the dartington effect
For several decades Totnes has been a magnet for those attracted to a bohemian or hippy
lifestyle; a place where one could live cheaply and eke out a meagre existence as an artist
or an alternative therapist, augmented by the sale of a few trinkets in the Friday
How did this come about and when did it begin?
In the 1920s Totnes was a typical rural Devon community with a thriving cattle market. Many
of the residents were employed in local businesses such as the Harris Bacon factory or the
Symons Cider Mills. Then in 1925 a pivotal event occurred in nearby Dartington: the wealthy
utopian visionaries Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst purchased the run down 1000 acre
Dartington Hall Estate from the Champernownes, owners since the sixteenth century.
The Elmhirsts embarked on a program of rural reconstruction to revitalise the community,
set up the progressive co-educational Dartington Hall School, and did much to further the
promotion of arts and crafts in the area.
The world renowned Dartington Summer School of Music (later renamed the Dartington
International Summer School) has been held each year since 1947, and in 1961 the Dartington
College of Arts was opened.
Over time an increasing number of liberal minded folks and those of an artistic or musical
bent gravitated to the area, attracted by the Dartington experiment. Many such people chose
to live in Totnes, and they and their offspring contributed to the transformation of the
town. This was reinforced by the College of Arts students who added brio to the hedonistic
The school was to close in 1987 after a series of scandals and a decline in demand for such
schools following the introduction of a more liberal ethos in state education in the 1960s.
Since 1935 the activities of the Estate have been run by the Dartington Hall Trust
. In more recent times
the Trust has been dominated by bean-counters who lacked the idealism of the early days,
much to the chagrin of trustees associated with the past. This came to a head when Lord
Young of Dartington, a trustee for 50 years and a close confidant of the Elmhirsts from
when he was a pupil at the school in the 1930s, resigned from the Trust in 1991.
In keeping with the times, the emphasis of the Trust's activities has shifted recently
towards the environment with the foundation of Schumacher College
focusing on research, reflection, and teaching on environmental and economic
sustainability. This resonates with the contemporary mood music in Totnes exemplified by
the fanfare surrounding the 2006 initiative to establish Transition Town Totnes
mission to 'design a positive way down from the oil peak'.
college in limbo
Currently (2007) the Trust is embroiled in a deep crisis surrounding the proposed transfer
of the College of Arts to Falmouth as part of a merger with University College Falmouth, a
decision vehemently opposed
by students, staff, and many Totnes residents who say it will eat the heart
of the town. Aligned against this vocal majority are the proponents of the move:
the College principal Andrew Brewerton, the College governors, and the Trustees.
The move to Falmouth arose as a response to the financial implications of a perceived need
to upgrade and expand student accommodation following the expected increase in student
numbers. The College neither has assets nor does it own the buildings it uses. So
construction of new college premises on the estate would have to be funded by the Trust
which it is unable or unwilling to do, perhaps because of its own financial difficulties.
Some say the Trust's real motive in wanting to see the College go is their desire to use
the college facilities for lucrative elite artistic events and conferences.
There is an expectation that transfer to Falmouth will be funded by the South-West Rural
Development Agency, using EU Objective One aid for Cornwall, though this may not be a done
deal. As things stand in Spring 2007 the transfer proposal has been agreed by the College
governors, but a final decision will not be made until the autumn.
The campaign to prevent the merger of the Dartington College of Arts with UC Falmouth
ultimately came to naught; the College of Arts left the Dartington site, and the two
institutions formally merged on April 6th 2008. In this insightful article
Sam Richards, a former College staffer and
prominent member of the campaign who was fired for expressing his vehement opposition to
the merger too publicly, reflects on the issues behind the campaign.