Nowadays Totnes is well known as an ‘alternative’ centre, an identity that is reproduced in the media and in tourist guides. Indeed this blog, and my wider research, also contribute to this labelling. It is important to recognise that some people contest this identity and object to the way in which it tends to obscure other aspects of the town and its population. It is also interesting to note that the rise of ‘alternative’ activity (and the subsequent label) is a relatively recent phenomenon.
Despite the presence of Dartington since the 1920s, Totnes had retained the role and identity of a provincial market town, and a generally held suspicion of what went on ‘up the hill’ in Dartington. Histories of the town such as Russell (1963) make no mention of any alternative side to Totnes nor do other accounts of the town such as Clifton-Taylor (1978) or the town guides from the 1970s. Similarly, the countercultural handbook Alternative England and Wales, published in 1975, makes no reference to any alternative scene or contacts in Totnes, instead referring only to the cultural richness in South Devon provided by Dartington (Saunders 1975, 17). At this time, it seems that there was a much stronger alternative scene based in North Devon, around Barnstable and perhaps in parts of Cornwall.
From the data I have gathered I argue that it was only towards the end of the 1970s that a critical mass of alternative activities developed in Totnes as illustrated by the timeline. In the coming weeks I will suggest how and why I think Totnes emerged as being recognised as a ‘new age’ or ‘alternative’ capitals of the UK.