Countercultural entrepreneurs – the early ‘Countercuisine’ in Totnes

One way in which Totnes began to change in the 1970s was in the development of businesses that were in some way related to countercultural ideals. That is not to say that all such businesses were motivated by a revolutionary zeal. In fact many were motivated by a sense of economic necessity and the need to ‘make a living’. However, to some extent they met countercultural ‘needs’ and many of them were motivated by ideals that extended beyond the desire to simply make money and thus had an ‘ethical’ dimension to their enterprise.

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In the late 1960s and early 1970s a set of overlapping ideas around healthy food and diet emerged from the counterculture. Ideas of healthy eating were present in the overlapping discourses of environmentalism, alternative health, and ‘new age’ self- development. Warren Belasco (2007) has called this the ‘countercuisine’. Therefore it was not surprising that health-food businesses were one form of ‘alternative’ business that emerged from the counterculture. The first health food business in Totnes was the Herb of Grace at 35 High Street. Established in 1967/8 it was run by Sula Williams who was an advocate of health foods, being involved in a ‘Questions on health’ public meeting in November 1968 involving a Nature Cure doctor, a psychiatrist and an expert on compost grown vegetables.  Later, in 1971, she also wrote a piece in the Dartington Hall News in defence of the Health food trade, responding to a critical piece in the Sunday Times by Nicholas Tomalin.  An advert for the shop from the same year describes it as selling ‘A full Range of Health Foods and Herbal Remedies, Fresh Yoghourt, Whole Meal Bread, Organically – grown Fruit and Vegetables.’ A letter to the Dartington Hall News in 1970 from Ray Lance, a teacher at the Dartington School, suggests that ‘much good pocket money in spent in ‘The Herb of Grace” due to an increasing interest in wholefoods amongst the students there. This illustrates that it was not just the art college students that supported the countercultural businesses but the wider Dartington milieu.

In 1973 the Herb of Grace was sold to Cranks who opened their Totnes shop in the premises at the beginning of June. The background to Cranks and their connection to Dartington were covered in the last chapter. Their connection to south Devon had led them to open a shop in Dartmouth in 1971 and then in March 1976 the Cranks restaurant at the Cider Press Centre in Dartington was opened. Cranks itself was inspired by a ‘re-education’ in health that was experienced by the founders David and Kay Canter. This led them to establish the first Cranks in Carnaby Street London with its emphasis on vegetarianism, wholefoods and organic produce. Its ethics also encompassed a strong affiliation with crafts and a form of organisation that meant that ‘[i]nstead of the hierarchy of jobs, ours was the amateur, family style approach’ (Canter, 1982, 13). The Cranks business itself was later sold and the premises in Totnes became the Totnes Health Food Shop and then later Seeds, although locally many people still referred to it as ‘Cranks’ and it retained some features from the Cranks era including a wooden carving by David Canter beneath the serving area. Sold on again to new proprietors in 2006 Seeds was forced to close late in 2008, an apparent victim of the wider UK economic downturn and thus ending 40 years of health food retail at that particular premises in the town.

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7 July 2009 – I have recently been informed that Seeds has now reopened in Totnes, presumably under new ownership, and thus maintaining the continuty of that longstanding site of health food provision.

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