a venerable burh
Totnes, lying on the west bank of the River Dart about 8 miles from the sea, has the
distinction of being the second oldest borough in England after Malmsbury in Wiltshire. The
earliest record of the town dates back to the reign of Edgar (959-975), when coins were
minted there for the first time. The site on which the burh was founded rises
steeply from the river to a ridge upon which a motte-and-bailey castle was built in Norman
times. Much of the castle remains intact, dominating the skyline from the east and the
north of the town to this day.
On the north side of High Street stands the imposing Church of St Mary, with its fine red
sandstone tower topped by four pinnacles. Surprisingly, the 120 foot tower is largely hidden
from view in the narrow streets of the town until you are almost at the entrance.
The construction date of the church was something of a mystery before 1800, when according
to William White writing in 1850 in his "History, gazetteer, and directory of Devonshire":
... the south-east pinnacle, being struck down by lightning, fell through the roof of a
small room over the porch, in which were found two chests full of ancient records, from
which it appeared the church was rebuilt in 1259, and again in 1432. In the latter year
Bishop Lacy granted 40 days' indulgence to all who contributed to the rebuilding.
The reconstruction started in 1432 was not complete until 1460, when the pulpit and ornate
rood screen made with stone from the Beer quarries in East Devon were added. The red
sandstone for the tower, built between 1449 and 1459, was transported from nearby Stoke
Gabriel. William White says of the interior, as it appeared in the 1842 print alongside:
An elegant stone [rood] screen of ornamental tracery divides the nave and chancel; but the
altar-piece, instead of corresponding with the rest of the building, is of Grecian design,
with a classical semi-dome, supported by Corinthian pillars. The stone pulpit is
elaborately ornamented; but, about 1786, the beautiful symmetry of the interior was
destroyed by various tasteless alterations in the windows and other parts of the fabric.
The print shown below depicts the exterior, also in 1842. Major renovation work was carried
out in the 1860s by Sir Gilbert Scott, a notable architect with a penchant for restoring
churches in the Victorian style which was not to everyone's liking. As W G Hoskins, in
"Devon", 1954, puts it pointedly:
The Scott restoration destroyed a good deal of the atmosphere of the church, but could not
wholly disguise its structural beauty, especially the lofty arcades with their capitals and
piers of unusual design.
Close to the castle, tucked away in Ramparts Walk behind the church is another Totnes
building of great historic interest: the Guildhall. It was built on the site of a former
Benedictine Priory dating from 1088 as a Guildhall and school, then converted into a
Magistrate's Court in 1624, in which capacity it continued until as recently as 1974. It also
housed the town gaol, in which prisoners were held until 1887. The building is still in use
for Town Council meetings and various civic ceremonies. Some of the foundations and walls
date back to the time of the Priory. The wall facing the camera is adorned with overlapping
slates, a technique known as slate-hanging, a characteristic of South Devon towns that
is used widely in Totnes.
An emblematic feature to be seen when making your way up the hill in the centre of the
town is the East Gate arch, first rebuilt early in the 16th Century, and again in 1990 after
it was largely destroyed by fire:
Pictured to the left below, set back from the road before you reach East Gate, is the
attractive Presbytery fronted by a pretty garden. Move up the hill through East Gate and
you are in High Street; on the right is the Butterwalk, an old shopping arcade with the
first storey overhangs supported by stone pillars. This is how it looked in the 1950s,
viewed through a very wide-angled lens.
The Butterwalk looks much the same in 2007, though the shops are different and the traffic
has increased somewhat!
Moving to the top the hill we reach The Narrows, an extension of the high street graced
with an eclectic amalgam of specialist shops each one privately run, epitomizing the Totnes
shopping experience. Among these is Sacks Wholefoods, a provider of the best quality
vegetarian food since way back. I recall buying sacks of brown rice there in the mid 1970s
when my two boys were growing up in the area.
The prints of St Mary's Church are reproduced from the Devon Libraries Local Studies
Service ©Etched on Devon's memory
| | last modified on
16 Nov 2014 |