A town with a Bohemian personality, Totnes has a rep for its New Age community.
In fact Totnes is so progressive it even has its own currency, the Totnes Pound, introduced in 2007 to support the local economy.
Historically the town was already prospering before the Normans built a castle here in the late-1060s, and the Elizabethan House Museum holds a collection of Anglo-Saxon coins that were pressed in Totnes.
The old centre is replete with Tudor houses built by merchants who made their fortunes trading wool and tin on the Dart.
On the riverside are preserved warehouses that once stored apples, cider and timber.
Totnes also borders the South Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), which hugs the banks of the Dart Estuary.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Totnes:
1. Totnes Town Trail
Maps for a trail around Totnes are posted on the South Devon AONB site and the town’s tourism site.
Starting at the Plains on the River Dart you’ll see rows of historic warehouses from when Totnes conducted its trade by water.
Heading up Totnes’ main artery on Fore Street, check out The Gothic House, in the Strawberry Hill style, and the tiny alley Atherton Lane, shooting off to the side.
The Brutus Stone is a small granite boulder set into the pavement, where the mythical founder of Britain, Brutus of Troy is claimed to have coined the town’s name.
At the top of the hill is the East Gate, a preserved Elizabethan entrance to the walled town, while further up on the High Street the Butterwalk is also Tudor, with a covered pavement for traders to sell dairy products out of the elements.
2. Dartington Estate
With a Medieval hall dating back to the 14th century this estate is the headquarters of the Dartington Hall Trust, a charity involved in a host of programmes.
One is the Dartington International Summer School, a combined music school and festival dating back to 1948. A roll-call of prestigious composers musicians have taught at the school, from Elliott Carter to Bruno Maderna, and the evening concerts are world-class.
Re-landscaped in the 20s and 30s, the magical Dartington Gardens are open all year and decorated with sculpture by the likes of Henry Moore and Willi Soukop.
Moore’s “Reclining Figure” can be found in the most delightful spot, under a row of ancient chestnut trees above the sunken Tiltyard garden.
Also hunt down the garden’s yew tree, which is as old as 2,000 years and provided material for longbows in Medieval times.
3. Berry Pomeroy Castle
In the deep, wooded valley of the Gatcombe Brook, two miles from Totnes are the ruins of a Medieval castle and the shell of Elizabethan mansion inside.
The outer defences are from the late 15th century, while the house was started in the 16th century by High Sherriff of Devon Sir Edward Seymour.
He was the first of a line of Seymours to work on this property before it was abandoned for good at the end of the 17th century.
From then on Berry Pomeroy Castle was famed for hair-raising ghosts tales.
English Heritage offers an audio tour of the site, which is in good shape after more than 300 years of dereliction.
You’ll see the giant stone ovens in the kitchen, stand in the ruins of the Great Hall, step up the partially intact first floor, all the while hearing about the resident White Lady and Blue Lady ghosts.
4. St Mary’s Church
Whether you’re approaching Totnes from the River Dart or the hills in the hinterland, the 37-metre tower of St Mary’s Church at the top of the town will be the first landmark you see.
At what used to be St Mary’s Priory, the church was totally reconstructed in short order in the 15th century.
The tower, nave, chancel and elaborate chancel screen are all from between 1432 and 1460. That screen is stunning and its delicate tracery deserves closer inspection.
Above is a sumptuous wooden barrel-vaulted ceiling with bosses, while the baptismal font is 15th-century and has quatrefoil panels.
Finally, on the south chancel aisle, look for the Renaissance monument to Walter Smith (d. 1555).
5. Totnes Guildhall
In 1553 King Edward VI granted Totnes permission to establish a guildhall, built on the site of St Mary’s Priory and incorporating the former refectory.
Come the 17th century, this Grade I building was a magistrate’s court and up to the 19th century was also used as the town jail.
The Guildhall is open on weekdays from April to the end of October, and has lots of absorbing details.
The boards in the Lower Hall have gold leaf inscriptions for every Totnes mayor going back to 1359, while Oliver Cromwell plotted the last battles of the Civil War in the Council Chamber in 1646. The table where he sat is still here and there’s a fine plasterwork frieze on the wall.
In the bowels of the building are the cells where prisoners awaited their trials and punishment.
6. Totnes Elizabethan House Museum
In an Elizabethan merchant’s house dating 1575, this museum has 12 galleries shining a light on the history of Totnes and some of its more prominent residents.
The house is in excellent condition and is a museum piece in its own right.
One of many preserved fittings is a stairway that winds around a wooden pole believed to come from a warship.
There’s a room for the Victorian mathematician Charles Babbage who invented the Analytical Engine and Difference Engine, and spent much of his youth in Totnes.
You can also peruse coins minted in Totnes in Saxon times and browse a real Victorian nursery.
At the back of the house is a little herb garden growing rosemary, thyme, sage and lavender, and you can buy bunches to take with you.
7. Totnes Rare Breeds Farm
A family-owned, volunteer-run attraction, the Totnes Rare Breeds Farm is just out in the Devon countryside.
The farm is a haven for a variety of British domestic species of sheep, donkeys, chickens and goats, as well as alpacas, ducks, a barn owl, European eagle owl and a European screech owl.
Also at the farm are wild species that are endangered in the English countryside, like the red squirrel and hedgehog.
Children will love the small animals corner where they’ll be able to hold a guinea pig, feel the skin of a harmless corn snake and fawn over newly hatched chicks.
The Garden Cafe offers up sandwiches, paninis, salad and platters, and has a front row view of the South Devon Railway.
8. South Devon Railway
The ten-mile Buckfastleigh, Totnes and South Devon Railway opened in 1872 and connected with the Exeter-Plymouth line at Totnes.
The line closed in 1962, but more than six miles were kept intact and soon reopened as a heritage line.
One of a few neat things about the South Devon Railway is that it uses many of the locomotives and carriages that served the line when it was part of the national network decades ago.
Among them are three functioning GWR locomotives (4575 Class, 5700 Class, 6400 Class) from between 1927 and 1934. Services mostly run from March to October, between Totnes and Buckfastleigh, and there’s a museum at the latter with a South Devon Railway 0-4-0 locomotive from 1876 on display.
For a meal to remember there catch a Sunday lunch or afternoon tea service.
9. Sharpham Vineyard
On the sunny south-facing slopes at a loop in the River Dart, the Sharpham Vineyard has around 12,000 vines over 550 beautiful aces.
The range of red and white wines produced here have garnered a raft of national and international awards.
The estate also has a herd of 80 Jersey cows producing milk for a selection of handmade soft cheeses.
How you experience the vineyard is up to you, as there’s a whole menu of tours, ranging from a casual self-guided walk around the vineyard in the South Devon AONB to brief or in-depth wine and cheese tasting.
For a proper inside look there’s the “Vine to Wine” experience, or a through private tour where you’ll be greeted with a flute of the vineyard’s own sparkling wine on arrival.
10. Totnes Fashion and Textiles Museum
At the Butterwalk there’s a museum in a tile-clad Tudor house containing the Devonshire Collection of Period Costume.
The venue, Bogan House, is thought to be the best preserved merchant’s property in Totnes and has authentic 16th-century plaster ceilings.
The Devonshire Collection is the largest private collection of its kind and is made up of women’s, men’s and children’s clothing going back to the 17th century.
Among the most exquisite pieces is a set of five Georgian silk gowns from between 1760 and 1785, along with Victorian wedding and mourning dresses and some fabulous Art Deco outfits from the 1920s and 30s.
This is all matched with a trove of shawls, bags, shoes and other accessories, while selections are made from the collection for pop-up exhibitions every few months.
11. Totnes Castle
West of the town centre is the telltale earthwork mound of a Norman motte-and-bailey castle.
The site is in the care of English Heritage, and the steep mound, dating to the 1060s, is one of the best preserved in the country.
At the top are the remnants of a stone shell keep, which along with the curtain wall was raised in the 14th century.
There isn’t a great deal of history here, but you can spend a few minutes exploring the moat and climbing up to the parapet, which has the best view of Totnes and the River Dart.
In the bailey one of the trees has graffiti carved by Italian prisoners in the Second World War.
12. Pennywell Farm
A big cast of animals awaits at this family day out five miles from Totnes.
Pennywell Farm has draft horses, goats and kids, ponies, hedgehogs, donkeys, pigs and piglets, ewes and lambs, tortoises, poultry and a pair of alpacas.
Every half-hour a bell is rung to announce a new activity at the farm, and this might be cuddling piglets, grooming ponies, watching ferrets racing, collecting eggs, pond dipping or milking demonstrations, to name a small few.
The miniature train, tractor rides and go-karts all are fun as well.
13. Paignton Zoo Environmental Park
Also an easy outing from Totnes is the highly-regarded Paignton Zoo, which has some 2,000 animals from 300 species, all in lush parkland growing more than 1,600 plant species.
The zoo stands out for the care that has gone into its habitats.
Take the Desert House for example, which is a large walk-through greenhouse inhabited by pancake tortoises, gila monsters and Princess of Wales parakeets that fly freely overhead.
Many children’s favourites like African elephants, Rothschild’s giraffes, cheetahs and black rhinoceroses can be found in the Savannah Animals zone.
Keeper talks and feeding times give you a new perspective on animals as diverse as lemurs, gorillas, elephants, tigers, baboons and red pandas.
14. Water Activities
Southeast of Totnes the River Darts widens as it enters the South Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
The river is lovely from the water for its green, wooded banks and the small tributaries and old mill pools that branch off it.
At the mill pool in Stoke Gabriel, 15 minutes from town, Totnes Kayaks hires out canoes and kayaks for up to six hours.
As you paddle there’s a good chance you’ll spot a wild seal or birds like kingfishers and herons.
All along the river are waterside pubs and picnic spots for a break, and Totnes Kayaks will provide you maps and useful information about tide times so you can plan your adventure.
15. Totnes Market
The weekly markets are on Civic Square just off the High Street on Fridays and Saturdays.
Shop here for fresh fish, regional fruit and vegetables, flowers, herbs, hot food, clothes, antiques and accessories.
Also on Friday is a collectibles and flea market in the Civic Hall, while the award-winning Totnes Good Food Sunday Market trades on the third Sunday of the month all year round.
May to September there’s also a weekly celebration of Totnes’ Tudor heritage at the Elizabethan Market, a charity market with people dressed in Tudor garb.