The story of Totnes in a map

A video documenting the creation and installation of the allegorical map of Totnes into the floor of St Mary's Church:
Anna Ventura's map and Claudia Schmid's border-frame meet for the first time.

The Totnes Map sits in the north aisle of St Mary's Church. It measures 15 sq meters and displays the whole of the conservation area of Totnes. There is a spine of the High St, Fore St and Bridgetown road over the river, crossed at the top by the castle and the famous Leech Wells, with St Mary’s as a central focus. The map is drawn by local artist Anna Ventura, with every building depicted in exquisite detail.  

We wanted it to be more than just a map of the physical town. We wanted it to be also a snapshot of Totnes in 2019, so we have included stories and characters that local residents will recognise.  We have local butcher Christopher McCabe battering his way out of his freezer with a black pudding, the XR rebellion lying down in the Market Place, the Totnes seal swimming around the ferry from Dartmouth, and the Bridgetown safari highlighted.  Anna will be hiding some of her favourite birds, crows, around the map for children to find and seagulls will be making an appearance as they do without fail every morning.

We also wanted to make the map something a little out of the ordinary. Maps are often just records of a place, but in medieval times when St Mary’s was first built, they were often illustrated with pictures of pilgrims and bystanders. They were artistic endeavours as well as a straightforward record of actual place.  To celebrate and update this idea, artist Claudia Schmid has created a border for the map, with some of her unique and beautiful creatures as if they were on a journey to Totnes themselves, illustrating the behind the scenes story common to every ancient place.  Matt Harvey, the celebrated Totnes poet, has composed a poem for the map. The project is a complex piece of art that celebrates Totnes 2019 and the fabulous church in which it will lie for many years to come.

Past, present and future

The map in St Mary's Church represents the three sides of Totnes: the historical, the present and the imaginative/mythical. If you look closely at the centre of it, you can see the historical town centre and the old buildings lining the spine of the town. Anna Ventura, who drew this, spent a very long time making sure she recreated all the historical buildings accurately and in great detail. The street leads from St John's in Bridgetown to the Bay Horse Inn at the top of top of town. In the centre of it all lies the Church of St Mary. The church as it is now has stood here proudly for 500 years, and a church of some sort has probably stood here for a thousand years. This map was created to celebrate it.

 

The Church here is seen as not just lying at the heart of the town, but as the destination of the map travellers. It is both a destination and a starting point. All roads lead here, and the Map will take you on to explore others. Within this historical setting we have included the events and people who made the news in 2019 and tried to give a picture of what the town was like in that year. See if you can find them all!

 

Modern Totnes


In the Dart we have the Dragon Boats, Sammy the seal and the Dartmouth ferry. Dogs play on Vire Island. Malcolm Curley’s Bridgetown Safari is represented along with a chicken who breaks away from the rest in her quest to find the Chicken Run. Skaters and rugby players enjoy Borough Park, while Devon Reds look for good grazing further afield. Seagulls scan the town for stray chips and crows, too, look for a good left-over picnic. A lone cormorant on the bank of the Dart searches for fish. The steam train blows smoke as it speeds into the edge of town.

 

On the market square, Extinction Rebellion activists stage a die-in to highlight the climate crisis and the Totnes pound enjoys its last year. The passport of the Independent State of Totnes is represented above the Guildhall and Councillor Ben Piper sets off fireworks from the castle. In the car park of the Brutus Centre, an archaeological dig is shown; this depicts the works that the possible developer of the old supermarket was asked to do. What lies beneath? (There is definitely a huge eel well almost directly under the old freezer section of Budgens.)

 

A protest against the proposed development of the Civic Square wends its way up the High Street, representing the fiery spirit of the town. Behind them the lantern festival is symbolised by a giant whale puppet. Mr McCabe stands outside his butcher’s shop waving the black pudding that he used to fight his way out of the deep freezer that he’d been trapped in. His story made the news all over the world in 2019. The two former vicars of St John's and St Mary’s, Rev Julian Ould and Rev Steve Jones, enjoy a cup of tea on a bench in the graveyard of the church where this map is displayed.

 

Historical Totnes


Historical Totnes is not only represented by its buildings, but by Mr Heath with a wheelbarrow of vegetables grown in the market gardens that used to lie where the car parks now do. The Leechwells are represented by the creatures that the three wells are named after – the adder, slow worm (long crippler) and toad. These waters were believed to have healing powers and could cure leprosy and ailments caused by the three creatures they were named after. The three streams which meet at the three Leech Wells flow under the three lanes that meet there and emerge in Leechwell Gardens in three sections – a trinity of trinities.

 

A description of the museum highlights that beautiful building and a portrait of Brutus points to where his stone now lies. Brutus (supposedly the founder of Britain) took his first step on to British soil in Totnes, maybe on to the very stone commemorating this event halfway up Fore Street. A small ghost flickers from the chimney of the Kingsbridge Inn, not only the oldest pub in Totnes, but also supposedly one of Devon's most haunted. A lone bull stands guard over the Rotherfold, where the cattle market used to be held and where The Bull Inn - now an organic pub - sits.


Mythical Totnes


Medieval paintings and maps were often illustrated with depictions of people or mythical creatures connected to a place. We have done the same here, with a procession of creatures, many with connections to Totnes emerging from Sharpham Woods on the top right-hand side of the map and leading around as a border before entering the map into modern-day Totnes. There is another side to this town, these creatures are saying - they are on their own pilgrimage.

 

This procession by Totnes artist Claudia Schmid takes its cue from medieval processions such as are depicted in the Canterbury Tales; here are the jugglers and performers who would have entertained the medieval travellers. They are creatures of the imagination, but with a Totnes twist. Here you can find the Leechwell creatures, the dragon from the Guildhall, chickens from the Chicken Run, the Kingsbridge ghosts, Eric the Robot, the Brutus Stone, angels from the Church, monkeys and a penny farthing from the museum, as well as all sorts and sizes of Totnes pilgrims. These unusual pilgrims travel from Sharpham Wood all the way round to enter the town under the knees of Brutus, King of Britain and Totnes, whose crown is the Castle and whose cloak is the River Dart. The key to the town also enters Totnes this way, unlocking it for the rest of us.

 

At the front of this procession and leading the way into present-day Totnes are:

  • The Past – the gentleman in the top hat is Charles Babbage, the computer

pioneer from Totnes.

  • The Mythical - the giant is Magog, the legendary opponent of Brutus.

  • The Future – the robot is Erica, the future robotic descendent of Eric, the world’s first robot,

built by Totnesian Captain W.H. Roberts in 1928. The Totnes Museum held an exhibition on him in
2019.

 

This important group of Totnes dignitaries are proceeded into town by the Leechwell Snake, which ties the historical, mythical and present-day Totnes together. These elements are also brought together by the town poem from Totnes Laureate Matt Harvey, entitled This is the Place. Around the poem climbs ivy, which links the border to the centre. The plant of fairytales, it can be found nowadays climbing over the historical buildings in town.

Georgina Allen
Trustee, Totnes Heritage Trust