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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

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