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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

Totnes Inside the Wall

This is part two of my recent Totnes photo walk. Part one was the second hand stalls in the market. Part three is the market square.This part only takes in a small route around the old town and the town gates. Town gates are a feature of walled towns which had a high wall around them with limited entry points which could be closed either against attack or often just at night. If you are in a town or city that has street names like Southgate Street, Skeldergate, Gillygate etc. you are in a former walled town or city, even if the walls and gates no longer exist.

This photo depicting Nationwide Distribution as it is now and as it used to be was pure luck, taken at the narrowest point of the medieval High Street. The truck driver was nervous, creeping slowly through the narrow gap, and the horse was not.

Being in the old town, there are all sorts of small details to be found. I took this shot of the ground as a nice composition, but there is a small detail which I noticed, which sent me on a voyage of digital discovery. More on this further on in the post.

This photo is a "device" to pique your curiosity and to encourage you to keep engaged with this longer than usual series of photos, I hope when you get to the "reveal" you will think it was worthwhile waiting to get there. This is the junction of High Street and South Street.

A small detail on the metal work tells of an age when the Post Office was the provider of telephones. The only provider of telephones. Telephones which were always permanently plugged into something. Telephones which all looked the same, were black, and had bells in them, actual bells with little metal hammers that rang them.

I feel as if I stand here long enough a man may emerge wearing a top hat.

I don't know if this window display is a comment on age profiles in Totnes. I am used to seeing birthday cards with 21 and 50 on them but not so often cards with 90 and 100 on them. It is a tradition in the UK that the monarch sends a birthday message to people on their hundredth birthday.

Since the start of her reign in 1952 until 2022, it was estimated that the late Queen Elizabeth II sent approximately 307,000 telegrams to people in the United Kingdom celebrating their 100th birthday, and 927,000 to couples celebrating their 60th (Diamond) wedding anniversary.

Eileen Shearburn opened hers only hours before the Queen's death was announced and believes she was one of the last to get the missive.Her family believe Mrs Shearburn's telegram was among the last sent by the Queen. The card, bearing a photograph of the smiling monarch, now holds special significance. The message, signed by the Queen, reads: "I am so pleased to know that you are celebrating your one-hundredth birthday on 13 September, 2022. I send my congratulations and best wishes to you on such a special occasion."

There was a first poster on this corner, once upon a time. Because it wasn't removed another one arrived and then another. It has now become information corner.

On closer inspection you have a choice of events in October. A Human Chain around Parliament to "Free Assange". Totnes Consciousness Cafe. Tango Taster Class. You can experience The Clay Bottom Jug Busters, or The Moscow drug Club, even have some Hedfone Sex, or The James Kirby Band, Dartmoor Edge Literary Fest, or consult an Ayurvedic Consultant, Celebrate Apples, or spend an afternoon with Palden Jenkins in the Far Beyond. Sing for Fun or join a Printmaking workshop. There's always Restorative Yoga or The Herbal Remedies Parent and Child Group or Creative Journeys in Nature. My favourite, The Women's Sacred Cacao Medicine Circles, followed in close second place by Islandness in the Anthropocene.

Here is someone who has seen it all and is really not impressed.

This is a narrow point in the High Street and the pavement is so thin that normally when you walk past you are very close to the walls, hence I had not seen these two murals either side of the Paper Works shop window before.

Sealing wax is a substance formerly in wide use for sealing letters and attaching impressions of seals to documents. In medieval times it consisted of a mixture of beeswax, Venice turpentine, and colouring matter, usually vermilion; later lac (a resinous substance secreted by a scale insect (Laccifer lacca) and used chiefly in the form of shellac) from Indonesia supplanted the beeswax.

This is the access door for a water conduit. Conduits were the first attempt to bring clean water into towns before piped water was available inside homes. Conduits were the major new infrastructure projects of their day, normally funded by generous local benefactors who also had an interest in keeping the population healthy and disease free. It was realised very early that much disease was connected with water supplies. It was not until the 19th century that scientists proved why. This was the reason that beer drinking was so common throughout history, as the brewing process made water safe to drink. More detail on this one conduit here.

This has to be one of the most eccentric houses in the centre of the town. It has an Egyptian feel to it so I would guess it dates from a similar date to The Egyptian House in Penzance.

Back to my digital discovery trail. I accidentally photographed the end of this kerb stone in the previous photo and noticed that it had been carved away, not worn away. People don't carve granite lightly, it is very hard and difficult to do.

Looking at the kerb stones I think you can safely say they have been here at least 200 years if not a lot longer. Walking back I noticed there were other carved holes which look distinctly like post holes. Why would somebody have done this? When I took this photo, an old man noticed me and then looked down to see what I was doing and expressed astonishment that he had never noticed this before. We chatted about the unusual nature of them and puzzled over why they were there.

This section of the High Street is a junction with South Street and very narrow. My mistake was not checking the opposite side of the road to see if there were also some that side. In any case I thought I could use Google to just ask the question, but no joy.

Then I remembered an online resource of layered British maps through the ages, a bit like Google Earth but in time. So I found the street corner and clicked through the years to see what was here 200 years ago. Bingo!

This map of 1892 has the clue. This was the exact spot, on which was sited, the West Gate of the old town wall. My best guess is that this was some sort of wooden structure at the gate, maybe a toll booth or toll gate, long since removed.

Apart from two small fragments the town wall has been completely destroyed. In Saxon times Totnes formed part of the Royal demesne and is described in Domesday book as having 95 burgesses within and 15 without the walls. The town was entered by four gateways two of which the north and east are still standing.

Totnes town wall forms an irregular ellipse in plan. Only a short length of wall remains near the East Gate, which is much altered from its original design, and also the North Gate of Norman origin, just below the castle.

The West Gate was demolished circa 1810. The East Gate Probably altered and refronted circa 1835 in Gothic style when the former round-arched entrance and footway (the "needles eye") was replaced by a wide, flat-arched gate-way.

So there you have it, the West Gate on this very spot was demolished in about 1810 just over 200 years ago. We'll see the North Gate and East Gate further down this post. I have crudely made this map to show an approximation of the old town walls and castle and the three gates. The fourth gate South Gate is mentioned on this map, just as South Gate or Shambles Gate (Site of) about half way along South Street. Along this black line in certain spots you can also see walls built into properties which are relics of that original wall.

In 1313, a town court heard that the walls were in bad repair and it is suggested that some effort was subsequently made to improve the defences. When Leland visited the town in circa 1538, he noted that 'this town hath been walled but the walls be clene down. A man may see where the foundation was of them'.

In case you wondered what burgesses were, they are owners of plots of land called burgage plots, and they lived in boroughs or burghs.

Burgess - An inhabitant of a town or borough with full rights of citizenship.

While I have this map here, just marvel at the fact that these burgage plots were described in 1086 and their footprints are still clearly here. Land on the High Street was expensive so the street frontages were narrow but they extended far back. Merchants sold their goods at the front and stored or manufactured them at the rear, while living above the shop. As an experiment, I counted them fairly roughly, taking the narrow ones as a guide to their original size, therefore counting two or three in the wider plots, as it is likely that over a thousand year time span some have merged.

In 1086 there were officially 95 and we know that is accurate because this was done to raise taxes. My quick rough count guessing where some may have merged got me to 99 so that pretty much blows my mind considering the time span.

On my way back, guess who is still here?

Now I am going down Castle Street, and believe it or not the castle is right here, you just can't see it in the town as the houses are built right into the base of it and the streets are narrow. It is right behind the houses on the left. More on the castle here.

The main thing to point out here is the Norman North Gate arch still remaining. It would have been possible to walk along the top at one time, from the castle to the East Gate. I will turn right here towards the East Gate along North Street.

On this route, some views over the nearby open countryside come into sight. Victorian Totnes and the railway lie out of sight at the bottom of the hill.

Some of us still call these Telegraph Poles even though telegraphs stopped operating decades ago. They now carry high speed broadband to thousand year old burgage plots.

In the nineteenth century, the United Kingdom had the world's first commercial telegraph company. British telegraphy dominated international telecommunications well into the twentieth. Telegraphy is the sending of textual messages by human operators using symbolic codes. Electrical telegraphy used conducting wires to send messages, often incorporating a telegram service to deliver the telegraphed communication from the telegraph office.

After the war, telegram usage went back into decline. Telegram numbers were 42 million in 1950, under 14 million in 1960, and only 7.7 million in 1970, the lowest it had ever been.

These poles originally named for the telegraph wires they carried across country were later adapted for telephones and spread within the towns themselves. The name Telegraph Pole had stuck though.

This is highly likely to be a remnant of the town wall.

This is the way down to the street from the restored section of walkway leading to the East Gate.

This is the redesigned Gothic style East Gate mentioned above. The steps above emerge on the right under the archway.

This is the Totnes Museum, which I have yet to visit. It was closed for some time due to covid so I missed it on earlier visits. It is an original building with restored frontage.

My take on Totnes, in a shop window, even on a Friday, it has a Lazy Sunday vibe.

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4 תגובות

חבר/ה לא ידוע/ה
14 באוק׳ 2022

🧡🧡🧡 What a photographers' haven this Totnes is. So much to see and so much to click. If it wasn't for the cars, # 5 could easily be from one of Dickens' stories, especially that dog, reminds me of Annie's dog. I went and checked out the castle only because I could not remember seeing it. You have once again framed those photos in such a way that one just can gawk at forever. Btw what a great find that map, I am sure you studied it quite hard. As John said you definitely have a sharp eye for the details.

Gethin Thomas
Gethin Thomas
14 באוק׳ 2022
בתשובה לפוסט של

That's funny because 9 just said Dickens to me as well. I didn't go in, maybe next time. The Marilyn Monroe esque figure was in the window. Thanks Camellia.


John Durham
John Durham
14 באוק׳ 2022

Excellent sleuthing on the West Gate! Pays to use your photographer's sharp eye for small details for more than just an image. Love the history of the place - thanks for doing all that research.

Gethin Thomas
Gethin Thomas
14 באוק׳ 2022
בתשובה לפוסט של

Glad you enjoyed it John. I never tire of walking around Totnes with my camera.

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