Totnes: a transition town in a modern world


By Paula Planelles Manzanaro

Everything started by chance. When my friend told me about Totnes I did not imagine the secrets that this town hid behind it. As soon as we arrived we had the feeling that we were in the deepest part of England. Just having a look around, admiring its plaza, its narrow streets and its little shops, visitors can feel the charm of this town, with an impressive architectural and cultural heritage.Not just a beautiful place with fascinating landscapes which captivate travellers, not just an ancient market town with a history dating back to before the 10th century, not only a quiet place to forget about the stressful life in the city; Totnes is much more. Located in the South-West of England, between the entrancing wilderness of Dartmoor and the beauty of South Devon coast, Totnes offers visitors an opportunity to relax in its natural parks, to discover the history of its medieval castle, to buy tasty food and beautiful handcrafted products in the markets that take place every week and to know a different lifestyle which is growing in popularity. Totnes is also the first town in the United Kingdom to join the Transition Town movement, which fights against climate change and economic uncertainty. Totnes is a must-seen place in the English geography.

Our first stop was Totnes Castle, a classic Norman and bailey castle, founded after the Conquest to overawe the Saxon town. The castle, built by Judhael, the 11th-century Norman overlord of Totnes, lets visitors enjoy magnificent 360 degree views of the town.

After enjoying a peaceful walk inside this fortress and admiring a beautiful landscape, full of Victorian houses, we headed to Fore Street, walking up the hill and taking time to observe the rich variety of architectural styles above the shops, most of them built for the town’s wealthy merchants in the 16th and 17th centuries, with slate-hung frontages added later.



But the most curious thing of Totnes’ businesses is not their architectural style or their history but their way of making business. Totnes’ shops use their own coin, the Totnes pound, currently a physical local currency backed by sterling and accepted in more than 70 businesses in the town. It’s administered as part of the Transition Town Totnes initiative in order to make sure that wealth stays in the community, where it can be used in a more conscientious way to fight against carbon and ecological impact and to help to achieve higher resilience. “Everything started inside the Transition Town movement. We became very concerned about issues around the cost of energy, the economic crisis and the climate change. I realized we needed a change to make communities more resilient. One of our initiatives was to establish our own coin to make it easier to support local traders. Local businesses are better to keep money locally”, Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Town movement, named by The Independent as one of the UK’s top 100 environmentalists and winner of the 2009 Observer Ethical Award, told London Glossy.


“Local money doesn’t leak through the holes – it bounces around inside the local economy and maintains wealth. Local money helps us think about our local economy, enquiring where our money goes once we spend it and finding ways to keep it from leaking out”, Transition Town Totnes (TTT) explains in its website. The scheme also aims to use local money for production and consumption closer to home in order to pay more attention to how those products are made.


We wanted to prove this fact and had the opportunity to interchange one of our coins for a Totnes pound in one of the bakeries of the village. “It is a great opportunity to help our businesses”, one of the workers at the bakery explained. This initiative is also been carried out in other places like Bristol, where customers can even pay the car park and buy some products by a text message, Mr. Hopkins explained.


But this is just one of the projects within this curious movement, which started in Ireland and was established in Totnes for the first time in the United Kingdom. It has been run for six years and is growing in popularity, becoming a world-wide movement sometimes silenced, sometimes praised. Only in England, 400 towns form part of the Transition Town movement and 40 countries all over the world have also joined this project, which is about taking care of the Nature and helping the economy, according to Rob Hopkins.

Transition Town Totnes takes each detail into account to help save energy.  Many inhabitants install solar panels in their houses. Local natural materials and the least possible fossil fuels are used in the building process and they also generate energy on site and use grey water and rainwater harvesting.

To carry out this kind of initiatives and to spread this message, the Transition Streets project was created. Transition Streets supports residents to live a low impact lifestyle and advise its members how they can help the environment. Sharing a car to go to work, changing the way of doing the washing, recycling or cultivating their own food are little things that Totnes’ residents do in favour of a sustainable future. Good for Nature, good for your pocket. Carrying out this type of measures, neighbours save around £570 a year on their household bills and cut CO2 emissions by 1.2 tonnes, TTT informed.

Over 65 groups and more than 700 households have participated in the project, Rob Hopkins informed. The groups meet every one or two weeks and set up a plan to save energy. “By the end of seven weeks, they will have finished the program. However, many groups want to join another project and continue the initiative”, Mr. Hopkins told London Glossy. The scheme also represents an innovative way to “bring people together so you can build community at the same time”, he added.


But, what kind of steps can help local economy and reduce the waste of energy? Curious initiatives such as getting veggies and edibles growing in public and unused spaces in Totnes for the common plate can make a difference. The idea is to re-localise the food supply, to avoid packaging, to cut down on food miles and oil use and to promote the consumption of local products.

But this is not all. Households also participate in the Gardenshare project, which has been run for three years and links up people who have unused gardens with local growers who use these spaces more productively. By doing this, their members reduce the huge demand for oil in the production, packaging and transport process. It is also a way to establish new friendships as most of these gardeners come back year after year to cultivate the same patch. “Dawn [Gardenshare gardener] has transformed a neglected and scruffy back garden into a place of colour and beauty. She has produced wonderful displays of flowers and delicious vegetables and I feel she has become a friend as well. This is a splendid scheme”, Roger, Gardenshare owner, said.

The scheme aims to create local autonomy in the town and to promote local food, which is sold in its local business and markets. One of them is the Totnes Good Food Sunday, a monthly food market that takes place on the Civic Square on the third Sunday of each month. We also had the pleasure to visit this market, which is Devon’s largest fine food fair.


A window to a bohemian life

Walking around Totnes’ cozy streets, visitors can feel the contact with Nature and the connection with the Arts that emanate from the town. Totnes is also famous for its broad range of cultural and sports activities, becoming a utopia for those who love the water. Boating, canoeing, kayaking, rowing, surfing and sailing are some of the activities for lovers of the waves. There is also a space for those people who simply enjoy walking, breathing fresh air and wildlife. Musical festivals, agricultural shows, museum tours or trips to environmental parks are other pastimes at residents’ and inhabitants’ disposition.


This variety of activities creates a bohemian atmosphere in Totnes, a village with a different philosophy and way of thinking, a town with a movement that looks at the future and tries to make a big change, which sees an opportunity for growth in a moment of uncertainty and crisis. “There is something in this time of crisis that creates an opportunity for huge growth. We have crucial choices to make at this time, whether you respond from fear, whether we are going to move away from a system which is based on competition and the power of the strongest to take what they want, to a system which is more about sharing”, Sophy Banks, therapist working for the Transition Town movement, commented.


A different way to face up to the economic crisis, a new sense of connection with life and Nature and a curious concept of sharing and building up community are the main qualities of the Transition Town movement. Totnes becomes a perfect scenario to put this into practice. “Totnes is a beautiful place where innovative and tolerant ideas can be tested. That is one of its main charms”, Rob Hopkins told London Glossy.

Totnes is innovation, Totnes is Nature, Totnes is a window to sustainability, to a different future and to a bohemian lifestyle.


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