I remember once reading that Totnes had been named as the best place to live in Britain. If the residents of this ancient market town in South Devon seem a little smug, perhaps it’s because they know that.
It’s a beautiful, uber-cool kind of place but one with a conscience. Walk down the high street and the thing that strikes you, aside from the olde-worlde prettiness, is that it is essentially still made up of small independent shops. No Next, no Marks & Spencers, no Primark. Instead you’ll find three proper old fashioned butchers (three when most towns now struggle to hold onto one) a baker, a toy shop, a bookshop, a record shop and so many tempting looking cafes it’s almost impossible to choose. Totnes is best known for its dreadlocked granola vibe and was once described by Time Magazine as ‘the capital of New Age chic.’ That’s still the case: there are more alternative therapists in Totnes per square inch than anywhere else in the UK – or, as one ex-resident puts it: ‘there are shops which are so green you can go in and milk the goat yourself.’ Totnes was reborn as a bohemian hang out way back in 1925 when Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst set up Dartington Hall as a radical college of the arts. Last year the arts students decamped to Falmouth and there is a palpable fear that the town will lose its essence without them. Yet it remains forward thinking today and has become the UK’s first transition town – a community dedicated to forging a life which does not depend on oil. Recently it came first in a survey of towns that supports suppliers within a 30 mile radius and it has its own currency - the Totnes pound note – which can be used in most shops. Talk to the locals and you get the sense that in Totnes anything is possible. A sojourn here really needs to begin at Totnes Castle, a classic Norman motte and bailey castle which stands on a high mound and gives you sweeping views across the stunning roof tops of the town. Once in the town itself, it's astonishing how many thriving, long term businesses there are and by long term - I mean decades. Take Rumours Wine Bar– loving that very 80s name – which has been the nightspot of choice for twenty years. Locals converge here just for a drink or for full on food - seriously good looking plates of steak frites and towers of moules marinieres. It's open all day but comes into its own come night-time. The Drift Record Shop is another store which seems to inspire devotion. The owner Rupert Drift brings Nick Hornby's High Fidelity to mind with his record shop full of musos. Drift houses a huge collection of records and DVDs selected on love alone and is staffed by people who will inspire you. We'll be checking out Rupert's hot tip for Bristol band Zun Zun Egui. It's impossible to miss Green Fuse - a very contemporary funeral director - slap bang in the middle of the high street. Last year it celebrated the Mexican Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) with a fantastic display of fruit, toys, beer and flowers, inviting people in for a glass of wine and the chance to share memories about their dead.
The Tangerine Tree is the cafe everyone talks about. Owners Martin and Ness Turner serve everything here from killer coffee and cakes to mezze sharing platters, risottos, burgers and grilled goats cheese salads. For veggies - and there's plenty of those in Totnes - both the Fat Lemons and the Willow restaurants are deservedly popular. As you might imagine health nuts are particularly well catered for in this town. There's Green Life - a huge emporium with every kind of supplement imaginable and Sacks in The Narrows (a web of narrow streets full of jewellery and crystal shops) which dates back to the sandal-wearing 70s. A little out of town there's also the famous Riverford Organics which sells the very best fruit and vegetables and supplies many West Country homes with its hugely successful box scheme. Fridays are market days and - though you'll be hard pushed to find a parking space - this is definitely the best day to visit. Totnes is home to an arty, literary crowd and its market reflects that. Alongside the incredible array of artisan food producers, you'll find stalls full of vintage boho chic, antiques and a brilliant selection of second hand books. Critics point to a middle class, blue rinse tinge that has crept into Totnes in recent years. A visit to the much-loved Barrel House soon corrects that. Housed in a converted nineteenth century ballroom right in the middle of town, the Barrel House provides live music - anything from dub step to gospel - and booze until the early hours as well as a bit of edge to wipe away that genteel gloss. Finally, at the end of this whirlwind tour, we come to Dartington Hall and there could be no better place to stop for a much-needed overnight break. It now holds conferences, hosts weddings and offers a very reasonable B&B but it has been home to some of the most famous artists, poets, philosophers, dancers and musicians of the twentieth century. Take time to drink in the White Hart bar and think that once you'd have been in the company of Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Benjamin Britten and Bertrand Russell. Dartington, more than anything else, gave Totnes the utopian feel that still characterises it today.