can see Totnes' Old Jail and the table where Cromwell sat in 1646.
The Brutus Stone
This can be found in Fore Street (next to no.51) set into the pavement on the right-hand side as you as you walk up the street towards the East Gate Arch. This can easily be missed on a busy day. The stone is linked to the legend to a Trojan Prince who landed in Totnes whilst searching for an island promised to him by the goddess Diana. In 1170 BC, after the Trojan war, Brutus and a band of followers set ou to find this promised land. They landed in Totnes with Brutus using the 'Brutus Stone' to disembark the ship. As he steped ashore onto the stone he said "Here I stand and here I rest. The Town shall be called Totnes."
Brutus and his followers were, according to the legend, the first people to reach the shores of Britain; making Totnes, and the Brutus Stone, the place of origin of the British People.
Totnes has a fine example of a Norman Castle, with commanding views over the town. Totnes Castle was constructed at a time when feudal Lords ruled over a simple mediaeval society. The presence, power and status of this ruling class of Norman's, was clearly demonstrated to the local people in the form of the castles that they built.
William the conqueror, granted Totnes, along with 107 other Devonshire manors to Judel the Breton (three variations of the name are mentioned in the research texts; Judel, Juhel and Judhael). Totnes castle was one of the first three stone castles to be in Devon, in a clear attempt to tighten William's hold over this potentially rebellious shire. Judel built his castle in the most commanding position possible, straddling the original medieval town walls with one of the largest examples of a Norman motte-and-bailey castle in the country. A dramatic round shell keep built on top of a huge mound of pounded earth and rock that still evokes a feeling of power today. The castle remains remarkably intact to this day, as it never received the kind of battering usually suffered by castles in the middle ages.
Situated on Fore Street close to the East Gate Arch, Totnes Museum is contained within an authentic Elizabethan Merchant's House, which is half timbered built around 1575 for the Kelland family. The house retains many features dating back to the Elizabethan period and has been painstakingly restored. There are 13 rooms on three floors covering over 5000 years of history from Totnes and its surrounding area. Collections, relate to the social, cultural, economic history of Totnes, include a room dedicated to the life and work of Charles Babbage, a superb parlour/bedroom and a Tudor Kitchen. There are displays depicting the adventures of William Wills, the first man to cross Australia between North and South, and a hands-on Victorian Nursery. In addition there is a Courtyard and Tudor herb garden to explore. The museum is also home to an Archive (Study Centre) containing maps, wills, deeds and other historical documents to assist researchers and family history devotees. The entire record of the local newspaper, Totnes Times, since 1860 is available on microfiche and there are printing and photocopying facilities available. The Study Centre is also an outpost of the Devon Records Office.
Totnes Costume Museum
The Devonshire Collection of Period Costume is displayed in one of the historic merchant's houses of Totnes, Bogan House, which was restored by the Mitchell Trust in 1986.
There is a new exhibition of costumes and accessories each season.
MarketsTotnes has regular outdoor markets on Fridays and Saturdays. During the main season, between May and September, there is an Elizabethan market each Tuesday morning, where local people and traders go about their daily business dressed in Elizabethan costume. The Elizabethan market runs alongside the all-day craft market in the town.
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