Totnes: an oasis of counterculture

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 market.

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 mix.

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 in 1991, 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, a 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 out 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.

Campaigners thwarted

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.

*UPDATE: naturally where Sam Richards' reflections on the failed campaign to prevent the merger were posted is long gone so I've linked to this article on the Internet Archive. (Tony Dunlop, March 2019).