Totnes: South Devon’s Alternative Village

Totnes

Totnes, an Elizabethan town in the South West English county of Devon, isn’t your average West Country village. Totnes is what is increasingly known as a Transition Town – in fact, it is a model Transition Town.

What is a Transition Town, you ask? A Transition Town is a municipality focused on sustainable local economic growth by encouraging the use of local resources and local businesses. One expression of this philosophy is the circulation of a superlocal currency, the Totnes Pound, which is accepted by scores of shops in Totnes. This currency is an impressive innovation for a town of just 8,000 residents.

totnesNot surprisingly, Totnes can be said to possess a definite crunchiness, especially in the form of new age shops and the Friday and Saturday markets at the town’s Civic Hall Square. But if visitors come expecting Santa Cruz in the English countryside, they’ll be terribly disappointed. Totnes feels like a typical English market town, albeit one with a particularly dynamic local retail environment.

There are many ways to gauge this retail dynamism. The sheer range of shops and relative lack of empty storefronts is one. Here’s another: Aromatika, a highly respected, organic, vegan-friendly skin care products company, is headquartered in Totnes. Clearly, the town is a good motor for at least some sorts of entrepreneurial activity.

It is the plethora of small shops selling crafts, niche products and home furnishings that really help the town make a claim to retail excitement. Several home furnishings shops sell a range of well-curated products, both new and vintage. My favorite of these is a place called Inspired Buys (see above), whimsically stocked with a number of beautifully upcycled items, including old maps, hand-painted posters and signage. During my visit last week I fell in love with an old vintage canvas school map of Britain on sale there, the chalk markings of a teacher still visible. At £40 ($64) the map might not have been cheap, but it is also easy to imagine the vast mark-up that the map would command at a big city hipster design den.

There are other reasons to visit Totnes: the magnificent East Gate Arch on Fore Street, which makes the town feel cozy and contained, its 16th-century wooden houses, Totnes Castle, its rambling lanes, its many cafes (of which the best is probably The Curator Cafe and Store), and the South Devon countryside all around. But the retail is a serious draw, and not just for people who like to shop. Totnes is trailblazing a kind of economic future for towns focused on nurturing small local businesses.

Totnes is three hours from London by train. The least expensive advance roundtrip fare found during recent research: £43.50 ($70).

[Images: Alex Robertson Textor]