Revisiting England and Wales #4 Devon


August 2015

According to a number of references the Totnes locality exhibits bohemian or alternative living tendencies and even though Bev and I have bohemian leanings we didn’t visit the area because of this, we came to visit a friend. Our friend David is the son of the late John Saunderson, the past owner of Honeybottom, the Berkshire estate where Bev and I worked and lived in the 1970s. There will be more about John S and Honeybottom soon in this blog.

The Eastgate over the High Street Totnes.

Totnes is not just another town on the map and there are a number of reasons for this. Nearby is where a significant event in English history occurred. According to Roman legend Brutus of Troy was directed by Diana the goddess of the hunt, the moon and nature to settle on an island in the western ocean. The island he chose was Albion Island and he landed on the coast near Totnes. The island was inhabited by giants but Brutus drove them out and he named the island Britain. The etymological origin of the word Britain is extremely complex and therefore I’m not going to attempt to explain it. All I can suggest is if the readers are interested they research the origins of the word and draw their own conclusions.

Set in the pavement of Totnes’ Fore Street is a small piece of granite stone called the Brutus Stone which, according to local legend, is the stone on which Brutus stood and proclaimed: ‘Here I stand and here I rest. And this town shall be called Totnes’. The name Totnes derives from the Saxon word for a fort or a lookout on a ridge.

Brutus stone. Is this fair dinkum? Image credit: Author unknown. From Wikipedia.

A modern day curiosity relating to Totnes is the town’s own currency and those who came up with the idea anticipated people would shop and think locally. As it turns out shopping locally has reduced trade miles considerably and hence saving energy. Some folk in Totnes are so devoted to keeping things local that they eat only food grown locally and in season. Up until 2014 around twelve thousand pounds worth of currency had been issued.

Samples of Totnes currency. Having a local currency means money circulates in the community. Image credit: From St Mary’s and St John’ churches, Totnes WordPress blog.

The Totnes St Mary’s and St John’s blog quotes, ‘A local economy is like a leaky bucket–wealth comes in and as soon as it is spent at a shop or business that has more connections outside Totnes than inside, that money disappears. That’s the nature of Sterling’.

Lateral thinking does not stop with the town’s currency. Grassroots thinking people of the town and district have embraced Totnes as a ‘Transition Town’.

Transition thinkers encourage locals to peruse ways of reducing their reliance on outside energy and food supplies. Food is the key area for transition. Some communities have created community gardens and one particular aspect I like is the replacing of ornamental street trees with food producing trees. Imagine if in our public places nut trees had been planted in lieu of, for example, London Plane trees. We would all be feasting on nuts. Some alternative thinkers graft food species of trees onto ornamentals.

The Transition Network was founded in 2006 by Totnes-based Rob Hopkins, an independent activist and writer on environmental issues. Noted American environmentalist Bill McKibben is quoted as saying, ‘There’s no-one on earth who’s just done stuff–and inspired more doing–than Rob Hopkins’.  Transition towns are springing up all over the world. In Australia there are many and there is one not far from where we live.

Bev and I have been practising transition for the last forty years. We built our mudbrick house incorporating recycled timbers, we grow our food, dispose of most of our own wastes, gather our own domestic water supplies, recycle and practise conservation generally. Absolute self-sufficiency is a myth but you can go a long way in reducing your energy needs by simply thinking alternatively before you act.

The living area of our alternative ‘dirt cheap’ house with painted mudbrick walls and recycled timbers.

Bev is heavily involved with recycling on a smaller scale, she makes bowls using out-of-date catalogues. Following are photographs of the finished items and the components that go into the making of a bowl.

Finished bowls. Of course they are not used for liquids.

A photograph showing how the bowls are made.

The catalogue page (right) is folded eight times and the end product is a narrow strip about 12mm wide. The ends of the folded strips are taped together and then rolled as shown (roll with plastic peg attached). The diameter of the finished bowl is determined by the diameter of the coil. The loose end of the roll is glued and then the coil is eased into the desired bowl shape. The finished bowl is coated with a clear lacquer. In 2012 Bev and I turned our television set off for the last time and one of our evening activities now is to fold paper.  If any reader wants more information with regards making bowls post a comment with your email address and Bev will be happy to help you.

Lateral thinkers in Totnes show their creativity in ways not connected to energy and food. Many business people in Totnes have turned to an alternative form of advertising and one that caught our eye was the Odd Object competition.

Invitation to participate in an Odd Object competition

Many of the business owners place an object in their windows that is out of keeping with what they normally sell. For example, a dress shop may place a teapot in the window. Passers-by are encouraged to spot the piece that is out of place, record the place and object on a form and when complete present the form for a prize. Window object spotting makes window-shopping interesting.

Artistic window. The object out of place in this light shop window was a bundle of note pads.

The decoration on the window I think was achieved by spraying water-based paint on the interior of the window and when dry a paint scraper was used to scrape off the paint. It is very creative and I like the effect.

The bundle of colourful note pads in the light shop window.

Following are three interesting shop fronts.

The Not Made in China Shop.

Sacks, our friend’s organic food shop on the high street.

Teapots over the door of the Greys Tea House.

During the three days we were in Totnes there was a lot of action. One particularly curious fun activity was the orange race down the main street.

The local constabulary and the town crier getting the starters in line for the orange race.

They’re off, including the police.

The object of the race is to roll an orange to the bottom of the hill. The winner is judged on the intactness of the orange as it crosses the finishing line.

There is a very informative web page called Calendar Customs and its purpose is to celebrate the diversity of British culture and tradition. The page says: ‘The Totnes Elizabethan Society organise the Orange Races in commemoration of Sir Frances Drake; legend has it that the old sea-dog dropped his basket of oranges on Fore Street and the locals chased them down the slope’. Since that day the locals have been chasing oranges.   We were pleased we were in Totnes on the day the race was on.

The Totnes town crier announced the start of the orange race.

In medieval England most townspeople were illiterate therefore town criers were employed by lawmakers to transmit news relating to royal proclamations and bylaws. They were also responsible for advertising market days, escorting the destitute to the workhouse, reading out why a person was to be hanged, helping install minor offenders into stocks and actually administering floggings. The not so desirable duties are hard to believe as over the years I have come in contact with a number of town criers and they have all been Father Christmas like, not at all like the sort of person who would administer a flogging.

Today the town crier is confined to announcing market days and forthcoming community activities such as the orange races. In 2010 there were 144 towns in England with a crier. They dress elaborately in a red and gold coat, white breeches, black boots, tricorn hat and to attract people’s attention they shout ‘Oyez, Oyez, Oyez’, which means ‘hear ye’. The word oyez derives from the Anglo-Norman word for listen.

As our days of wandering around Totnes drew to an end one of the locals, detecting we were Australian, told us of a memorial ‘to an old mate of yours’ at the bottom of the street and that we should go down and see it.

Totnes memorial to William John Wills.

William J Wills was the surveyor who accompanied Robert O’Hara Burke (1821-1861) on the 1860/61 ill fated expedition from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the far north of Australia.

It would take thousands of words to write a detailed story about the Burke and Wills expedition so I write here only a brief description. The expedition was a disaster due mainly to the vagrancies of the Australian climate and personality conflicts. Most of the aggravation was, according to some, caused by Burke’s arrogant, self-centred and egotistical attitude. Many pundits suggest that Burke was not the best man to lead the expedition and had Wills been the leader it would have been a success. A total of seven expedition members died including one particular gentleman, Ludwig Becker (1808-1861), who I admire for his artistry and sketches of botanical specimens. Becker was the expedition botanist and artist.

The Burke and Wills expedition set off from Melbourne in August 1860 and comprised nineteen men, twenty-three horses, six wagons and twenty-six camels and the intention was to cross Australia from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north, a distance of 3250kilometres. At the time most of inland Australia had not been explored by non-indigenous people and was completely unknown to European settlers.

Map showing the Burke and Wills Expedition route. Both Burke and Wills died on the banks of Cooper Creek.

Burke and Wills on the way to Mt Hopeless: by watercolour artist George Washington Lambert. Image credit; Downloaded to Wikipedia by HappWaldo 2011

Burke and Wills did not actually sight the waters of the Gulf of Carpentaria as there were dense groves of impenetrable mangroves around the coastline.

To date I have not mentioned where we camped whilst in the Totnes area. Our friend was not in a position to house us so we headed to the outskirts and as we turned into the hills we came across a rather typical old English farmhouse. The door was answered by the lady owner of the farm and after asking if it was possible to camp in a paddock nearby she directed us into a lush field with rolling green hills all around.

The fields near our camp. It beats staying in a caravan park.

Over a cuppa we discussed how lucky we were to have such an exclusive campsite. A railway line ran close by the camp and to our surprise and delight a steam train chugged by. The following day we rode to historic Staverton Railway Station where the attendants were only too happy to tell us about their restored trains, rolling stock and the history of the station.

Staverton Railway station, the subject of many a tale and movie set.

Hornby-like Thomas the Tank Engine GWR1400 class steam locomotive coming into Staverton railway station.

The above engine numbered 3205 was built in 1946 and is the last surviving example of its class. One hundred and twenty were built. Wouldn’t I have loved to visit the heavy engineering works where the 3205 was made! Following is a photograph showing a steam train building workshop.

Steam train construction workshop England 1928. Image credit: From Wikipedia and in the public domain. Scanner Andy Dingley.

And now a Staverton station story: In 1951 a steam train pulled into Staverton station and unloaded thirty-six Ayrshire cows. The cows belonged to John Watson and from the station he walked them to the Church of England tenancy farm Riverford. John Watson was in his twenties at the time but as time passed he became increasingly disenchanted with the way conventional farming was developing post WW2. In an attempt to change the nature of farming he began thinking organic and ethical food production. The property is now managed by John’s descendants and it, along with a couple of sister farms, produces organic vegetables, fruit, meat and dairy products which are delivered to 60 000 customers nationwide.

The reason for me telling you this story is because, unbeknown to us, we were camped on Riverford Farm.

The entrance to the Riverford farm shop.

After a three night stay on Riverford we headed to the coast then went in search of John Watson, the original founder of Riverford. We found him and, again, there is a story to tell.

Finding John’s farm was easy. Once in the vicinity we asked a local and were immediately directed to Orcheton Quay.

The entrance to Orcheton Quay. Salad and green vegetables available to order.

After knocking on the homestead door John emerged talking on the telephone. When I asked if we could camp on his property he put his hand over the mouthpiece and said ‘of course you can’ and continued by saying ‘be sure to go up to the orchard and get some apples and go into the garden and help yourself to the vegetables’.

A serious vegetable garden.

John and his greenhouse garden. John is now in his 90s.

Bev getting stuck into the cucumbers.

Our wet morning camp by the creek.

During August, the period we were camping in England, it happened to be the coldest and wettest in one hundred years and because of this we were forced to buy a tarpaulin, poles and pegs. Money well spent. The umbrella over the bikes belonged to a lady who lived in a cottage on the farm. She came rushing out with the umbrella soon after the rain began, she didn’t want our bikes to get wet.

Prior to leaving Orcheton Quay I had a long chat with John about his life and what he thought the future held. It was privilege to meet him and I only wish we lived closer as I think we could easily have become friends.

Bev and I hope you enjoyed visiting Totnes, Riverford and Orcheton Quay. If you want to be alerted each time we do a post click on FOLLOW and please feel free to post a comment.

To bring this post to an end I think a quotation by Wendell E. Berry American novelist, poet and environmental activist would be appropriate: ‘We don’t have the right to ask whether we’re going to succeed or not. The only question we have the right to ask is what’s the right thing to do’. This applies to Riverford Farm, Orcheton Quay and John Watson.


About tbeartravels

It's been said that I know a little bit about a lot of things and a lot about little things. I hope I can share some of this knowledge with you as we travel.
This entry was posted in Odyssey #3 2015: UK Spain Morocco France. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Revisiting England and Wales #4 Devon

  1. John says:

    Hi Bev and Fred, just lving yor blog and all the history, we have one more week to go thenback to Melbourne, just wondering when you intend returning home as we would love to catch up with you, fondest regards,John and Margaret

  2. tbeartravels says:

    Kevin and Sue
    Good to hear from you. Yes the ‘Not Made in China’ shop! I suspect the owners of the shop by giving it such a name are attempting to get shoppers to buy UK made products and not Chinese imports.
    The resistance to buying cheaper imports is not new, I can remember after WW2 when Japan moved into the manufacturing Australians avoided buying products from Japan. However that has changed, now we actually go looking for Japanese goods. Goods from China will get better and they will rank up there with products made in Europe, USA, Australia and UK.
    Thanks for the comment.
    Fred and Bev

  3. What a fabulous time you had, and what great people you met. I loved hearing about your trip.

  4. Kevin & Sue Dewar says:

    Hi Guys,
    Once again another interesting post, absolutely loved The Not Made In China Shop !
    Cheers Kevin and Sue

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.