The man in front with the Jeremy Corbyn beard shows me the fraying exterior of his green canvas cap, before turning it over to reveal it’s lined with metal. A real life tin-foil hat! I had no idea they were an actual thing. ‘They are,’ he says. ‘Though kitchen foil has been aluminium for some time. I use two layers.’ To stop the electromagnetic radiation from the killer mobile phone towers, he explains. ‘You’ll see the plans they’ve got for us’.
I’ve been in Totnes for only an hour, so, helpful as it is to be warned about the reptilian overlords trying to fry my brain, this feels like a setback.
I’m here to find out why this little town in Devon’s South Hams has been called the New Age capital of Britain, and what this means. But I had been hoping to confound rather than confirm the stereotype of ‘cranks in edible footwear’, as my father-in-law puts it. He regularly passes through Totnes, but rarely stops. I’m sure he doesn’t mind the place, so why dismiss it? Then I remember that in the 1970s he worked for Rothschild bank. He must be a mutant lizard trying to throw me off the scent.
Next morning I am standing on a recumbent giant’s nose looking out over the Dart Valley. This ‘nes’ is the spur of land on which Totnes was built, because it provided settlers with a ‘Tot’, or lookout. It’s market day, and on the exposed side of South Street a rude wind sends traders flapping after their displays. Stalls spread out underneath the brutalist civic hall, which, sitting on struts, apes The Butterwalk of the precipitous medieval high street. The East Arch might seem Venetian were it not hanging over a one-way system with a 2:1 gradient. Totnes High Street is pretty, but tiring if you don’t plan your day properly and have to walk up it six times. Passersby nod and smile, easing your passage.
This passage has 1,000 years of documented history and there’s a legend with even grander claims. In 1200 bc, a wandering Trojan named Brutus, great grandson of Aeneas, navigated the Dart, climbed up the ridge and felled the mythical giants of Albion. He named the port Totnes, and the land after himself — Britain.
Some time later on the same ridge, a bearded falconer is introducing me to Merlin, his Siberian eagle owl. I’m spellbound. It’s my second magical experience in Totnes. The previous afternoon, I’d found myself in Drift, an astonishingly good record shop beyond the East Arch, which also sells refreshments. From their unexpected menu, I ate an affogato with a spoon made of corn and listened to shimmering electronica which teetered endlessly on the edge of resolution. A low sun thumped though the window.
The nice man behind the counter was coy about Totnesian healing practices — anyone for a ‘gong shower’? Over at Not Made in China, the proprietor is OK with the ‘hokey-pokey’ stuff, but if you want a drain unblocked you shouldn’t call the Totnes man, apparently. Always charging his crystals. Not knowing what this means, I pop into Que Sera Sera, which ‘sells all manors [sic] of things from henna to e-cigarettes’. It’s here where I find Jeremy Corbyn, or the spit of him, right down to the Che-Guevara-as-a-train-driver cap. The one with the disappointing silver lining. Nearby is a clinic which made the news recently for giving a platform to a notorious quack who claims that cancer is a fungus curable with injections of baking soda. Some tensions are taking shape. Myth vs. history; mysticism vs. rationalism; pseudoscience vs., erm, science.
Behind Merlin, beyond South Street, the land falls away and the rich beauty of the Dart Valley unfurls below. You start to see why a spray-can wag adapted the town sign to say: ‘Totnes: twinned with Narnia.’
PhD student Noel Longhurst wrote a thesis of the same name with a rational explanation for everything. In 1925, the utopian philanthropists Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst founded a centre for experimental creative projects at nearby Dartington Hall, attracting many of the greatest talents of the century. A progressive school lasted there in various forms until 2008. Longhurst’s thesis argues that Dartington was the catalyst for an ‘alternative milieu’ which spread to Totnes and stayed. The progressive ideals which irradiated the town have had a good half-life, but have also decayed a little.
So have traditional industries. In 1723, Daniel Defoe declared that Totnes had ‘more gentlemen than traders’. A vital port before Brunel’s railway arrived in 1847, the town generally muddled through. But the end of the livestock market in the 1980s began its long, slow decline as a working town. The Dairy Crest milk plant went (162 jobs), then Reeves Timber yard and Harris’s bacon factory.
So why does Totnes crackle with energy and purpose? Why do the women who guide me to my guest house come from the Freie Reichsstadt of Ulm in Baden-Württemberg? Why are they here? ‘It’s … wonderful,’ they say. ‘Don’t you know about Transition Town Totnes?’
I don’t, and go to hide in my room. Above me, French is being spoken (and later, snored). At breakfast I meet Gilgi from Israel. ‘In what other English town do strangers smile at you in the street?’ she asks.
It’s easy to spot the new crowd. Second-home owners, downsizers, life experimenters, DFLs (Down From London). Property-wise, the attractions are obvious. The railway link, the medieval aesthetics. Dartmoor, the Dart itself, the sea. Totnes newcomers are called ‘blow ins’. At the Guildhall, where Cromwell announced liberation in 1646, the lady tells me you’re not local until you have buried two people in Follaton Cemetery. This is increasingly rare. Housing costs are higher than average and wages lower. The number of benefit claimants is double the Devon norm. School leavers often seek jobs elsewhere. There are pockets of anger. Under the nativist banner ‘Take Back Totnes’, one man campaigned to have the Narnia graffito removed because his town ‘isn’t a fairytale through a wardrobe’. But it is typical of Totnes that it had to be a ‘campaign’ — he would not have dreamt of getting out a scrubbing brush and removing it without consulting the population first. In the end, most residents wanted to keep it.
I notice a group called ‘Totnes Workers Against Tories’. Posts to their message board chart the gestation of a noble action in solidarity with ‘sisters in Saudi’: a sponsored drive to Plymouth in ‘full burkas’ — a ‘burkathon’. It seems to have foundered when, as if to illustrate the warped logic of the Saudi Highway Code, the male driver was blinded by his eBay niqab and nearly crashed the Volvo. I’m starting to wonder if they realise that their group name is an acronym.
Totnes is a capital of campaigning. Fore Street famously blocked a Costa in 2012. There is Totnes Pride, anti-Trump Totnes, renewable Totnes and anti-wind turbine Totnes. In the referendum, South Hams was Devon’s only Remain council in a sea of rural Leavers. Totnes itself had a huge Remain majority. Surely there is no politician who can bind the atomised politics of this place?
There is. She is Dr Sarah Wollaston and she is sensationally popular in spite of being a Tory. Over lunch, it’s not hard to see why. During the referendum she came out for Remain and was met with a deluge of nasty online abuse. She mimes a ream of paper and laughs it off. Whatever the fight, Sarah often seems to win.
I ask about Transition Town. She tells me to look up Rob Hopkins and gets back to campaigning for the 8 June election, refusing to let Spectator Life buy her lunch.
Rob is a witty, softly spoken man of about 40 with an academic’s head and an activist’s heart. He spends his time planning how to make your future better. In 2005 he moved to Totnes to ‘unleash’ his Transition Town charity. Why the name? Because, among other things, its purpose is to help small towns move from dependence on volatile global markets to resilient self-sustainability. Transition towns are now a global movement. And my polyglot guest house is starting to make sense.
One project is the Totnes pound, a currency which aims to stop the ‘bucket’ of the local economy leaking profits away from the town. Atmos Totnes, a new venture, has won funding to redevelop the old milk plant, complete with affordable housing and dozens of new businesses. The economic future is taking on a brighter shape.
Rob’s achievements need a separate billing. But why did he pick Totnes? He pauses for a moment. ‘I think… I like being in a place where you can stand in the middle of it, and see out of it,’ he says. I picture a younger Rob standing on the open side of the market, looking south, where the land falls way into the Dart Valley, weighing his dreams.
So Totnes isn’t a fairytale through a wardrobe. It’s a laboratory where people try things out. Which explains some of the derision. For the risk-averse (or wilfully myopic), it’s tempting to seize upon any utopian failure as evidence that alternative lifestyles are a mistake. This is because the secret dread of conformists is that sometimes the other lot are on to something. Which, needless to say, might have one or two worrisome implications. Better to stamp it out before it gets anywhere.
In the end, if Totnes does have a magical quality it’s this. To the outsider, it promises to become whatever you want, endlessly diffracting the light you shine on it. In Narnian terms, it’s the place in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader where all dreams are made real: good ones and bad ones.
So in that sense, it’s not really a traditional market town any more. It has become a paradoxical intersection between hard geography and the abstract. Totnes is an idea. And if you are prepared to look hard enough, something surprising may start to emerge.