Sitting at the mouth of the River Dart estuary, Totnes in Devon is surrounded by green hills, mossy forests and lush crop-growing land, Totnes has long been a hotbed of eco-friendly businesses, ethical consumers and liberal leaning creatives.
Today it has one of the most interesting and independent high streets in the UK and people flock here to set up slower, more natural lives.
We spent a few days in Totnes a little while ago and met a variety of incredible people, some Devon born and bred, some having moved here, escaping the rat race of the capital or other big cities.
What they had in common was a desire for a slower, simpler life that connected them more to nature. And what a place to choose. The Dart Valley with its incredible cycle paths is on your doorstep, the Dartmoor National Park a few miles away and a river you can canoe and kayak on.
Why Totnes Is One Of The Most Ethical Places In Britain
Grab an incredible vegan latte at Hairy Barista
Hairy Barista, Roee Yekutiel and his wife Ruth Harris, left London last year to open a vegan friendly cafe in Totnes. Having worked in speciality coffee for years, the Hairy Barista whips up a mean oat-milk latte and has tried and tested the best nut and dairy-free mylks and organic coffee suppliers.
While not everything is vegan in this cute pitstop on the upper section of the high street, the vegan cakes, protein balls and slices will tempt even the most dairy-wedded sweet tooth.
The cafe are also committed to reducing their customers’ impact – they have KeepCups available and compostable straws for kids and reuse as much packaging as possible. If the weather’s not playing ball, this is the place to hole up in.
Learn what makes Totnes a Transition Town
Totnes is the original Transition Town. The Transition Town movement was started by Totnes resident, Rob Hopkins, and is a volunteer run charity that helps towns to move away from fossil fuels, to introduce sustainable environmental measures and strengthen the local economy.
While Totnes has been a Transition Town since 2006, the town has always been a hotbed of environmental awareness.
Recycling and conservation is just part of everyday life here – in part encouraged by the decades of arty people who came through the famous Dartington Art School (now moved to Falmouth) and settled here, and in part through a respect and love for some of the prettiest landscapes in England.
Want to find out more about the Transition Town movement?
Book a tour of Transition Totnes with a local volunteer here.
Discover organic bedding at Green Fibres
Organic and ethical bedding and clothing comes naturally to the team at Green Fibres who have the shop a couple of doors down from Earth Food Love. They’ve been selling organic textiles since 1996 and now also do organic skincare, ethical cleaning products as well as mattresses and bedding. Inhale the scent of fresh organic linen and wonderful French soaps as you pop in, you’ll be hard pushed to leave without picking up something.
Support local craftspeople at Me and East
Tucked down a medieval side street is Me and East, which focuses on independent crafters and jewellers. It’s run by Chloe O’Brien, a local jeweller, who has taken over the shop from her in-laws. Cute ceramics jostle for space in the low slung store with delicate silver and great for gifts cushions and plant pots.
“I like to stock small independent makers, often who live nearby and am working to bring more focus to the crafters and makers around here,” she explains. “Totnes has always its old hippies and free spirits but there’s new blood as well coming in, like with the zero waste shop.”
Stock up at Totnes’ zero waste shop
The whole of Totnes is talking about its zero waste shop, partly in thanks to the raft of press it had when it opened and partly thanks to its owner, Richard, who used to play for Manchester United. With his long ginger hair and concern for all who come through his door (and with a handful of vegan chocolates nearby), it’s hard to imagine him in the locker rooms at Old Trafford.
That aside Earth Food Love is the stuff of zero waste dreams.
Bins of dry goods, drums of olive oils and cleaning materials, jars of spices – everything is organic and weighed out according to what you need. If you haven’t brought your own bottles or containers, you can buy cheap glass ones or weigh out dry goods into brown paper bags. Richard is extremely knowledge and passionate about vegan living and stops to chat to everyone, it’s the community corner shop given a zero waste spin.
Spend some Totnes Pounds
Keeping things local is even easier when there’s a currency that can’t leave town. Local currencies mean money earnt by the town selling goods and services, stays in town and benefits the residents and businesses that are here.
The Totnes Pound has been in place since 2014. There’s paper money and an electronic version (you can set up an account here, transfer money into it and pay via text) and a huge array of independent stores you can use it in, from Riverford Farm Shop to the Totnes bookshop.
Order a zero miles pint at the Totnes Brewing Company
It’s not all healthy food and dairy-free drinks in Totnes. The town is home to a couple of microbreweries, including the Totnes Brewing Company which sits in the shadow of the medieval castle (it’s got a fab secret pub garden out back for the warmer months). This husband-and-wife team opened a gig venue years ago and desperate times called for desperate measures – they started brewing beer behind the bar in 2014 to save the building.
Today, they brew and rotate 32 different beers and stock a huge array of other local and British craft ales. They encourage people to use reusable steel growlers, recycle plastic kegs into seating or turn them into cloches to giveaway to local gardeners. Plus, there’s no transport emissions at all on their beer. It’s made metres from where you sip it. The microbrewery is a proper beer-lovers’ haunt, with wallpaper made from craft beer labels and a floor that’s the right side of sticky. Pop in for a real taste of Totnes.
Go on a Riverford pilgrimage
Cult organic veggie boxes, butchers and dairy farmers, Riverford has become the byword for what a proper British farm could be. Totnes is Riverford ground zero, the Watson’s family farm, which has been producing organic meat and vegetables since the 1980s is located just outside of town.
It’s worth a detour (you’ll need a car), the farm’s fields sit on some of the prettiest Devon landscape, wound through with the River Dart.
Also up here is the Riverford Field Kitchen, a seasonal restaurant surrounded by polytunnels and kitchen garden beds, that showcases the farm’s best ingredients. Pop by for dishes like Cumin roasted cauliflower, red onions, capers and raisins or Beef blade, cauliflower puree and dukka.
Sample everything at the Good Food Sunday market
Can’t get enough of fresh produce? Make sure you’re in town for the Good Food Sunday market, held every third Sunday of the month. Dozens of local producers and makers flood the town with delicious food – make sure you go hungry.
Pick up ethical homewares at Nkuku
Nkuku’s barn is just outside Totnes, just before the village of Harbertonford and it’s well worth the detour. Nkuku has made a name for itself for the kind of reclaimed wood, distressed frames and natural kitchenware stuff of eco dreams. The barn is packed full of beautifully laid tables, linens and homewares that they import from all over the world. Think potters from Tamil Nadu and leather workers from Delhi. Nkuku work with artisans from Devon to Asia and they adhere to the 10 principles of fair trade – many of the items are handmade or made from recycled materials as well as being ethically produced.
There’s also a cute cafe here, where if you’ve accidentally spent all your paycheque on armfulls of essential wooden goods, you can recover with a spot of locally sourced food in the pretty courtyard.
Pack a picnic from Ben’s Farm Shop
Ben of Ben’s Farm Shop, is one of the Riverford clan. On the narrow Totnes High St you’ll find his farm shop and a wine and tapas bar both under his name.
Having started make sausages at Riverford, he’s moved into selling the freshest, most local, simple ingredients from this traditional greengrocers-deli style store. It also sells locally made soup, bread, pasties and cakes – perfect for a picnic lunch in the summer. Ben also has stores in Exeter and Staverton, so if you’re hooked on Riverford produce you can find it all over Devon.
So how did we get to Totnes?
We decided to test out the BMW i3 electric car (with fuel powered Range Extender) to see if pebble and our video partners in crime, Hubbub, could cover the 220 miles between London and Totnes, without any emissions.
With a sleek look and almost silent driving, the BMW i3 certainly feels like the future of driving – all electric however long journeys can prove a bit of a challenge if you’re stuck on the motorway and have to use the service stations chargers, which can be less than reliable. For now the fuel extender (which we only used on the way home), means you’re not going to grind to a halt with a flat battery somewhere on the M4.
For a much more extensive review, watch our video blog of the experience below.