City guide: Attractions in Totnes

The River Dart. Credit: Kevin Britland/Alamy

Castle views, Tudor houses and Sir Francis Drake’s oranges: we explore the attractions in quirky South Devon town of Totnes

Nestled between moorland and sea in South Devon, Totnes is a captivating market town with a colourful personality. Dating back to 907 AD when Alfred the Great’s son Edward built a small settlement here, the town is dotted with historic sites and impressive architecture.  

Following the Norman Conquest, William the Conqueror bestowed Totnes on a favoured Breton called Judhael, who built a motte-and-bailey castle across the town walls, and a priory, which he eventually gave to the Church. Make the climb to the top of the castle’s keep for sweeping views of the entire town and across to the River Dart.

Totnes Castle. Credit: English Heritage Photo Library

The town’s prime location on the river, which rises in Dartmoor and runs to the sea at Dartmouth, made it rich in Tudor times: Totnes played a crucial role in the lucrative trade of cloth and tin. The river now provides a scenic backdrop for short walks and riverside eating, kayaking and canoeing. The beautiful stone bridge that spans the river was built in 1828, designed by Devon architect Charles Fowler.

Start your wanderings at The Plains at the bottom of town, looking out for the distinctive architecture of the original warehouses which were in use until the 1940s, and the Wills Monument, erected in 1864 to commemorate William John Wills, one of the first Europeans to cross the Australian continent. 

Walking up Fore Street you can’t fail to notice the exteriors of the impressive 18th-century Gothic House and The Mansion, once the local grammar school. Further along, you can explore the fascinating displays of the Elizabethan House & Museum (March to October). Built in 1575 for a cloth merchant, this is one of the finest Tudor town houses in the country, featuring 12 galleries, a courtyard and a beautiful herb garden, as well as the rumoured museum ghost.

Fore Street is the location of one of the town’s quirkier traditions: the annual Orange Races (held this year on 20 August), which apparently started when Sir Francis Drake bumped into a delivery boy in the 1580s, sending his oranges tumbling down the steep hill, causing the local children to chase after them. These days, competitors must kick or throw their fruit along the 450-metre course; at least part of the fruit must be intact by the finish.

Dartington Hall. Credit: Justin Foulkes

From Fore Street, pass through the East Gate Arch, once the gateway to the medieval town, and lose yourself in the late 15th-century Parish Church of St Mary, admiring the stunning stained-glass windows and sandstone rood screen. Behind the church grounds, through cobbled streets is the Totnes Guildhall (open April to October). Built in 1553 on the ruins of a medieval priory, this fascinating building could tell many a tale, having served as a court, jail and home to the Town Council for more than 450 years. 

A short walk away, the Totnes Fashion and Textiles Museum is housed at the Bogan House, the most intact of Totnes’s Tudor merchant’s houses. Tucked into the pavement arcade known as Butterwalk, it was built in Tudor times to house dairy stalls.

A renowned market town since the 12th century, Totnes still hosts a lively market: visit on a Friday, Saturday or the third Sunday of the month, when the Market Square opposite Butterwalk bustles with lively traders selling unusual handmade crafts, gifts and food. Pick up a bag of oranges and spare a thought for Francis Drake, who lost his all those years ago.

The Planner

Getting there

There are direct trains from London Paddington taking just under 4 hours.

Eat, drink, sleep

Only 5 minutes walk from town, The Old Forge is a 600-year-old stone building with 11 rooms and a cottage in a beautiful garden. Grade I-listed Dartington Hall sits in 800 acres of gardens and deer park, a 10-minute drive from town. For locally produced wine and cheese visit Sharpham Vineyard for a tour or lunch.;;

Further information