A medieval town on a tall hill topped by a castle, surrounded by the beautiful Devon countryside. Markets, small shops, cafés and restaurants. And a vision of the future, as England’s first Transition Town. Here are some of the best things to do in Totnes, whether you are visiting for a day, or staying a little longer.
An Ancient Town
Situated on the River Dart, between the Devon coast and the national park of Dartmoor, Totnes has an enviable location and a long history. Legend has it that the town was founded by Brutus of Troy, but the earliest official record is in 907 CE, when the first fortifications were built. It quickly grew as a market town, a status that it retains today.
Totnes continues to make history, as in 2006 it declared itself a “transition town”, the first such project in the UK. This entails a commitment to sustainability, a response both to climate change and to globalisation. For the visitor this means that there is an emphasis upon local businesses, and you will find small, independent shops and restaurants in preference to high street brands.
Things To Do In Totnes
Whether you arrive in Totnes by train, car, or even boat, you are likely to start your exploration near the river, at the bottom of the hill. Be prepared for a bit of a climb, passing historic features as you go.
As you ascend the hill look out for the Brutus Stone, on the right hand side of Fore Street, outside the Pagoda Gift Shop. It might not be much to look at, but this small slab of granite is said to have been laid by Brutus of Troy as he landed in Britain and disembarked from his ship (although there is no record of exactly how he managed to disembark many miles inland and halfway up a hill…)
The Historic Town And The Narrows
You soon come to the East Gate, perhaps the most recognisable sight in Totnes. Once part of the defensive wall that encircled the upper part of the hill, this was an entrance to the Anglo Saxon town. What you see today is a 19th century reconstruction in the Gothic style.
Once you pass through the gate you are into the old town, full of historic buildings and small passageways. Note the Butterwalk, a colonnaded area where dairy products would have been sold in the Middle Ages, and make a diversion along Guildhall Yard to see the Tudor guild hall (still in use, and open to the public on weekdays).
At the top of the town you will find The Narrows. These are a series of small streets around Rotherfold Square, once the site of a cattle market.
Built soon after the Norman Conquest, Totnes Castle is considered to be one of the best preserved motte and bailey castles in England. The earthworks – moat and mound – remain, as does the wall of the keep, complete with arrow slots and battlements.
The castle was obviously built to command extensive views of the surrounding countryside, and if you climb up to the keep you too will be rewarded with views of the town, the river, and the Devonshire hills.
There is an entrance charge to the castle, but admission is free to English Heritage members.
Museums In Totnes
The Elizabethan House Museum on Fore Street is a 16th century merchant’s house with a museum of local history, and a small garden planted in the Tudor fashion.
Further up the hill is the Totnes Fashion and Textiles Museum, which houses a collection of costumes from the 18th to 21st centuries.
Shopping, Eating And Drinking
In keeping with the Transition Town philosophy Totnes is full of independent shops, including several Fairtrade stores. And the Pannier Market – which has been running for hundreds of years – takes place in the Market Square every Friday and Saturday.
Similarly, there are lots of good independent cafés and restaurants. I had been recommended to try Rumour, a wine bar in a medieval building, but unfortunately it was closed when I visited. However I had a very good meal in another recommended venue – the Royal Seven Stars, a 17th century coaching inn.
Round About Totnes
If you choose to stay in Totnes for a few days there are riverside walks, including the Dart Valley Trail, and circular walks to nearby villages such as Stoke Gabriel.
Options for easy day trips include the following:
- Dartmoor National Park, with its open spaces, hiking trails and traditional villages, is just a short drive away.
- River trips take you to Dartmouth, a lively and historic town at the mouth of the river. The journey takes 90 minutes in each direction.
- Greenway House, the former home of Agatha Christie, is 14 km away.
- The South Devon Railway, a heritage steam railway, runs to Buckfastleigh. Here you can visit the Butterfly Farm, picnic in the park beside the station, and walk to Buckfastleigh for the pubs and cafes. Or follow a half mile walk to Buckfast Abbey, a 20th century monastery where you can still buy the tonic wine produced by the monks.
This article is now available as a mobile app. Go to GPSmyCity to download the app for GPS-assisted travel directions to the attractions featured in this article.