Radical Walks: Totnes

by Gemma Cotterell

Totnes has been called one of Britain’s most Bohemian towns, famed for its well-preserved high street, vibrant food culture and idyllic location. But that’s not the only story. Our walk explores elements of ‘the other’ side of Totnes’s history: its long history of rebellion, its role as a laboratory for social transformation and the radical community experiment underway in Totnes today. 

We begin our walk in the shadow of Totnes’s Norman Castle for a flavour of the town’s rebellious origins. Founded as a royal burgh, Totnes still belonged to the king at the time of the Norman conquest. William granted it, together with 107 other manors in Devon, to Juhel who was deprived of his lands for rebellion just 20 years later. 

Our next stop takes us to Totnes’s Guildhall, the civic centre of the town for over 450 years and a site of numerous protests. Throughout the eighteenth century, labourer’s wages in Devon remained virtually unchanged. As the century went by, food prices soared and the possibility of starvation loomed large as people tried — and failed — to make static wages cover all their needs. From the 1760s onwards, people began to take to the streets to demonstrate growing frustration with the merchants they suspected of hoarding supplies to increase their profits. The 1801 bread riots in Totnes are thought to have spread from nearby Dartmouth aided by the dense networks of roads and market towns of South and East Devon. The stability and density of social networks such as political clubs and militant workers associations encouraged the evolution of local traditions of bargaining by riot. 

We pause briefly outside of one of Totnes’s 42 independent coffee stores to consider a more modern rebellion. The fight back against Costa Coffee began as rumours of the chain’s interest in the town in May 2012. A dynamic ‘No to Costa’ campaign created ‘Clonestopping’ posters, organised a march on the town hall, and collected 260 letters of objection and 5,000 petition signatures in a town of just 8,000. But the group’s tactics weren’t just about opposition: the launch of an annual ‘Barrista Challenge’ celebrated the town’s independent coffee shops. The town council eventually voted in support of the campaign, along with all of Totnes’s district councillors. This recent campaign recalls the radical history of the coffee house. In the eighteenth century, the coffee house occupied the centre of urban life, creating a distinctive social culture by treating all customers as equals. Gossip, dissent and sedition were exchanged and debated around their egalitarian tables.

We tend to think of progress as linear, but a brief stop on the High Street enables us to reflect on just how much more engaged politics was 100 years ago. Crowds awaiting the result at the declaration of the Mid-Devon poll in January 1910 would have packed streets such as these. Elections were a spectacle that enthused whole communities, particularly in rural areas where public entertainment was limited. Handbills of election songs were distributed for crowds to sing at meetings, often to the tune of music hall favourites. Voters and non-voters alike, women and children would have all gathered for the hustings. 

The town has a unique character built on a long history of local solutions to contemporary global concerns — its citizens today are far ahead of government (local and national) in their vibrant responses to global challenges.

Outside the Totnes Book Shop, managed by the Dartington Hall Trust, we pause to reflect on a visionary twentieth century social experiment. Dartington Hall was largely derelict by the time it was bought by Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst in 1925. The Elmhirsts revived the farming and forestry of the run-down estate, launching weaving, cider-making and building enterprises, as well as the mixed, progressive school. Dozens — and later hundreds — of jobs, along with homes, shops and social centres, were created. They established the Dartington Hall School, one of the first of a new wave of progressive schools, in which children from a wide variety of countries and backgrounds were educated together in an atmosphere of free inquiry. Dartington rapidly became a magnet for artists, architects, writers, philosophers and musicians from around the world, creating an extraordinary centre of creative activity. The roll-call of people involved in the Dartington experiment included Rabindranath Tagore, Jacqueline du Pré, Benjamin Britten, Ravi Shankar, George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell, HG Wells, Yehudi Menuhin and Aldous Huxley. But it wasn’t just about the famous names. The principles of the think-tank Political and Economic Planning were written at Dartington, the post-war Labour manifesto edited by Herbert Morrison, the Arts Council conceived and the first arts school with practicing and performing artists established. 

Turning the corner into the town square, we are reminded of the importance of actively maintaining a vision. In 2008, over 1,000 people participated in a day of protest at the removal of Dartington College of Arts from the Dartington Estate and Totnes. Students and staff were greeted at the Dartington Gatehouse by the people of Totnes who turned out in their hundreds, and together they processed to the Civic Square. Rachel Miller, from the Save Dartington College Campaign recalls: “The feeling amongst the townspeople was electric as the student marchers appeared, and many people had tears in their eyes. This was a powerful and historic moment.” The College moved to Falmouth in 2010, but the protest has ensured that the move wasn’t easy and created strong links between students and the local community.

Wandering up the hill, we stop at the Lamb Community Garden, once the holding pen for lambs being taken to market and now a flourishing garden. Here, opposite the new REconomy Centre we consider the impact of Transition Town Totnes, an extraordinary example of the way that the town is striving to reinvent and revitalise itself — with global impact. The social contagion of the transition idea is phenomenal. Unleashed in 2006 the initiative has grown into an international movement embracing more than 1,000 projects in 43 countries around the world. It began as a way to prepare communities for a future of ever more scarce fuel and energy resources, but now is motivated by a far wider range of social and environmental challenges. Launched just last year, the Transition REconomy Initiative has seen the movement expanding into proactive initiatives around the local economy, including a vibrant Local Entrepreneurs Forum creating a mutual network of support among local entrepreneurs and a new Caring Town initiative looking at the provision of social care and well-being in the town. Totnes, a small Devon market town is a subversive hub for other ways of living. The town has a unique character built on a long history of local solutions to contemporary global concerns — its citizens today are far ahead of government (local and national) in their vibrant responses to global challenges.

We end our stroll at the Bay Horse Inn, a popular independent pub at the heart of the community, now serving the ale produced by an innovative new brewery. In 1926, Totnes’s The Lion Brewery ceased trading, having owned 26 pubs at its peak. The New Lion Brewery launched in November 2013 with a business model that focuses on three pillars: community, innovation and profitability. It is one of many Transition in Action businesses; it creates employment, attracts new visitors, promotes local initiatives through a series of bespoke ales, generates revenue for other projects and will potentially provide a return to local investors. What better place to end our walk, than round a pub table plotting rebellion.


Ruth Potts and Molly Conisbee have worked in campaigns and public affairs for a range of non- governmental organisations concerned with social and ecological transformation. Working together as ‘bread, print & roses’, a small collective engaged in seditious pamphleteering, anarchist baking and radical walks. Ruth and Molly also co-host a series of public political suppers, and a small eco-feminist collective, the Hoydens.

The town has a unique character built on a long history of local solutions to contemporary global concerns — its citizens today are far ahead of government (local and national) in their vibrant responses to global challenges.


Info & Credits

Published in STIR magazine no.06, Summer 2014

Written by Ruth Potts

Illustration by Gemma Cotterell