The rising sun catches the wings of a seagull as it flies along the street at the level of the roof tops. It is not lost having been blown inland: Totnes lies at the tidal reaches of the Dart river, which joins the sea at Dartmouth, some twelve miles south of here.
Locals here will tell you about “the seal”. It seems to be some kind of right of passage to spot “the seal”; people may even ask you, “Have you seen the seal?” (although it is probably, in reality, more than one seal, but let’s go with the seal, it is more befitting of the place).
You can catch a river cruise from here to Dartmouth come summer. The Dart winds through fields and forests, passing a couple of waterfront pubs and smart boathouses, polite lawns rolling down to the river, then it seems to undergo a personality change as it widens to do a fairly good impersonation of a lake before entering the sea. On the way, just out of Totnes you will pass the wreck of the Kingswear Castle, a paddle steamer which once ran commercial voyages up and down the river. By 1927 it was moored in Dartmouth harbour as a hospital isolation ship, then towed to its final resting place here and left to rot as a hulk, a ghost ship perhaps still visited, they say, by some of the former TB patients.
It is hard to put your finger on what it is that is so likeable about Totnes. Maybe it is the way that it is quite natural here for strangers to say hello to each other in the street; or the fact that often, and it could even be on the same street, women of a certain age, wearing flowing skirts and with a far-away look in their eyes will smile at you, or chat about your dog as they pet him; perhaps the fact that some will tell you that Totnes is twinned with Narnia. This may go some way to explain why in 2018, when the Telegraph wrote about the town in its travel section, the article was entitled: Is this the most eccentric town in Britain? It is certainly a place at home in its own, rather unique, skin. One local declared independence and issued Totnes passports to inhabitants so they could remain in the EU. And then for a few years Totnes actually issued its own currency (the Totnes pound) which you could spend in some local shops, in an attempt to keep money in the local economy. As the Telegraph puts it:
This place has earned a reputation for a level of eccentricity beyond the usual cream tea and antiques shop fare that characterises a day trip in this part of the world – but in recent years it has also developed more pedigree and poise than many of its south-west siblings. Indeed, back in 2007 Time magazine hailed Totnes as the capital of New-Age chic, and today’s Totnesians are certainly a well-heeled bunch, who are likely to sport a black labrador with their multicoloured festival wear…
You certainly couldn’t describe it as an identikit town centre. Totnesians new and old fought a valiant battle to stop a Costa Coffee opening, which tells you how they feel about chain stores around here.
At the bus shelter a puffy face, heavy eyelids, and hair standing up in straight tufts, emerge from what seems to be a pile of clothes. Jack, who is actually wearing this mound of fabric, assures me that there is a huge drug problem in the town. He has left his housemates because they were doing too much coke. This is why he is sleeping here. Jack will be out busking on the high street today; he just needs to collect his guitar from a friend’s house. He’s been to the council to try to find accommodation, but he is a young, single male, so that will be a mañana then. We share an interest in 70’s music, Queen, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the like, even though he is half my age.
The High Street, is in fact called Fore Street and climbs up from the bridge, past the Royal Seven Stars Hotel through the town centre to its castle peak. Independent shops and boutiques, interior furnishers, art galleries, wholefood or vegan cafes and gift shops crowd shoulder to shoulder along the pavements. Eastgate, the Elizabethan arched entrance to the walled town, straddles Fore Street – destroyed in a fire in 1990, but now rebuilt. The equally Elizabethan market is also still going strong every Friday and Saturday with its colourful characters touting clothing, plants, foods, antiques, collectables, hot food, and an array of unusual products. You may even be lucky and catch the farmers’ food market once a month. Shrouded in a warm aroma of Nag Champa joss sticks mingled with hot punch and roasting chestnuts, the Christmas market takes over the whole street on Tuesday nights in December.
Close to Eastgate, outside number 51 Fore Street to be precise, you could be easily forgiven for stepping past, or even inadvertently on (since it was lowered by 18 inches to be flush with the street when Fore Street was widened in 1810) one of Totnes’ cherished historical landmarks: the Brutus Stone. This lump of granite has a (some say spurious) connection to the ancient explorer who is said to have founded Britain. According to legend, the Brutus Stone and the origins of Totnes stretch all the way back to ancient Troy. After accidentally killing his father, Brutus set off to Greece with his army of followers, where he defeated the king Pendrasu. The king gave Brutus his daughter to marry, and 324 well-stocked ships, at least one of which ended up on the River Dart. Following the advice of the oracle Diana, who suggested the Trojans should travel to an island in the Western Seas that was possessed by Giants, Brutus set sail for Great Britain – at the time called Albion. It was on the Brutus Stone that he made his proclamation: “Here I stand and here I rest. And this town shall be called Totnes,” after landing on Britain’s shores, undeterred by the giants and attracted to Totnes by its location and fish-filled rivers, and probably the New Age vibe of the place as well. Not only was Totnes named by Brutus, but it’s said he named Britain after himself. Or so they say. Whether or not Brutus stood on the stone, it’s a town custom that royal proclamations should be read there by the mayor.
Overlooking the town is the Norman motte and bailey castle. In its grounds there is graffitti on the trees left by prisoners of war during the Second World War. It is said to be one of the best surviving examples of an early Norman motte-and-bailey structure. But doesn’t every Norman castle claim that? It was built during the reign of William I. At the top of Fore Street the road takes a ninety degree turn to the left into the Narrows, where you will find the first zero packaging shop in the country. You bring your own containers to buy from here. And even weirder (this is Totnes after all), it is owned and run by a former Manchester United defender. OK, so Richard Eckersley only appeared twice for Man U, but he did play alongside Rio Ferdinand.
For lovers of spooky country tales the surrounding area is a fertile hunting ground. A couple of miles outside Totnes the village of Berry Pomeroy boasts a spooky, haunted castle, or rather a spooky, ruined, haunted castle – which makes it even better – where believers of the supernatural flock to the rubble in search of signs from the other side. Berry Pomeroy Castle has spawned tales of ladies in grey, spook lights, anomalous noises, unexplainable shadows, terrifying screams. cold spots and just about every other hallmark of supernatural activity that you may care to name. Tales of heroic brothers who, instead of accepting defeat in a battle, together rode their horses from the top of the ramparts to the precipice below. A Blue Lady, full of sorrow and vengeance after killing her baby fathered by her own father, luring people to her tower from which they then fall to their death. A White Lady whose jealous sister imprisoned her in the dungeon to forever wail and moan at the cruel punishment she received for being hotter than her sibling.
Or if you head a few miles further, up to Hound Tor on Dartmoor, then you can visit the legendary grave of Mary Jay, who, in the 18th century, was abandoned by her mother and given up to a local orphanage. She was given the surname J (or Jay) because she was the 10th girl to arrive at the orphanage. Until her teens Mary was content at the orphanage and taking care of the younger children, but living in disgrace as a penniless orphan. When she grew older, she was sent to Canna Farm near the neighbouring hamlet of Manaton to earn money. She was employed to work in the house as help, and also in the field as a labourer. At this point in her life, she was given the nickname Kitty, which had become synonymous with promiscuity. Shortly after she arrived at the farm, she was raped by a male farmhand and became pregnant. Cursed by the locals as a whore, she was forced to leave the farm, as no one would employ such a woman. With nowhere else to turn, she ended her life by hanging herself in one of the local barns. Since she had committed suicide, she was not allowed to be buried on church land. Instead, she was buried at the crossroads of three parishes, none of which would accept and bury her. Following her death, stories of haunting began immediately, as locals claimed a hooded figure often knelt by the grave in the moonlight. Legend asserts that the spirit of Kitty Jay haunts her grave and Dartmoor. Besides that, there are ghostly happenings around her grave; fresh flowers mysteriously appear on the grave every day, with no indication of who places them there.
Like so many other English provincial towns, Totnes lays its own claim to a few notable inhabitants. But being Totnes they are quite a quirky, diverse lot: from the author Mary Wesley who did not publish her first of a string of adult bestsellers until she was in her seventies, and lived and died in Totnes, through to Charles Babbage – mathematician, philosopher, inventor and mechanical engineer – who originated the concept of a digital programmable computer and had a strong family connection with Totnes attending the King Edward VI Grammar School here. Not to mention Rick Mayall. Nothing more needs to be said about him, other than that he fits this eccentric-genius-of-a-town perfectly.
It is still early morning when I return from my amble around Totnes. The cries of the seagull are echoing away, backed by the chiming of the quarter hour from the church tower. There is a splash from the river, and for a moment I am convinced that I will finally catch a glimpse of the seal and become a proper Totnesian… but it is only the swan (that’s another story) flopping off its nest into the leat by the semi-island under the bridge. “Morning,” smiles a stranger as we pass mid-bridge. “Morning,” I reply. I am greeting a stranger. Maybe I am half way there, half-way-Totnesian. If I could just get one of those passports I would be on the home run. I’m sure of it.