Series celebrating the forgotten world of the town. Nicholas Crane visits Totnes and uncovers the test bed for an ambitious idea that aims to change our urban life forever.
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I've seen towns explode into cities.
I've seen towns with their hearts ripped out.
Every town has its own tales of triumph and catastrophe.
All of them face challenges.
As a geographer,
I believe that towns are the communities of the future.
Towns will be the places we want to live.
By 2030, a staggering 92% of us
will be living the urban life.
Congested cities sprawl across our map,
but cities don't have all the answers.
I believe we need to fall back in love with the places
that first quickened our pulses...
Smaller than a city, more intimate,
much greener, more surprising -
towns are where we learned to be urban.
They are the building blocks of our civilisation.
market towns, river towns, industrial towns...
Collectively, they bind our land together.
This is the story of towns, but it's also OUR story -
where we came from, how we live - and where we might be going.
This is Totnes, a Saxon river town in South Devon.
Population 8,200, it's had tough times through its long history,
but adversity has taught it to innovate.
It's home to one of the greatest social experiments of the 20th century
and today it's the test bed for an ambitious new idea
that aims to change our urban life for ever.
It's an idea which could only have come out of a town -
not a village, not a city -
because towns are the right scale to be urban laboratories.
Arguably, Totnes is the leading urban laboratory.
Just after the Norman Conquest, a Welshman, Geoffrey of Monmouth,
wrote a comprehensive history of Britain.
It begins with a hero - Brutus the Trojan -
who sails across the sea and then up this river
to found a great nation on a fabulous unexplored island.
Brutus named the new island after himself, calling it "Britain".
He stepped ashore, local legend tells us,
a few miles up the River Dart, uttering the words,
"Here I stand and here I rest
"and this good town shall be called Totnes."
Every town has its local law,
but it doesn't get much better than being the place where the nation began.
For me, the River Dart is a lot more than a river.
I paddled up this river when I was 16,
all the way from the open sea far inland to Totnes.
It was the first proper river journey I'd ever done
and it excited my imagination so that
when I came to read Joseph Conrad's book Heart of Darkness,
I had all of the images, the impressions that I needed.
I was back on that Conradian river, and Totnes for me was part-imagined, part mythological.
Deep beneath the hull of this canoe is a flooded land.
At the end of the last Ice Age, sea levels rose dramatically,
turning the winding Dart Valley into a great estuary.
The drowning of the woods and the meadows
meant that great ships could sail right up here, far inland.
And that's why the town of Totnes was born.
In a way, the Heart of Darkness analogy isn't as odd
as it might seem. All towns have tough times.
But since I canoed up here as a 16-year-old,
Totnes has had more than its fair share of dark moments.
This is where I landed, at the end of my teenage voyage
back in 1970, but already, I can see that a lot has changed.
This history of Totnes was published a few years before I made that voyage.
And in a chapter called Modern Times, the author celebrates
what he sees as a timely revival of the town's good fortunes.
There's a new bacon factory, a new dairy, a new livestock market.
Those three developments alone brought 600 jobs
to a town of only 8,000 people.
Down there at Baltic Wharf, another business - an importer -
was bringing in 40 shiploads of timber from the Baltic every year.
Four decades after I paddled up here,
all those businesses have closed.
But, and there's always a but, this is not a town, or a tale,
of doom and gloom,
because taking knocks has taught Totnes to adapt,
to innovate, to think creatively, to open its doors to new ideas
which larger, more prosperous towns perhaps haven't had to.
The absorption of those new ideas -
some good, some bad, some successful, some less so -
have made the town what it is and bred its key characteristic...
With its big employers now gone,
this historic town is heavily reliant on its shops
and on visitors, who ply up and down the high street
through the old Saxon Gate,
reinvented as the town's iconic clock tower.
Totnes has long had a reputation as an "alternative" haven for the arts and green living.
The Observer called it "The country's funkiest address".
In the 1970s, hippies found sanctuary in its calming streets.
The bell bottoms may have gone, but the alternative vision is still very visible.
There aren't many small towns
where you can buy a pair of sustainably-sourced reindeer shoes.
Or travel in an Indian rickshaw -
the brainchild of Devonian Pete Ryeland.
-But why the rickshaw?
Like any other town, we need to get as many visitors into the town as possible.
There's an awful lot of people who come up the river on the boats,
and they never make the top of the town, they'll get to the arch,
halfway up the town, then they'll just go back down again.
So I came up with the idea of, well, why not make it nice and easy?
Literally take them all the way to the top of the town,
and they can just walk down.
The people then see all the shops and all the business in all the town.
It has worked. Last year, we took 2,000 people, more,
up the top of the town, and they would never have got there.
I've got a bit of a weakness for contraptions, I'm dying to have a ride.
-Can we go for a spin?
The last time I rode in one of these was in Pakistan.
They're low-cost to run, easy to maintain,
and they're used as urban taxis all over Asia.
But I never expected to see one in Britain. It's a neat idea, a visionary idea -
get people where they want to go, and keep the shops in business. It's a win-win win.
Where many of our High Streets bear the scars of commercial despair,
this one seems to be as up-beat as it is uphill!
And it's incredible to think that this has been the town's main thoroughfare
ever since Totnes was built, nearly 200 years before the Norman Conquest.
Just coming up to the historic portal into Totnes, East Gate,
where you enter the original town.
At night, this gate would have been closed with heavy timber doors
to protect the walled town - its shops, its businesses, its citizens,
to make the townspeople feel secure.
Today's townsfolk live in houses that,
although rebuilt many times over the centuries,
still occupy the same plots that were laid out in Saxon times.
This is a townscape of extraordinary continuity.
The street-plan, the footprint of the buildings,
have hardly changed since Totnes was born.
Totnes was the result of a radical, new idea in urban planning -
an idea born out of a crisis over 1,100 years ago.
In the 870s, the Vikings had conquered most of Britain.
Only the South of England remained in Saxon hands.
A new King, Alfred the Great, took action.
To survive, Alfred was forced to fight and to innovate.
He held the Danes at bay
and then restored security to his kingdom by creating
a visionary new kind of settlement - fortified towns called burhs.
Alfred and his heirs built 30 of their new fortress towns -
among them, Winchester and Southampton, Oxford and Bath -
right across Southern England.
Totnes was one of four burhs in Devon, with a garrison
of several hundred defending the crucial highway of the River Dart.
Totnes was a remarkable Saxon experiment in urban planning.
Alfred and his heirs realised that strength wasn't just about military might.
It was also about economic resilience.
To succeed, the burhs needed to be military strongholds,
but they also needed to be centres of trade.
As merchants, craftsmen, traders were drawn to
the protective security of the burhs, they evolved into thriving settlements.
The Saxons had created an idea worth defending - towns.
Nothing now remains of the old Saxon wall,
and the Castle here was built later, by the Normans.
But the Saxon origins of Totnes are still plain to see.
The oval of streets curving around the centre of town
follows the perimeter of that original defensive wall.
While the Saxon bridge is thought to have occupied the same spot as the one we use today.
The bridge - the crossing point - anchors Totnes to its origins,
Alfred's burhs - his defensive trading posts -
were so successful that they proved to have a life
far beyond the Viking threat they'd been designed to counter.
Burhs became Boroughs, laying the foundations for towns
as we know them, and giving us place names like Edinburgh and Scarborough,
Middlesbrough and Peterborough.
To underpin the importance of the burhs, the Saxon Kings
created new laws guaranteeing their rights and powers.
Most significant of all, each burh was allowed to mint its own coinage.
Sealed in this glass case, and they're so precious
that we're not allowed to take them out,
are the fiscal crown jewels of Totnes.
Though I have been allowed to open the door to get a closer look.
These Saxon coins were all minted in the 10th and 11th centuries,
not long before the Normans invaded and overwhelmed Saxon England.
Nearly all of them carry the place name Totnes,
and the name of the King who was on the throne at the time,
and also the name of the man who made the coin, the moneyer.
Incredible to think that this money was changing hands
on the streets of Totnes nearly 1,000 years ago.
Currency. The lifeblood of every town.
We know the names of so few Saxon individuals
that these tiny coins, inscribed with the names of their makers,
Aelfyine and Goda, Aelfstan and Godwine,
are a potent bequest from our Saxon ancestors.
The successful Saxon town experiment
had shown that a resilient urban community
had to be built on a healthy local economy.
Over 1,000 years later, it's an experiment that's being repeated.
Believe it or not, this low key office on Totnes High Street
is also the town's latest bank.
Not, perhaps, the smartest I've ever been to.
I'm not sure where this is taking me.
'This very Totnes-style financial institution
'issues only one currency...'
Thank you very much.
What I don't quite understand is, is it one of the eccentric labels
that Totnes seems to have attracted,
or is this actually a device that somehow gears the economy up,
changes gear, helps the economy move faster?
Well, a local economy's a bit like a leaky bucket.
We build up wealth within the community,
and then any time anyone spends a pound sterling with a business
that's got more connections outside of the town than inward,
that money just leaks out.
So, this is money that stays and bounces around inside the bucket.
It's not an alternative currency. It's a complementary currency.
But if I want to buy a fridge,
I'd need a wheelbarrow to take the Totnes pounds down the road!
The biggest transaction I'm aware of was a kayak
for 326 Totnes pounds.
This is one of the most enjoyable banking transactions
I've ever carried out. Thank you!
Time to get spending.
Ah yes, organic farm shop. All very Totnes.
As a complimentary currency,
the Bank of England needn't worry about the Totnes pound just yet.
It's really a thought experiment - a challenge to shoppers
to think about how and where they spend their money.
Since I'm in Totnes, it'll have to be the lentil pasty please.
A lentil pasty coming up.
Do you take Totnes pounds?
Yeah, we like Totnes pounds.
That's lovely, thank you very much.
I hope you enjoy that.
I'm going to enjoy it, it smells amazing.
The Totnes pound is part of a bold experiment in urban transformation.
It's one of nearly 30 other projects,
from garden sharing schemes to the building of sustainable homes,
initiated by Transition Town Totnes, or TTT,
a community-led movement that took off here in 2006.
All of those initiatives are intended to make communities,
whether they're villages, towns, or parts of cities, more resilient
in the face of what is seen as being three main pressures.
Economic contraction, fossil fuel depletion, and climate change.
The people behind the transition movement
see this as a historic and pivotal moment.
It's an idea that's gaining a lot of momentum.
TTT is working to an ambitious 20-year plan
to deliver a transformed, sustainable Totnes by the year 2030.
It's early days and they've already made an impressive start.
Can I give you a hand?
-Yes, you can help pull this panel up.
This is the 140th house in the town to get solar panels in the last year,
putting Totnes in Britain's premier league for conversion to solar energy.
-How long have you been doing it?
-Nearly ten years.
When you started, how many were you putting up?
-At first, we were doing about one a month.
-Three a week.
-Three a week?!
The company's expanded somewhat from when I first started!
It's part of the Transition Streets project,
encouraging entire neighbourhoods to save money
and switch to sustainable energy sources
by opening their eyes to the latest technology.
Jamie, it's a pretty cloudy day. Do these work in weather like this?
Yes, they do. They don't need full sunlight.
They'll work in any light. They'll produce electricity.
When they first started, they needed full sunlight on them,
but now they're a lot more efficient.
They've even become a means of making money
because any power you don't use now gets sent to the National Grid,
who pay you for it.
The 75 panels on the Civic Hall
are already reducing the town council's energy bills,
and making them an additional £5,000 a year.
A useful bonus for a local organisation on a small income.
It's turned grey, overcast, it's just started pouring with rain.
What really impresses me
is that, even in this horrible weather,
these solar panels are already producing electricity.
What also really impresses me is that half of the houses in Totnes
that have had solar panels fitted are owned by low-income families.
I think many in Britain have believed that solar panels
are an expensive gimmick for the guilt-ridden middle classes.
Well, Transition are proving them wrong.
One of the masterminds wrestling with the challenge
of making towns more resilient is Transition co-founder, Rob Hopkins.
Rob, economic contraction, fossil fuel depletion, climate change.
These are big global issues for a little town like Totnes to address.
People often have an expectation, when they come here,
that they're coming to see some kind of eco Shangri-la,
with everything already in place.
Once a German man came into the office and said,
"I've come all the way from Germany to see the famous Transition Town Totnes, and you still have cars!".
He was incensed!
A lot of what the initiative does goes on under the surface.
It's about building new relationships, forming new networks,
and a lot of the big things that people would come here expecting to see like wind-turbines
take five or six years to actually get to happen.
What is "resilience"?
Ian Dowie, former manager of Crystal Palace, used to describe resilience as "bounce back ability".
For me, resilience, when you look at a town like this,
is how can you make it adaptable, flexible, as we enter times of uncertainty,
so that when we encounter shock of some sort, the whole place doesn't just fall to bits.
The centre of this town used to be commercial market gardens
linked to shops on the high street.
That was food feet, not food miles. That was there until 1980.
That made this place much, much more resilient.
Now, if the lorries stop coming in to supply the supermarkets in this town,
although we have a strong local food culture,
it's still not enough to sustain this place without the supermarkets.
Is "transition" to do with pain or pleasure? Is it about doing with less or having more fun?
It's saying that the move to a world of less consumption and resources
is an inevitability, so what are we going to do about it?
Solutions to that are going to come from us coming together,
rather than heading up to the hills, with a bag of rice
and four years worth of baked beans and loo roll.
It's about us all coming together with the people around us, and looking at this together.
Transition is proving to be something of a national phenomenon,
with initiatives now running in over 300 towns and cities.
From Bristol to Oxford, Lancaster to Leeds, Stirling to Larne.
Brixton has its own pound.
So does Lewes in West Sussex.
And Stroud in Gloucestershire.
The movement has even gone global,
with over 800 initiatives in 34 countries.
I can't think of a bigger idea to have come out of a town for decades.
It seems to me that this is the biggest urban brainwave of the century, for the century.
It's as big and as radical as the Saxon burhs were 1,000 years ago.
It's also an idea which could only have come out of a town,
not a village, not a city.
Towns are the right scale to be urban laboratories.
Arguably, Totnes is the leading urban laboratory.
It's an urban laboratory that's full of surprises.
Right, Nick, welcome to the plant up at Sharpham.
You've got your own oil tanker!
Well, this is today's oil.
Pete Ryeland doesn't just run the rickshaw service
with his fellow directors - he actually makes the fuel,
recycling cooking oil from the restaurants of Totnes
at his home-made refinery.
-It looks disgusting.
OK, now this is a really clean one, Nick.
I'll show you how... I'll put this one in first and show you.
It's something that you do by eye.
We just pour it into these baskets,
and the baskets catch all the bits of chip,
and everything else in there.
-This is the really mucky stuff.
What do you use this... This is a plasterer's trowel, isn't it?
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
When you get a build-up of tandoori chicken and bits of ham
and left-over eggs, you literally scrape it down like that, you see.
And this is the really mucky bucket.
-It's pretty gross.
There's a gross side to being environmentally friendly!
And that's it.
So, that's the basics part of the plant,
and then it all goes up into this tank here from the pump,
and it just gets filtered - a really simple filtering system.
It comes down, gets filtered again - a simple filtering system.
-Then it comes out of this wonderful old urn here and there's fuel!
-So this stuff's ready to power a vehicle?
-Do we need this funnel?
-Yep, we do indeed, Nick.
'Cooking-oil in a rickshaw is one thing.
'Putting it straight in your van is quite another.'
Shall I hold the funnel?
'The first diesel engine over a century ago
'was fuelled by peanut oil.'
Lovely stuff, isn't it?
'Has someone been keeping that fact a secret?'
The way to look at it,
is that this is actually carbon neutral, OK?
Yeah? Every time you put your fuel in your tank,
just remember that this stuff's much better.
In this era of painfully high fuel costs,
it's a sobering thought to consider that this used cooking oil
delivers the same performance as diesel, at a fraction of the price.
Although, I'm not sure that Peter
will put the oil multinationals out of business just yet!
Pete's oil refinery is addressing some really big issues.
Rapid climate change, economic stagnation, fossil fuel depletion.
And he's doing it with a really neat, simple, local solution.
Indian rickshaw powered by recycled cooking oil.
It's fun, and it's put me off fried food for a very long time.
With its history of boom and bust,
Totnes has always had to find inventive ways
of stimulating its vulnerable local economy.
Like many traditions,
today's Elizabethan Parade appears to be steeped in history.
But, actually, it's a shrewd modern innovation.
Oh, yea! Oh, yea!
On this day of our Lord,
Tuesday 3rd May,
it's my proud privilege to welcome you
to the Totnes Elizabethan Charity and Craft Market.
The weather isn't great, and Notting Carnival, it ain't.
But today's event makes clever use of the town's past.
Like much of Britain, Totnes hit hard times in the 1970s.
But an enterprising local had a bright idea - put on a show.
An annual event - bring back the Tudors, bring in the punters!
The stallholders are packing away now
and, although it's a chilly day in May, it's been a very busy morning.
What's so fascinating about this market
is that it wasn't conceived in the era of doublets and ruffs,
but in the age of hot-pants and flares.
More 1970s than 1570s.
This is modern creative marketing,
intended to bring cash into the town.
For Totnes, summoning up the ghosts of their Tudor past
means re-connecting with better times.
In the 1520s, it was the second richest town in Devon,
richer even than Plymouth.
The key to prosperity was the river, the super-highway of the region,
shipping goods to other British ports, and the Continent.
The verdant hills around Totnes fed a thriving wool trade,
but the real cash crop came from nearby Dartmoor.
500 years ago, this vast windswept expanse
was transformed into an English Eldorado,
with thousands of miners exploiting its mineral rich rocks
for a commodity that could make them rich.
This is what they were looking for,
and digging out of Dartmoor in very large quantities.
Doesn't look much, but these dark crystals are cassiterite.
When these rocks are crushed, and then the cassiterite is separated,
and heated to around 1,200 degrees centigrade,
this ore releases a very valuable silvery metal.
And here it is.
This is what made Totnes rich.
Humans have been exploiting tin for thousands of years.
But, in the 1500s, it became more prized than ever,
as the key ingredient, along with copper,
in a material that Renaissance Europe needed in large quantities.
A material that sculptor Andrew Lacey often works with -
What temperature have you got to heat that up to?
I need to get it to about 1,100 degrees.
So at the moment you're just getting the furnace hot?
-Just literally pre-heating it.
England's West Country had found itself the leading supplier
of a highly prized commodity.
Tin put Devon and Cornwall on the map of Europe.
Why was tin so valuable?
Because it's found in so few places.
It's found in Germany, Eastern Europe, but mainly Devon and Cornwall.
That is a tin ingot. It was found off the coast of the South West.
it's hugely heavy. Very valuable.
Once you've got this tin out of the ground,
you've converted it into an ingot, what's it used for?
The simplest thing is the pewter plate.
Pewter's a mixture of tin and lead,
so it's made into simple domestic ware.
Other than that, it's made into bronze.
Bronze is really important because it's used for engineering, for art,
but also for things like cannon.
I mean, cannons are the real...
As always, the military force is the driving point behind all this.
Without tin you can do none of it.
And copper's found most places, but tin isn't.
What do you call this, it's not a forge, is it?
-Is it a furnace?
-It's just a furnace.
'With some copper, and some tin,
'we're making bronze in the way it's been made for thousands of years...
'..as long as I can generate enough heat!'
Bit of a knack, isn't it, to get it to keep breathing continuously?
It's almost like being a rower.
You have to keep a kind of steady pace to it.
-In goes the tin!
You can just see at the bottom of that,
it's turning into liquid and drips are going down.
'This furnace, with my help, is burning at over 1,000 degrees,
'turning solid copper and tin to molten bronze... We hope!'
There's more to these bellows than meets the eye.
Not only are they 100 years old,
but Andrew's put a great big slab of slate on them
to help push them down, which means they're harder to lift up again.
But it means there's an even puff on both the up and the down stroke.
Just the kind of thing that they'd have done 500 years ago.
You can stop now. We're right up to temperature.
There's a lovely sheen to the surface of the bronze when we do this.
Right, what I need you to do is to hold back with this tool.
With the spade end of that,
just hold back all the charcoal that is sat on top of the molten metal.
You're making me nervous!
It is a very important job!
That's brilliant, just keep holding it there.
Last bit. You've done brilliantly, that's great.
For those few seconds, everything's kind of won or lost in there.
I didn't like that, that was scary!
When it comes out of this mould,
the molten metal will have been transformed.
I feel like I'm watching alchemy in action.
I can hardly bear to look.
That's amazing. I've never seen a bronze come out that colour.
It's always got oxides on the surface and colouration. This is... Oh, that's amazing!
Maybe it's the bellow's work?
I came along here today to find out why tin mattered to Totnes,
but in the process, something much bigger has happened.
It's been a huge privilege to spend so much time with Andrew,
who's been practicing a craft that's been followed in this area
probably since the Bronze Age.
And what he's made today is this bell.
That's a sound that's never been heard before in the world,
because this bell has only just been cast.
That sound is the sound of human ingenuity, and it's beautiful.
The Tudor tin merchants of Totnes were ingenious too.
In their case, at making money.
They invested in the mines and in the stannary towns
where the tin was traded, and they shipped it down the Dart
to the wider world, where buyers were prepared to pay top dollar.
Take one year, 1525.
In that year alone, 250 tonnes of tin were mined in Devon.
That would be worth around £4 million in today's money.
The king of tin, here in Totnes, was a merchant called John Giles,
who owned shares in one of the Dartmoor stannary towns
and was the richest merchant in Devon.
Number two on the county rich list was a tin and cloth tycoon
called Walter Smith.
In the age of the Tudors, this was millionaire's row.
Totnes had never had it so good.
It's the booms that leave behind the architectural landmarks
that define all our towns.
Totnes' most striking civic legacy is the Guildhall,
gifted by the tin merchant Walter Smith,
and still home, nearly 500 years later, to the Town Council.
Inside, it's a monument to Civic pride.
The name of every mayor, from the 1350s onwards,
has been painstakingly recorded.
Among hundreds of names are those of the town's great tin tycoons,
John Giles and Walter Smith.
Wealth and power, hand in hand.
But the good times were not to last.
Up on Dartmoor, merchants and miners
had created a recognizably modern industrial business.
Unfortunately, it had a recognizably modern downside, too.
Vast quantities of water were used
to separate the tin from the gravel and sand,
and all that heavily polluted water ended up in the Dart.
Here in town, they reaped the whirlwind.
When the Tudor antiquarian, John Leland,
visited Totnes in the mid-1500s,
he was shocked to see that vast amounts of sand had been carried
downstream from the tin workings on Dartmoor and, as he put it,
"Choked the depth of the river that doth much hurt the Dart estuary."
Well, in those days, blocking a navigable river wasn't just
an environmental catastrophe, it was economic suicide.
Totnes lost much of its river trade to a neighbouring town.
A town eight miles downstream...
..at the mouth of the Dart.
It's name, appropriately enough, was Dartmouth.
To make matters even worse, by the end of the 1500s,
the tin was gone and the boom was over.
The 17th century poet, Robert Herrick, lived on Dartmoor,
and captured the mood.
"No trust to metals, nor to marbles,
"when these have their fate and wear away as men."
With the tough times that followed the collapse of the tin industry,
and the river trade, this chamber witnessed some very gloomy meetings.
In 1719, Totnes was declared insolvent,
and the council was forced to sell the leases on 50 or so properties
that it owned in the town.
It was a desperate act, a bit like flogging the family silver.
To keep afloat, the town had to borrow so much money that in 1843,
a government commission condemned the council for its excessive debt.
It's poignant, painful, even, to contemplate what this
must have meant to a place that had once been on Devon's rich list.
Financially, Totnes had descended into its own heart of darkness.
A once thriving town,
now lost for purpose at the head of its choked creek.
Totnes's geography, tucked away up the river, surrounded by hills,
had been perfect for Saxon defenders and Tudor traders.
But come the industrial revolution, it was a town out in the cold,
unsuited to big ships, or the infrastructure of railways
In the late 1800s, while Britain's industrial towns were booming,
Totnes' population actually fell - by 20%.
And the Victorian developers who were busy
transforming our urban landscape pretty much ignored Totnes.
The town had become an urban fossil.
And it might have stayed that way,
but a new era was about to begin.
This is Dartington Hall, just outside town, and for over 85 years
it's been a Mecca for devotees of ecology and the arts.
Totnes' habit of asking searching questions
about the way we live, began here.
Today, Dartington is celebrating the life and legacy
of its spiritual founder, Rabindranath Tagore.
It's 150 years since his birth.
Tagore, painter and poet, the first Asian to win the Nobel prize,
was a social campaigner who set up a radical community in India.
The young Englishman who helped him to do it, Leonard Elmhirst,
was inspired to start his own ambitious project at Dartington.
"I have begun to suspect", wrote Elmhirst,
"that City life has a devastating effect upon human nature."
Led by Leonard Elmhirst and his wealthy American wife, Dorothy,
Dartington was to be a Utopian community and a model
for radical education, guided by the ideas of Rabindranath Tagore.
And what better way to celebrate him today
than with a unique commission from a local artist.
This bell is made by Andrew Lacey,
a great artist, hand made,
in honour of Tagore.
'Satish Kumar is director of the Tagore Festival,
'and co-founder of Dartington's Schumacher College,
'which teaches environmental and social sustainability.'
Can I ask you about Dartington and Totnes?
The two seem to have this very close relationship,
brother and sister, almost a symbiotic relationship.
Yes, I would say Dartington is an integral part of Totnes.
At Dartington we have Schumacher College,
which is a flagship college
for learning about living on a small scale, human scale.
And that is the idea of living in small towns, where you can
live simply, and you can have a sense of community, and a sense of place.
And this can happen only when you are a small community,
where you can communicate with each other, so it can happen in a place
like Totnes, but it's very difficult to have it in Birmingham or Glasgow.
But, Satish, if everybody followed your utopian dream,
and moved from London to Totnes, there would be
nine or ten million people living here and it would become a city.
No, no, I'm not suggesting that all people living in cities
should move to small towns.
What I am suggesting is that big cities should not be
too arrogant about themselves.
I would like to have a small town culture in the cities.
So if you are living in Camden Town or Hampstead Heath,
you can create a small town in that area.
London is not a community, but Hampstead Heath can be a community.
This is why, when we organised Tagore Festival,
we had 2,000 people coming through the festival.
And they were coming because they cherish that vision,
that we want to create a new world view, a new way of living, which is
in harmony with ourselves, our human community and with the natural world.
And that vision is a very important vision for our time.
The Elmhirsts' vision was to take the neglected,
derelict estate of Dartington, and bring it back to life.
Over the course of several decades,
the estate consumed Dorothy's personal fortune of 35 million.
But the Elmhirsts' aim wasn't just to rebuild
a viable community from ruins, it was to experiment.
And to do it, as Dorothy put it,
they'd create an atmosphere free from fear and competition.
A sort of safe haven, where everyone involved could feel that anything,
and everything, was possible.
They set up two farms,
and applied the latest thinking in agriculture.
They built a theatre, dance studios, one of Britain's first
progressive schools, and a college of performance, arts and music.
They revived traditional crafts and industries,
creating more than 600 much needed jobs for Totnes and the surrounding area.
And they commissioned new buildings that were anything but traditional.
Modernist architecture like this was virtually unknown in Britain
when the Elmhirsts brought in William Lascaze,
the radical Swiss-American architect.
He designed houses for Dartington staff
and new accommodation for the school.
Seen through '30s eyes, these buildings were startling,
an incredibly confident break from the thin-windowed slate
and sandstone traditions of old world Devon.
The locals must have thought aliens had landed.
Looking at it now, it may all seem a bit scatter-gun,
the wild excesses of wealthy eccentrics.
But diversity has always been the point of Dartington.
After Tagore, they're hosting, among other things, a literary festival,
a debate on nuclear weapons, a Suzanne Vega gig
and a soil conference, ensuring that Totnes continues to attract
its own particular brand of pilgrim.
I'm here now because it's beautiful, it's absolutely stunning
and if I'm brutally honest, that's the main reason I came here,
because I thought it was so beautiful and I'm a sucker for aesthetics.
It's so different from being in a city.
It has such a different energy and, yeah,
I'm coming to live here so, I'm changing my life.
I'm on the dole, so I've kicked myself up the arse,
applied to work here as a volunteer, been doing 12-hour days
and I feel happier than I've felt for a very long time.
Before I came to Dartington, I looked at a map
and found myself wondering what this estate, buried two miles
outside town, deep in the Devon countryside, had to do with Totnes.
But now I've been to Dartington Hall, met Satish,
been to the Festival, learnt so much about the history of this seedbed of new ideas,
of creativity, I realise that Dartington and Totnes
are all one, they're urban siblings, they're twins.
You can't begin to understand Totnes
without understanding Dartington as well.
For 80 years, the eclectic activity at Dartington has flowed down river
to its urban neighbour, exporting the urge to experiment and create.
Good evening wonderful Totnesians! We're Spree.
# I don't see why She is listening
# Took a step into my arms... #
It's a cold Monday night in May,
and the town is out in force to support home-grown band, Spree.
# It's a far cry, a far cry... #
These Dartington-trained musicians have just made their first album,
and have been signed up by the people who discovered
fellow south Devon band, Muse.
But what intrigues me is that these ambitious young hopefuls
still live in cosy, protective Totnes.
Why haven't you left Totnes?
Aren't you tempted by the bright lights of the cities?
It's difficult to leave because everyone's so honest.
You're always getting an honest reaction to your work,
you're always getting people telling you exactly what they think.
You know when you need to fly the nest, and if we do,
we'll still be Totnesians, still be passionately involved with Totnes.
I can't figure out if you're scared to take the plunge...
We're absolutely not scared.
We love the city, we absolutely thrive in the city,
and we'll be in every different city
all around the country, three or four months of touring.
But we bring our adventures, stories and songs back here
and we work on them here, and we mull them over,
and this gives us a space to exist and work,
and focus on our sound and not be influenced by anyone else.
# This modern love... #
Seeing familiar faces in the crowd, it strikes me
how much the word "community" really does apply in Totnes.
# This modern love... #
# Ah-ah-ah-ah-oh... #
WHISTLING AND APPLAUSE
I'm heading back to where my journey began, to the town wharf on the Dart,
to see the latest chapter in Totnes' story of innovation.
In Tudor times, this is where the tin and wool
that made the town rich were shipped off to the ports of Europe.
When the trade slumped, so did the harbour.
But the story of the wharf here is a microcosm of the town's story -
boom, bust, boom again.
The Dart trade seemed dead in the water when, in the 1890s,
Reeves Ltd built new wharves here, running a very successful
import business, mainly timber from the Baltic.
That was still flourishing when I canoed up here in 1970.
It was a boom time. Then, in 1995, Reeves closed down.
Totnes though, as I've discovered, has an instinct for experiment
and for thinking big.
It was this wharf again, at the end of the 1990s,
that saw the beginnings of another revival.
Unusual, innovative, and certainly ambitious,
because this time, somebody was thinking big. Really big.
The long awaited launch of one of the world's largest yachts
has gone ahead at Totnes in Devon.
Team Philips, launched in the year 2000,
was larger than Centre Court at Wimbledon,
her huge mast taller than ten London buses.
Her skipper, Pete Goss, captured the Totnes spirit
when he said, "We've achieved the impossible.
"We simply wouldn't accept that these things couldn't be done."
But, in December 2000, she hit a fierce Atlantic storm.
The crew abandoned ship, and she broke up.
A boom and a bust, all wrapped up together.
But Totnes is all about resilience,
and today, on the same wharf that built Pete Goss's super-yacht,
the latest generation of maritime visionaries
are putting Totnes on the world map.
Since 2004, Baltic Wharf has been home to Woodvale Challenge,
builders of the world's leading ocean-going rowing boats.
And I'm feeling seriously out of my depth,
sandwiched between not one but TWO world record holders!
19-year-old Sean Pedley is the youngest man ever
to row the 3,000 miles across the Atlantic.
And Simon Chalk, the company's founder,
has rowed across both the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean.
Woodvale's clients come from all over the globe,
seeking a super-specialised product with a price tag to boot.
One of these will set you back a cool 40 grand!
Why carbon fibre, what's so special about carbon fibre?
The material's really, really tough. Structurally, it's very strong.
It's Formula 1 or aircraft technology,
and in marine terms, the only boats that are made from carbon
are the top end open 60s like the Ellen McArthur type boat.
They're the Formula 1 of the sea
and this is the Formula 1 of ocean rowing.
How many people will be rowing this boat?
There'll be four guys on this one.
Do they sleep in these cabins?
They do. If there's a big storm and they have to get in,
there'll be two in each end.
Is there a shower, bathroom, Jacuzzi? Any facilities at all?
No. You've got a bucket to do... Well, you have got two buckets.
You have one to go to the toilet in, which is the way you have to do it,
and then one for washing.
All your clothes and your bits and pieces in the other bucket,
and that's life on board.
-Different coloured buckets?
And the loo bucket normally gets given a name as well,
so that stands out on it's own.
It's quite basic but it's quite good that it's basic.
And what brought you to Totnes?
We've been working and rowing on the Dart for years.
Not only can you have the sheltered rowing on a river
but you can poke your nose out into open sea,
so it's really good to get that kind of cross training.
Do you think Totnes is welcoming to people with big, new ideas like you?
I think there's a history of that.
Team Philips was here before us and there's been other projects
that have run locally, and boats have been built here in the past
that have gone off to do some quite amazing things.
But it's just ideal. Everything that we need to do,
we can just get it done. Yeah, it works really well for us.
The more I learn about Totnes, the more convinced I am
that it's become a creative haven, the kind of town where
the dreamers of impossible dreams can live with like minds,
with people who encourage big ambitions.
If you're going to row an ocean or convert a town to sustainability,
the last kind of neighbour you need is a doubter or a pessimist,
somebody who can't seize the moment.
I'm not sure whether being Totnesian is an address or a state of mind.
From Pete's rickshaws
to the Tudor market,
From the solar panels all over town
to the high-tech boats of Woodvale Challenge,
this town continues to be a laboratory for new ideas,
just as it has been since it began 1,100 years ago.
For a town not much larger than a village, it's a remarkable story.
Behind that story, I think, is one main factor,
that Totnes has come to be seen as a safe haven, a creative sanctuary,
a place which, as Dorothy Elmhirst put it, is free from fear.
And freedom, as we know, liberates the imagination.
That imagination has given Totnes the chance to show
how towns can be the communities of the future.
For a free booklet about what makes our towns work, call:
Or go to...
..and follow the links to the Open University.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
We live in one of the most urbanised countries on earth. By 2030 a staggering 92 per cent of us will be living the urban life. Congested cities sprawl across our map, but they are not the only way to live. Smaller than a city, more intimate, more surprising: this series celebrates the forgotten world of the town.
A Saxon river town in South Devon, Totnes is one of the UK's oldest towns. It has seen tough times through its long history, but adversity has taught it to innovate. Geographer and adventurer Nicholas Crane visits the home of one of the greatest social experiments of the 20th century, and uncovers the test bed for an ambitious new idea that aims to change our urban life forever.