Totnes: the road to anywhere

A 2017 essay for The Spectator about a Devon town twinned with Narnia

There is a tendency towards geographical abstraction in England lately. First, there was Theresa’s ‘citizen of nowhere’. Now we have the ‘somewheres’ and the ‘anywheres’. David Goodhart is on Newsnight saying you’re one or the other, and that’s probably what influenced your referendum vote. Evan Davies looks tired.

It’s disorientating. This airy nothing must have a local habitation and a name, I think. A sentiment our geographer prime minister would surely approve of. I’m tempted to head up the A10 to speak to the citizens of Ware (the town in Hertfordshire — population 19,000). But instead I find myself in the South Hams, in ancient Totnes (Devon town — population 8,500).

I’m actually here to find out why this little town has been called the New Age capital of Britain, and what this means. For some, I suspect this translates as tin-hatted conspiracy theorists. Or as my father- in-law puts it, “cranks in edible footwear”. He regularly passes through Totnes, but rarely stops. I’m sure he doesn’t mind the place, so why dismiss it? I remember that in the 70s he worked for Rothschild’s bank. He must be a mutant lizard trying to throw me off the scent.

The following morning I am standing on a recumbent giant’s nose looking out over the Dart Valley. This “nose” or “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 South Street side 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. Ponte dei Molti Sospiri. Passers-by nod and smile, easing your passage.

This passage has a thousand 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 at the counter was happy to discuss music, but coy about Totnesian healing practices. Something about “gong showers”. Over the road at ‘Not Made in China’, James (in pastels) says he’s OK with the “hokey-pokey” stuff, but if you want a drain unblocked you don’t call the Totnes man. “Always charging his crystals. I call Paignton now.”

Knowing little about crystals, I pop into ‘Que Sera Sera’ which “sells all manors [sic] of things from henna to e-cigarettes”. Here I find Jeremy Corbyn, or the spit of him, right down to the Che-Guevara- train-driver cap. He reveals it’s lined with tin. “To stop the radiation from the killer cell towers,” he explains, unnecessarily. A disappointing silver lining. The shop-keeper eye-rolls, muttering “Totnesia” before trying to sell me a Himalayan salt lamp to help with my ions. I pass the organic coffin makers. Why not try their “leafcocoon shroud — thinking outside the box”?

Nearby, there 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 versus history; mysticism versus rationalism; pseudoscience versus, 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 appended the town sign — “twinned with Narnia” [its actual twin is Vire in France]. A recent Phd of the same name was dedicated to finding out why the town is such a magnet for mysticism and New Age experimentation.

In 1925 a centre for experimental creative projects was founded at nearby Dartington Hall by utopian philanthropists Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst, drawing visits from many of the greatest talents of the century. A progressive school lasted in various forms at Dartington until 2008. Noel Longhurst’s Phd argues that Dartington was the catalyst for a local “alternative milieu” which spread to Totnes and stayed there. 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”. Totnes, a vital port before Brunel’s railway arrived in 1847, has generally muddled through. The end of the livestock market in the eighties began the long, slow decline of the working town. The Dairy Crest milk plant followed (162 jobs), then Reeves Timber yard and Harris’ Bacon factory.

Why then does Totnes crackle with energy? Why does it seem so happy? And why on earth are the women who guide me to my guest house from the freie Reichsstadt of Ulm in Baden-Württemberg? Why Totnes, I ask? “It’s wonderful. So… un-English. Don’t you know about Transition Town Totnes?”

I don’t, and go to hide in my room. In the room above, French is spoken (and later, snored). At breakfast, I meet Gilgi from Israel. She ululates about the state of the peace process. But when we discuss Totnes, she is transported. “It’s proper activism, from the soil up. And in what other English town do strangers smile at you in the street?”

What happened to the “somewheres” of Totnes? That is, people with local horizons, and, according to Goodhart, more likely to have voted Brexit. It’s easier to spot the “anywheres” — the wealthy, the educated, the mobile. It’s easier 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.

In Totnes, newcomers are called “blow-ins”. At the guildhall where Cromwell and Fairfax held a meeting in 1646, the lady tells me you’re not local until you have buried two in Follaton Cemetery. This is increasingly rare. The average house is over £280,000, the average wage below £20,000. The number of benefit claimants is double the Devon average. School leavers often seek employment elsewhere.

There are pockets of anger. Under the banner ‘Take Back Totnes’ one man campaigned successfully to have the Narnia graffito removed, because his town “isn’t a fairy-tale through a wardrobe”. The next twinning wasn’t as good: “Area 51, Nevada”. Very derivative. Frankly a good thing Aslan didn’t live to see 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”. Sadly, it seems to have foundered when, as if to demonstrate 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 is an acronym.

Totnes the 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. And now there’s an election on. On Europe, 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 candidate gifted enough to bind the atomised politics of this place?

There is. She is Dr Sarah Wollaston and she is sensationally popular. I found her inspiring. Over lunch, it’s not hard to see why. Conversation rushes on, from agreement to agreement, about the NHS, mental health, education, Jo Cox and the referendum. When Wollaston famously came out for Remain, her aides printed off all the online abuse. She mimes a ream of paper and laughs it off.

Sarah often seems to win out, whatever the fight, and I have no doubt she will on June 8th [in spite of a huge Labour surge, she increased her majority]. I ask about Transition Town. She tells me to look up Rob Hopkins and gets back to campaigning for the election, refusing to let The Spectator pay for her lunch.

Rob is a witty, softly-spoken man of about 40 with an academic’s head and an activist’s heart. You probably haven’t heard of him, but 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, amongst other things, its purpose is to help small towns move from dependence on volatile global markets to becoming self-sustainable. A resilient community. Transition towns are now a global movement. And my polyglot guest house is starting to make more 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. Totnes’s economic future is taking a brighter shape.

Rob’s achievements need a separate billing. But I need to know — why Totnes? Perhaps the stereotype is both a weakness, and a strength? He thinks 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”. 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. A blow-in, in the wind.

In the end, it isn’t a fairy-tale through a wardrobe. Totnes is a laboratory where people try things out. Which explains some of the derision. For the risk-averse (or willfully 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.

It isn’t a traditional market town anymore either. Totnes has become a paradoxical intersection between hard geography and the abstract — an idea. And if you are prepared to look hard enough, something surprising may start to emerge. Because if Totnes does have a magical quality it’s this: to the outsider, the town promises to become whatever you want it to be, 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. A place where many different futures are possible. The steep road to anywhere. In 2017, that seems very English to me.

Writing and teaching. Tweets at @i_padawan