If you’re looking for a holiday that combines history, alternative therapies and breathtakingly beautiful countryside, you’ll find it in Totnes. This unique and charming market town sits in the heart of South Devon and has an international reputation for its lively and diverse community. The atmosphere is cosmopolitan but with a distinctly rustic West Country flavour, and this makes it a remarkable place to visit for its heritage, culture and very pretty setting.
According to the Historia Regum Britanniae written by Geoffrey of Monmouth in around 1136, “the coast of Totnes” was where Brutus of Troy, the mythical founder of Britain, first came ashore on the island. Set into the pavement of Fore Street is the ‘Brutus Stone’, a small granite boulder onto which, according to local legend, Brutus first stepped from his ship. As he did so, he was supposed to have declaimed:
The stone is far above the highest tides and the tradition is not likely to be of great antiquity, being first mentioned in John Prince’s Worthies of Devon in 1697. It is possible that the stone was originally the one from which the town crier, or bruiter called his bruit or news; or it may be le Brodestone, a boundary stone mentioned in several 15th century disputes: its last-known position in 1471 was below the East Gate.
Also according to the Historia, Ambrosius Aurelius and his brother Uther Pendragon landed at Totnes to win back the throne of Britain from the usurper Vortigern.
Despite this legendary history, the first authenticated history of Totnes is in AD 907, when it was fortified by King Edward the Elder as part of the defensive ring of burghs built around Devon, replacing one built a few years earlier at nearby Halwell. The site was chosen because it was on an ancient track way which forded the river at low tide. Between the reigns of Edgar and William II (959–1100) Totnes intermittently minted coins. Some time between the Norman Conquest and the compilation of the Domesday Book, William the Conqueror granted the burgh to Juhel of Totnes, who was probably responsible for the first construction of the castle. Juhel did not retain his lordship for long, however, as he was deprived of his lands in 1088 or 1089, for rebelling against William II.
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. In 1553, King Edward VI granted Totnes a charter allowing a former Benedictine priory building that had been founded in 1088 to be used as Totnes Guildhall and a school. In 1624, the Guildhall was converted to be a magistrate’s court. Soldiers were billeted here during the English Civil War and Oliver Cromwell visited for discussions with the general and parliamentary commander-in-chief Thomas Fairfax, 3rd Lord Fairfax of Cameron in 1646. Until 1887, the Guildhall was also used as the town prison with the addition of prison cells. It remained a magistrate’s court until 1974.