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What to do in Totnes, South Devon's quirkiest corner

Decamp to the South Devon town for quirky counterculture, organic pubs and outdoor adventures on the edge of Dartmoor.

Totnes has been shaped by two charitable estates that have, over the past 100 years, helped to instil the bohemian reputation that the town enjoys today. 

Photograph by Superstock
By Nora Wallaya
Published 18 Jul 2022, 06:03 BST

Historic Totnes may lay claim to being the second-oldest borough in England — with a Norman castle, Tudor-era covered walkway and Grade I-listed church to testify — but its feet stand firmly in the New Age. Pioneers in community-minded living, Totnes’s residents have created a town that prizes mindfulness before modernity — and the happy byproduct is a high street packed with fair-priced, plant-based restaurants, quirky bookshops, thriving community centres and art galleries showcasing local talent. Wellness retreats are something of a local pastime here, with the respected institutions of the Sharpham Trust and Dartington Trust satiating demand with a year-round calendar of restful, creative activities.

Totnes has plenty to offer beyond its cultural clout, too. Situated midway up the River Dart, the town is just a short hop east from the wilds of Dartmoor National Park, and west from the English Riviera at Paignton. So, whether you’d like to spot seals on a canoeing adventure or cycle through forested valleys, there’s a natural playground within easy reach.

What to do

Totnes has been shaped by two charitable estates that have, over the past 100 years, helped to instil the bohemian reputation that the town enjoys today. They are the Dartington and Sharpham trusts, connected to each other by a serene, five-mile walk along wildflower-speckled banks of the River Dart.

At Dartington, explore the Grade I-listed halls — built by John Holland (the half-brother of Richard II) in the 14th century — before making your way to the gardens, a feat of landscaping design credited mostly to Dorothy Elmhirst, the site’s philanthropic former co-owner. The estate has been a driving force in public education in Totnes since the Elmhirsts bought the crumbling estate in 1925, and remains a campus of learning in the arts, ecology and social justice today. 

Maurice and Ruth Ash, late owners of The Sharpham Trust, had a vision for stately Sharpham House as an experiential centre of spiritual awakening — the couple are credited as having introduced Buddhism and Indian philosophy to this corner of the UK. Today, a string of events, retreats and courses on the estate reflect this legacy, covering everything from meditation and forest bathing to yoga and birdwatching.

If you’re after some retail therapy, head to Fore Street, the beating heart of Totnes. The street climbs gently uphill from the river, passing the slate-hung facades of numerous independent shops, and at its peak is the Totnes Castle keep. You could lose an entire day browsing for goodies along this handsome high street, from local Ticklemore cheese at Ben’s Farm Shop to tomes on pagan folklore at Arcturus Books. Don’t leave without a taste of the organic ice cream at gelateria Delphini’s, made fresh by Johan every day.

Grey and harbour seals can be spotted along the River Dart.

Photograph by Richard Carus

Where to eat

It’s organic-everything at The Bull Inn. Opened in 2019 by Geetie Singh-Watson — a restaurateur who launched Britain’s first certified organic pub, The Duke of Cambridge in North London — the inn has earned its green stripes with a menu that puts locally sourced, seasonal vegetables first. Think crispy purple-sprouting broccoli doused in whipped tahini and za’atar, or pollock served with romesco, chard and wild garlic. The meat options meet Geetie’s exacting animal-welfare standards, too. 

If your visit coincides with the first Saturday of the month, head to the Totnes United Free Church for a pay-what-you-feel lunch. It’s where a friendly collective of volunteers gather to cook sustainably produced and organic food donated by locals. Money raised is donated to charities in the area.

Don’t miss

Flowing from Dartmoor National Park to the sea at Dartmouth, passing little else but small villages and sprawling wilderness, the River Dart snakes through Totnes. Looming over its course are valleys thick with ancient sessile oak woods whose appearance changes dramatically through the day, be they shrouded in morning mist or tinged umber in the evening sun. Discover the landscape and its lore on a waterborne adventure with Canoe Adventures, and keep a lookout for seals which can be spotted along the river up to the weir at Totnes. 

We like

Everything from the virtues of nettles to the pitfalls of lords and ladies is explained in colourful detail on a woodland foraging tour at The Sharpham Trust. Led by a qualified botanist, the full-day activity covers an exploration of the estate’s wild grounds, as you learn to correctly identify native plants and get to know their nutrition profile. Cook your frondy finds in the outdoor kitchen, where you can share stories with new friends. From £55 per person. 

Where to stay

Bed down in a lovingly renovated, 600-year-old building at The Old Forge, once a blacksmith and carpenter’s workshop. Rooms are quintessentially English in style, with their creamy colour schemes, plush cushions and floral touches. A cheery welcome is guaranteed from owner-manager Julie George, whose enthusiasm for the local area permeates even the hotel’s chunky stone walls. From £140, B&B. 

The Bull Inn is ideally located at the top of the town with easy access to the shops and restaurants. Its rustic, limewashed rooms are tastefully decorated with embroidered lace curtains and unique artwork, with no throwaway, single-use hotel items in sight. From £145, B&B.

Published in the Jul/Aug 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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