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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

Totnes Town

Originally published on Photoblog by Gethin Thomas MAY. 12, 2021


In putting together what was to be my final Totnes post of this walk I realised I had too many photos left so I have added another group, Totnes Close Up. That additional group will be, surprise surprise, the close ups. I hope you don't feel misled or scammed by my sudden last minute intrusion of yet another Totnes post, I can't help it if I am snap happy at times.


You can find Totnes People, Totnes Market, and Totnes Signs here.


I will take this opportunity to describe the layout of what is essentially quite a compact small town with a huge amount of history. Imagine if you will, the perfect spot to build a town. This isn't it. Well at least not in modern terms. Take a very steep hill and draw a line straight up it. This is not how anyone sensible would do town planning. Even sheep have worked out that you go up hills in a gradual zig zag route. But places like Totnes were not planned.


Totnes is a river port and in times of war and danger from foreign attack by marauding invaders at a time when there were virtually no roads a good place to set up shop is up a tidal river as far as it is navigable, with a ford to cross it. This gives you access to the sea and trade at least twice a day at high tide and for most of the day no easy access for invaders.


If you have a handy hill behind you, you can throw up a castle on top where you can all run to in an emergency. That is Totnes. So you start with traders and warehouses down by the river and the settlement creeps back up the hill towards the castle as the town expands. You need a market for farmers surrounding the town to bring their produce for sale to the exporters, and for the importers of the town to offer their wares back to the farmers. You end up with a large bridge over the river, more reliable then a ford, which later enables you to expand your trade and eventually you get better access inland as road networks start to develop. The modern Totnes ends up on the national railway network and slowly turns it's back on the river port and the sea.


The old bridge becomes congested and draws heavy traffic into the town so you build a larger bridge for traffic that wants to bypass the town and the riverside now attracts leisure craft from Dartmouth, while the town itself becomes a magnet for tourists.


When I arrive in Totnes I enter at the top of the town, level with the castle, and drive down to market level. On this occasion all the car parks were full so I had to continue down to river level. So this post roughly follows a route from the river up to the castle along Fore Street/High Street, although I didn't feature the castle this time. That will be another day.


This building below in all it's pinkness is, comparatively, a recent addition, and is situated on what is called the plains. The plains would have been medieval originally and in fact some remnants of buildings that were on the plains will feature later. This is over the road from the much older Royal Seven Stars hotel.


This is the view from the old bridge at low tide and you get a sense of the trading riverside and how it once would have been lined with wharves and warehouses. This is a small tributary of the Dart joining the Dart at Totnes. The Dart proper is to the left with those trees forming a sort of bar between the two. They become one just around the bend ahead.


A tour thro' the whole island of Great Britain is an account of his travels by English author Daniel Defoe, first published in three volumes between 1724 and 1727.


About twenty-two miles from Exeter we go to Totnes, on the River Dart. This is a very good town, of some trade; but has more gentlemen in it than tradesmen of note. They have a very fine stone bridge here over the river, which, being within seven or eight miles of the sea, is very large; and the tide flows ten or twelve feet at the bridge.

Here we had the diversion of seeing them catch fish with the assistance of a dog. The case is this:- On the south side of the river, and on a slip, or narrow cut or channel made on purpose for a mill, there stands a corn-mill; the mill-tail, or floor for the water below the wheels, is wharfed up on either side with stone above high-water mark, and for above twenty or thirty feet in length below it on that part of the river towards the sea; at the end of this wharfing is a grating of wood, the cross-bars of which stand bearing inward, sharp at the end, and pointing inward towards one another, as the wires of a mouse-trap.


When the tide flows up, the fish can with ease go in between the points of these cross-bars, but the mill being shut down they can go no farther upwards; and when the water ebbs again, they are left behind, not being able to pass the points of the grating, as above, outwards; which, like a mouse-trap, keeps them in, so that they are left at the bottom with about a foot or a foot and a half of water. We were carried hither at low water, where we saw about fifty or sixty small salmon, about seventeen to twenty inches long, which the country people call salmon-peal; and to catch these the person who went with us, who was our landlord at a great inn next the bridge, (The Royal Seven Stars Hotel) put in a net on a hoop at the end of a pole, the pole going cross the hoop (which we call in this country a shove-net). The net being fixed at one end of the place, they put in a dog (who was taught his trade beforehand) at the other end of the place, and he drives all the fish into the net; so that, only holding the net still in its place, the man took up two or three and thirty salmon- peal at the first time.

Of these we took six for our dinner, for which they asked a shilling (viz., two pence a-piece); and for such fish, not at all bigger, and not so fresh, I have seen six-and-sixpence each given at a London fish-market, (45 times more) whither they are sometimes brought from Chichester by land carriage.


This excessive plenty of so good fish (and other provisions being likewise very cheap in proportion) makes the town of Totnes a very good place to live in; especially for such as have large families and but small estates. And many such are said to come into those parts on purpose for saving money, and to live in proportion to their income.


The name Totnes (first recorded in AD 979) comes from the Old English personal name Totta and ness or headland. Before reclamation and development, the low-lying areas around this hill were largely marsh or tidal wetland, giving the hill much more the appearance of a "ness" than today.


By the 12th century, Totnes was already an important market town, due to its position on one of the main roads of the South West, in conjunction with its easy access to its hinterland and the easy navigation of the River Dart.

By 1523, according to a tax assessment, Totnes was the second richest town in Devon, and the sixteenth richest in England, ahead of Worcester, Gloucester and Lincoln.


Memorial to John Wills, erected 1864. Wills, a native of Totnes, was the 1st European to cross the Australian sub-continent, in 1861. Granite obelisk carried on rusticated base and pedestal with marble inscription plaque. Marble roundel at base of obelisk carved in low relief with bust of Wills.

This pediment has me puzzled because of the dates. It is the side door of the King William IV pub. His dates as king were 1830 -1837. After his death Victoria became queen and her son Edward the VII was crowned in 1902. So these dates encompass both William's accession to the throne, Victoria's reign and the year of Edward VII's reign before he was crowned. It seems to make no sense. I can only assume the 1830 commemorates William's accession to the throne while the 1902 references the building of the pub.


This display, below, was off Fore Street in a small paved area, I cannot find out why it is there.


This small alley is Atherton Lane.

An emblematic feature to be seen when making your way up the hill in the centre of the town is the East Gate arch, first rebuilt early in the 16th Century, and again in 1990 after it was largely destroyed by fire.


Set back from the road before you reach East Gate is the attractive Presbytery fronted by a pretty garden.

Totnes Museum (aka Totnes Elizabethan House Museum) is a local museum in the town of Totnes, south Devon, in southwest England.


The museum is housed in an Elizabethan merchant's house that was built c.1575 for the Kelland family. The house has many original features and has been carefully restored. Totnes Museum has twelve galleries, a courtyard, and a herb garden.


Salvaged stone window from the almshouses demolished in 1970. These almshouses which stood on the south side of The Grove, are marked as Lamb's Almshouses on the 1888 1:500 Town Plan of Totnes. Also the original stone and metal markers.


Almshouses are a charitable form of self sufficient, low cost community housing that is held in trust for local people in housing need. They are managed and run by almshouse charities made up of local volunteers.


After having been owned by the Crown during the Civil War the building eventually returned to being private residence. In 1764 the house became the Eugene Inn and remained an inn for many years. By 1871 solicitor George Presswell lived here with his family. In 1910 the building was sold and became the Elizabethan Cafe.


In 1957 the building was in a poor condition and bought by Totnes Borough Council. They restored it to its former glory and converted the building into a museum.


Many of the shops in Totnes are "a bit different". This is Narnia Totnes, "The Time Traveller's Shop" at Time House.

When the streets are narrow, you squeeze in your garden where you can.



Below, this is the elevated area up the steps at the town gate, Guildhall Yard.

Ahead, just visible is the Guildhall. I will cover this part of town in my next visit including the castle. Unusually, behind that wall is the cemetery of the church which is at the top of the wall level, you can just see some gravestones sticking up by the curve in the wall, so when you stand in Guildhall yard you are down with the coffins.

Walking up through the East Gate you are now in High Street looking back down hill.

This shot below, looking back gives a good idea of how sharply the town drops away as you soon find your eye level becoming roof level. This really shows the medieval nature of the town.







The last part of my Totnes walk will be Totnes Close Ups.



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