The Chronicles of Totnes: Tracing the History of a Devonian Gem

The Chronicles of Totnes: Tracing the History of a Devonian Gem

January 05, 2024

Totnes Devon

The Chronicles of Totnes: Tracing the History of a Devonian Gem


Located in the heart of South Devon, Totnes is a vibrant market town with a rich historical tapestry that stretches back to the early Middle Ages. Known for its stunning landscapes, cultural heritage, and alternative lifestyle, Totnes stands as a testament to the changing tides of time. This article aims to chronicle the intriguing history of Totnes, offering a deep dive into its past, from its Saxon origins to the thriving town we know today.


The Dawn of Totnes


Saxon Beginnings
Totnes' roots can be traced back to the reign of King Edgar (959-975) when it rose to prominence as a burh, a fortified settlement. This Saxon settlement was strategically located at the highest navigable point of the River Dart, making it an ideal location for trade and defence.
The town's name, first recorded in AD 979, derives from the Old English personal name Totta and ness, meaning headland. Despite the marshy, tidal wetlands surrounding the hill, the settlement thrived, paving the way for the town we recognise today.


The Mythical Connection
An intriguing aspect of Totnes' history is its connection to the legendary founder of Britain, Brutus of Troy. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth's "Historia Regum Britanniae," Brutus landed on the "coast of Totnes" and laid the foundation of the nation. Today, a small granite boulder known as the Brutus Stone, embedded in the pavement of Fore Street, commemorates this mythical event.


The Arrival of the Normans

The Norman Conquest in 1066 had a profound impact on Totnes. William the Conqueror granted Totnes to Juhel of Totnes, a Breton knight, who swiftly fortified the town, establishing the iconic motte-and-bailey castle that dominates Totnes' skyline.

Totnes castle


Totnes Castle: A Norman Masterpiece

Totnes Castle, one of the best-preserved examples of a Norman motte and bailey castle, stands as a symbol of Norman authority. The castle underwent several structural changes over the centuries, with the most significant reconstruction occurring in the 13th and 14th centuries. Today, visitors can explore this historical marvel and enjoy panoramic views of Totnes and the River Dart from its towering keep.


The Medieval Transformation
The Growth of a Market Town

By the 12th century, Totnes had evolved into an important market town, its prosperity underpinned by its strategic position on the main roads of the South West and easy access to the River Dart. This prosperity is reflected in the merchants' houses from the 16th and 17th centuries that still dot the town.


The Royal Charter
Totnes' growing wealth and importance caught the attention of King John, who granted the town a royal charter in 1206, making it the second town in Britain to receive this honour. This charter gave Totnes the freedom to make its own laws and establish a guild for merchants, significantly boosting its trading position.



The Tudor Era and Beyond
Religious Foundations

The Tudor era saw the establishment of the Benedictine priory in 1088 by Juhel of Totnes. Although the priory no longer stands, the 15th-century Church of St Mary occupies its original site, serving as a reminder of Totnes' religious roots.

The Guildhall: A Hub of Civic Life
The Tudor Guildhall, built in 1553 on the ruins of the medieval priory, has been a cornerstone of Totnes' civic life for over four centuries. The Guildhall has served various functions over the years, from a meeting place for the Merchant Guild to a courtroom and prison. Today, it continues to host Town Council meetings and remains a significant historical landmark.


The 18th Century and Industrial Revolution
Economic Shifts

The 18th century marked a period of economic transition for Totnes. As the cloth trade declined, the town leaned on its position as a market town and river trading point. Despite these challenges, Totnes continued to grow, with the construction of a new bridge in 1828 facilitating the development of the Bridgetown suburb.

Prominent Visitors
During this period, Totnes attracted notable visitors, including Daniel Defoe, who stayed at the Royal Seven Stars. Built around 1680, this historic inn has hosted various figures over the centuries, further enhancing Totnes' reputation.


The Victorian Era: A Period of Growth
The Victorian era saw rapid growth in Totnes, with significant infrastructural developments. The construction of Totnes Bridge and the establishment of a dairy near the railway station, among other developments, transformed the town's landscape.


The Arrival of the Railways
The arrival of the South Devon Railway in the 19th century further boosted Totnes' growth. Today, it serves as a popular tourist attraction, offering an enchanting journey through the stunning valley of the River Dart.


The 20th Century: A Time of Change for Totnes

Industry and Employment
The 20th century brought industrial growth to Totnes with the establishment of the C & T Harris Ltd bacon factory and the expansion of the Cow & Gate dairy. These industries provided employment for the local population, contributing to the town's economic stability.

The Transition Town Movement
In the early 21st century, Totnes gained international recognition as the birthplace of the Transition Town movement. This initiative, spearheaded by permaculture designer Rob Hopkins, aims to equip communities to address the challenges of climate change and peak oil.



Totnes Today: A Blend of Tradition and Innovation

A Thriving Community
Today, Totnes is renowned for its vibrant community, diverse cultural activities, and commitment to sustainability. The town is home to a plethora of independent shops, boutiques, and eateries, offering a unique shopping and dining experience.

A Hub for History and Heritage
Totnes continues to embrace its historical roots, with landmarks such as the East Gate arch, the Butterwalk, and the Totnes Fashion & Textile Museum attracting visitors from around the world. These sites, alongside the town's many festivals and events, ensure that the history of Totnes remains alive and celebrated.

The Legacy of Totnes
A Town of Heritage
Totnes' historical significance extends beyond its borders, contributing to the broader narrative of Devon's history. The town's rich heritage, embodied in its landmarks and traditions, offers valuable insights into the region's past.

A Beacon for Sustainability
In the face of global environmental challenges, Totnes stands as a beacon for sustainable living. The town's commitment to the Transition Town movement showcases its dedication to fostering resilient, sustainable communities.

The Future of Totnes
As Totnes moves forward, it carries its history with it, shaping its future while honouring its past. The town's blend of tradition and innovation, history and sustainability, ensures that Totnes will continue to evolve while staying true to its roots.


From its Saxon beginnings to its current status as a vibrant, sustainable town, Totnes is a treasure trove of history and culture. Its rich past, combined with its forward-thinking approach to community and sustainability, makes Totnes a truly unique destination with a story to tell.

The qualities of Totnes town inspired us to create The Tanner Bates 'TOTNES TOTE BAG.'
Our Totnes Tote Bag is Constructed of Leather and Canvas with a Fold Over Design.

totnes tote bag
This practical combination of 18oz waxed canvas from Halley Stevensons of Dundee and full grain Italian vegetable-tanned leather handles and waxy pull-up leather for the base and pockets makes this tote bag a great choice. 
It is handmade in small batches and strengthened with hand-hammered copper rivets, with various pockets to keep you organised on the go. There are two large external pockets and three internal pockets, two smaller and one larger. 
The fold-over design keeps your items secure and dry. Use it over the shoulder or in hand and if you need to carry extra, unfold and fill the tote - supporting local businesses!
Select from two distinct colourways
Top-grain Italian vegetable-tanned leather handles
18oz Halley Stevensons waxed canvas fabric
Heavyweight, pull-up waxed leather base and external pockets
Hand-hammered copper rivets
Two pockets on the outer side
Three pockets inside
Smartly-designed fold-over style
Measurements of the main body when folded: 35 x 30/42 x 10 cms (approx)
Dimensions of the main body when unfolded: 46 x 30/42 x 10 cms (approx)

Waxed cotton and leather share many qualities, such as durability and the ability to develop a unique appearance over time. This ageing process results in a distinctive patina, making each item unique to its owner.
Regular maintenance with waxes enhances both materials, keeping the leather nourished and the canvas weather-resistant. Additionally, waxed cotton adapts to temperature changes, becoming softer in warmth and firmer in cold, a characteristic shared by leather as it responds to its surroundings.



What is the population of Totnes?


The population of Totnes, a market town in Devon, England, can fluctuate over time. According to recent figures, the population is 9,214.


Is Totnes the most eccentric town in Britain?

Totnes, located in Devon, England, is often cited as one of Britain's most eccentric and unique towns. With its rich history dating back to Norman times, the town has developed a vibrant contemporary culture that embraces alternative lifestyles. Totnes is known for its strong environmental consciousness, a thriving local economy with a preference for independent shops over chain stores, and a community that supports organic farming, renewable energy, and sustainability.

You'll find a variety of eclectic shops, vegan and vegetarian eateries, and a wide range of holistic health practitioners. Totnes also has a reputation for its arts and music scene, as well as its many festivals and events that celebrate everything from food to the esoteric.

However, whether Totnes is "the most eccentric" is subjective and would depend on one's definition of eccentricity. It certainly is a strong contender for the title, with its unique blend of historic charm and a progressive, bohemian vibe that sets it apart from many other British towns.


Where is Totnes?

Totnes is a market town and civil parish located at the head of the estuary of the River Dart in Devon, South West England, United Kingdom. It is known for its bohemian community, historic buildings, and beautiful setting within the English countryside. Totnes has a rich history and is often considered a hub for music, art, and alternative lifestyles.

The town's vibrant atmosphere and eclectic mix of shops, cafes, and galleries make it a must-visit destination. Its weekly markets offer a range of local produce and crafts, reflecting the town's commitment to supporting local businesses and sustainable practices. Whether you're exploring the ancient Totnes Castle, strolling along the River Dart, or immersing yourself in the local arts scene, Totnes promises a unique and memorable experience.


Why is Totnes a transition town?

Totnes, a market town in Devon, England, is often referred to as the world's first "Transition Town." The concept of a Transition Town is rooted in the idea of sustainable communities that are able to withstand the twin challenges of climate change and peak oil. Totnes earned this title due to its pioneering efforts in community-led sustainable living initiatives.


Here are a few reasons why Totnes is considered a Transition Town:

Community Engagement: Totnes has a strong sense of community with active participation from local residents. The Transition Town movement encourages local decision-making and community resilience, and Totnes has embraced this ethos.

Local Economy: Totnes has been innovative in supporting local businesses and encouraging local spending, which helps to reduce carbon footprints and boosts the local economy. For example, it introduced the Totnes pound, a complementary local currency to encourage spending within the local community.

Sustainability Initiatives: Totnes has numerous projects aimed at reducing energy dependence, like promoting renewable energy sources and energy efficiency in homes and businesses.

Education and Awareness: The town focuses on education, running courses, and workshops on topics such as permaculture, green building techniques, and sustainable agriculture.

Food and Farming: Totnes supports local food systems through community gardens, farmer's markets, and support for local farmers. This reduces the carbon footprint associated with food transport and encourages organic, sustainable farming practices.

Transport: Efforts to reduce reliance on cars through car-sharing schemes, promoting cycling, and improving public transport are part of Totnes's transition ethos.

Innovation and Inspiration: Totnes has inspired other towns and communities around the world to adopt similar transition principles, becoming a model for the global Transition Network.

The Transition Town movement, which began in Totnes in 2006, has since become a global phenomenon, with hundreds of towns and cities adopting the transition model to create more sustainable and self-sufficient communities.


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