Exploring Totnes in South Devon

by Jan

Whether you are looking for historic buildings, cosy health-food cafés, or quirky shops, you’ll find plenty of things to do in Totnes in South Devon.  We discovered the highlights during a day trip to Totnes on our recent stay in Dartmoor National Park.

Totnes is a vibrant market town in the Devon countryside.  It has a unique, alternative vibe, whilst retaining its traditional English charm.  Totnes is a Saxon town, with a wealth of historic buildings, notably its Castle and Guildhall.

As most of the attractions are near the High Street, we started in the north and worked our way down the hill.  Read on to see how we spent a day exploring Totnes.

The Leechwell Garden

Children's Play Equipment, Leechwell Garden, Totnes, Devon, UK

Our first stop was in Leechwell Garden, a community garden near the High Street.  This is a great little park if you are visiting Totnes with children and provides a calm, natural space away from the town.

Leechwell Garden has a small playground with climbing equipment and two slides.   You’ll also find a sandpit and nature zone.  There is a grassy area in the centre and benches, so is ideal for picnics.

The Leechwell

Leechwell, Totnes, Devon, UK

The garden is named after the nearby Leechwell.  This ancient well is inconspicuous, and it would be easy to walk past without noticing it.  However, officials have recorded a water source here since the 13th century and English Heritage recognise it as an important historical site.

In bygone days they believed that the water had medicinal properties and lepers came to bathe in the fresh water to heal their skin.  It didn’t look too salubrious, so we didn’t try!

Rotherfold Square

Rotherfold Square, Totnes, Devon, UK

At the top end of Totnes is the delightful Rotherfold Square.  Originally a market place for live cattle, it is now a calm corner of the town, where we stopped to enjoy an al fresco drink.  The Bull Inn, located on one side of the square, serves a good choice of organic beers and soft drinks.

Rotherfold Square is a pretty, shady area, with some colourful, painted houses.  It was a sunny day and with a bit of imagination we could easily have been in a plaza in Spain!

The Narrows

The Narrows, Totnes, Devon, UK

After a pit stop at the Bull Inn, we went in search of Totnes Castle.  To get there we walked along the Narrows, an independent shopping area at the top of Totnes High Street.

In the Narrows, you’ll find an eclectic selection of independent shops and galleries, selling antiques, homewares, and vintage clothes.  There is a notable emphasis on sustainability.  It was a refreshing change from the average carbon-copy High Street, which is full of chain stores.

Totnes is also home to several health food shops and is home to Earth.Food.Love, the UK’s first zero waste shop.  It is generally considered as a hub for alternative living.

Totnes Castle

Totnes Castle, Totnes, Devon, UK

One of the best things to do in Totnes with kids is visit the castle.  This 11th century Norman castle sits on a hill looking down over the Totnes and the River Dart.  Built during the reign of William I, Totnes Castle is one of the best surviving examples of a typical motte and bailey design.  It doesn’t take long to visit, but you can get magnificent views of Totnes from the top.  At weekends you can have a guided tour.

As you come out the castle head through the alleyways to Guildhall Yard, home to the Guildhall.  The Guildhall is another of the Totnes’ most significant historic buildings.  It was built in 1553 and over the years has been a prison, a school and court.  Unfortunately, it was shut when we were there, so we couldn’t explore inside.

Vire Island

Bridge at Vire Island, Totnes, Devon, UK

At the South end of Totnes is a narrow stretch of park by the river, called Vire Island.  The name comes from Totnes’ twin town, Vire in Normandy, France.  However, it is not really an island, but a narrow peninsular, which stretches between the town and River Dart.

Vire Island is a relaxing green space, where you can watch boats go by or stop for a picnic.  You can do a short circular walk around the parkland and see the historic buildings which back onto the river.  You’ll also see the Steam Packett Inn, which has a pleasant outdoor seating area with a riverside setting.

The Brutus Stone

After our short circular walk round Vire Island we returned to the town and retraced our steps up Fore Street.

As you climb the main street, keep your eyes peeled for the Brutus Stone.  A marker on the wall points to the spot where Brutus of Troy first stepped into Britain.  Although Totnes is not on the coast, boats can travel up the River Dart to Totnes.  Legend claims that Brutus founded Britain when he stepped ashore from his ship and declared:

Here I stand and here I rest.  And this town shall be called Totnes

Totnes Museum

Totnes Museum, Totnes, Devon, UK

Totnes Museum is far easier to spot, as it’s one of the most impressive buildings in the street.  The half-timbered building is one of several authentic Elizabethan merchant houses in the High Street.  Elizabethan merchants conducted their trade downstairs, whilst the family lived in the two floors above.

This beautiful historic building now houses a fine collection of exhibits from Totnes history.  One of the floors is a tribute to Charles Babbage, inventor of the first mechanical computer.

At the back of the building is a fragrant herb and sensory garden, with traditional Elizabethan herbs.

Admission to Totnes Museum is free, but donations are welcome.

East Gate Arch

East Gate Archway, Totnes, Devon, UK

The East Gate Arch that spans Totnes High Street was once the gateway to the medieval town.  Unfortunately, a fire destroyed the original in 1990.  However, they have since reconstructed the archway and clock tower and these remain the iconic image for Totnes.

You can get a better view of it if you are coming up the street.

Getting to Totnes

Totnes is in a great location in South Devon in South West England and is easily accessible by car or public transport.  It is close to Dartmoor National Park, the tip of the River Dart and some of Devon’s best beaches.

You can get to Totnes by car using the M5 and A38.

Totnes is also very easy to get to by train.  There are 30 trains a day from London and it only takes about 3 hours.  Direct trains leave regularly from Paddington or Waterloo.  You can also get a train from Salisbury or Exeter.

South Devon Railway to Totnes

Devon Steam Railway, Buckfastleigh, UK

An alternative way to get to Totnes is on the South Devon Railway.  Steam locomotives run regularly between Totnes and Buckfastleigh.  Click here for the South Devon Railway website.

One of the best things to do with younger children in Totnes is a visit to the Rare Breeds Farm, which is adjacent to the South Devon Railway.  Totnes Rare Breeds Farm is a fun, family attraction where the kids can interact with the animals.

Have you been to Totnes in South Devon?  We’d love to hear your comments below.

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