t’s different here because we have so many independent shops,” enthuses Caroline Voaden. “When visitors come into Totnes and see our high street, they often say to me, ‘We wish we had something like this back home.’ ”
We are standing in front of former journalistVoaden’s quirky shop, Social Fabric, at the top end of a steep Devon high street that has been labelled the “funkiest” in the country.
Close enough for an excursion from the tourist traps of the Dart Estuary or the beaches of South Hams and Torbay, it boasts its own local currency (the Totnes pound), a dizzying range of wholefood, organic and eco-outlets, several places to buy New Age crystals if that’s your fancy, and a thriving market a couple of days a week. Plus there is a hardly a chain store in sight, or a car (of which more later).
At first glance Totnes looks like
Back in Totnes, though, the mood is more optimistic. “There’s definitely a strong community character to our high street,” says Voaden. A good case in point is her own shop. It sells wools and everything you could want to make your own clothes, curtains or accessories, but it also hosts handson sessions, such as the one today where a group of local women are busy behind us learning how to make a clasp purse. On the blackboard above the till are notices for other workshops, from quilting to “knit and natter”. It is a perfect example of that blend of commercial and social enterprise that many suggest is the future of our high streets.
“Totnes sometimes has a reputation of being full of alternative people with plenty of money,” reflects Voaden, “but that’s not what I have found. Locals are not particularly well-heeled. There are a lot of pensioners. And another group I notice in our workshops are women who are caring for elderly relatives. Coming here is perhaps one of the few opportunities they have to get out.”
Social Fabric stands in the shadow of Totnes’s Norman castle, at the very top of a Mount Everest of a high street. This end of town contains the more specialist shops such as Not Made in China, offering furniture from local craftspeople, the Devon Harp Centre and the Willow vegetarian restaurant.
But it is not one-dimensional. In the mix are a coin-operated launderette and a sprinkling of charity shops. This is neither a stereotypical prosperous market town nor a hippie-dippie paradise à la Glastonbury.
“Any high street has to take account of its local clientele,” says Kay Dunbar, long-time Totnes resident and co-founder of theWays WithWords festivals. “So ours is a high street that reflects a catchment area where, for instance, people are prepared to spend money on alternative medicines and organic vegetables. Even our local Morrisons seems to carry stock that reflects that willingness.”
Once you wander down below the Riverford Farm Shop, an offshoot of the locally based award-winning organic farming and veg-boxdelivery business, and beyond the Eastgate arch that stretches over the midriff of the street, there is a definite change in character. There is still the quirky (Totnes Cats Café, offering a “feline therapy lounge”), and the alternative (Aromatika, selling organic and natural skincare products) but the more familiar names start appearing: Superdrug, W H Smith, Peacocks and Fat Face.
In the window of Arcturus Books, a poster pleads “Please Save Our High Street: internet shopping is destroying local high streets across the UK. We need your support to Keep Totnes Alive and Buzzing”, but a bigger splash is made by other more Totnes-specific signs in other windows protesting against the council’s new traffic scheme. It has effectively spilt the high street in half. Cars can now only enter on to it half way up – or down – then have to go one way or the other.
“In one way, it’s nicer because the new scheme has deterred motorists and made it quieter and more pedestrian than before,” says Annie Bowie, owner of the Bowie Gallery, two-thirds of the way up, “but pedestrianisation can kill a high street. All us shopkeepers are losing that business that came when people would pop up with the car, park for 10 minutes, and go in and out of a half a dozen places.
“That is what we need to be encouraging now by waiving parking fees on some days, and by getting rid of these new traffic arrangements. At the moment at the very bottom of the high street, where people used to drive in, there is a big No Entry sign. That’s hardly a warm welcome for visitors.”
Down at the Transition Town offices, next door to Superdrug, it is local shoppers rather than visitors that concern the founder Rob Hopkins and his colleague Ben Brangwyn. This grassroots, community network, which started out in Totnes and has now spread to different parts of the country, aims to build economic and social resilience as a response to dwindling oil reserves and climate change.
As part of its efforts to encourage local people to buy locally sourced goods from locally run shops, it introduced the Totnes pound in 2007. This can be swapped for sterling on a 1:1 exchange rate, can be spent in all participating shops; the aim is to ensure that local money stays within the local economy.
There is still, Brangwyn concedes, “a long way to go” for the Totnes pound. Currently some £9,000 worth of the notes is in
Independently minded: High Street and Fore Street in Totnes