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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

Totnes Castle

Originally published on Blogspot by Gethin Thomas November 3rd 2021

I have been going to Totnes for more than twenty years but until last Saturday I had never visited the castle. In fact the casual visitor to the town could be forgiven for not even noticing that Totnes even has a castle. The reason is it's strategic position on a hill in what is essentially a steep medieval hillside town, with narrow streets and for their time, tall town houses.

The street plan and buildings means that there are very few points within the town from where you can see the castle. It is really only if you climb up to the town wall and follow it or come upon Castle Street that you will stumble upon the entrance to it. Even then the narrow street and the height of the houses precludes you from seeing the castle walls until you go through the gate which has the appearance of being in someone's front garden.

Once in the castle grounds a surprisingly large castle layout of intact walls make themselves visible.

Totnes Castle is one of the best preserved examples of a Norman motte and bailey castle in England. It is situated in the town of Totnes on the River Dart in Devon. The surviving stone keep and curtain wall date from around the 14th century. From after the Norman Conquest of 1066 it was the caput (or capital) of the Feudal barony of Totnes. (Wikipedia)

The castle occupies a commanding position atop a large hill above the town, and guards the approach to three valleys. The castle is a scheduled monument and a Grade I listed building.

In this view downhill to the river in the distance the town becomes later and later in date as it descends the hill with the oldest parts of town at the top. The East Gate just out of sight here to the right of the church tower is the limit of the early settlement all of which was inside the defensive walls. lower down is a later settlement almost certainly founded by Judhael in the 11th century.

In the late 11th century Judhael, a Breton knight established a castle with a courtyard or bailey seen here in the foreground. A huge mound of earth or Motte was also constructed.

On a normal day this bailey would have been a scene of bustling activity as the heart of the castle. This contained the principle timber buildings, now gone. These would have included, stables, bakery, kitchens, forge and brewhouses. Here would also have been situated the grand hall, chamber and chapel in which the Lord stayed on his visits and from where the town and estates were governed.

The stone wall around the motte summit was one of the final structures to be built. Excavations show the original mound was surmounted by a wooden structure, a tower with a defensive fence all on stone foundations which still exist. In the 12th century a stone wall was built and this was rebuilt in the 14th century.

The steps lead up the side of the mound to the entrance of the defensive walls that sit on top.

From part of the way up the steps it is possible to see a remnant of the town walls with a remaining town gate which crosses castle street. This is just a remnant and no longer leads anywhere.

Between the castle and the church are many historic medieval buildings including the Guildhall.

The stone arch leading into the Motte fortifications, made of red sandstone.

The most remarkable survival of early Totnes is it's street pattern, still detectable from the ramparts of the castle. Judhael built the castle partly within the oval-planned bank and ditch of an earlier Saxon borough.

On this western side of the castle even after hundreds of years the town has barely spread a few hundred yards.

Looking east to where the modern developments are, still shows open countryside only a short walk from town. This all adds to the medieval atmosphere of this town unchanged by time.

The central High Street flanked by narrow properties runs downhill to the East Gate.

The stone structure atop the motte is described as a Shell Keep inside which wooden buildings stood with an open courtyard in the centre. The wall is topped with a wall walk for crossbowmen. These crossbowmen could shoot outwards through narrow loopholes in the battlements.

Around the bailey was a deep moat and ridge the first line of defence, now a pleasant walk.

If you find yourself in Totnes, make sure you visit the castle if only for the historic views of the town and river way down below.

All information from Wikipedia and English heritage.

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