It had been a day of dappled light and dragonflies. A day of strolling beside sun drenched vineyards, lazy meandering rivers and fragrant herb gardens alive with butterflies. As Hubbie and I sipped chilled glasses of sparkling wine and tucked into tranches of local cheese, we could be forgiven for thinking we were in the south of France, rather than southern England. We’d been exploring Devon, a county famous for it’s mysterious moors, sandy beaches, and national parks, yet it was a medieval market town that had our full attention today. It turns out there are plenty of fun things to do in Totnes, without a moor, beach or park in sight!
Totnes has a colourful and legendary history, packed full of mythical kings, lords and rebels, and merchants and soldiers. Today it’s known more for its cultural scene, independent local shops and a rather unique cosmopolitan countryside vibe. The town sits on the picturesque River Dart, the sort of tranquil pastoral scene where you’d expect to encounter characters from Wind in the Willows. There are lots of things to do in Totnes, from castles and museums to steam trains and boat trips, but we had our eye on something a little different.
Vineyards, ghosts and lettuce!
Saxon in origin, Totnes has been known for both craft and industry, and was once an important and prosperous centre for trade. Although it is still a thriving market town, the Totnes of today is more popular with the artistic community and attracts visitors from near and far to enjoy the buzzing cultural scene and picturesque countryside. The focal point is Totnes castle, commanding a dominant position overlooking the town, and the intriguing range of independent shops, cafes and galleries are all within easy walking distance. There is also plenty to do in the surrounding area, so we spent a fun filled day checking out the best things to do in and around Totnes.
Best Things to do in Totnes
Berry Pomeroy Castle
We began our day in Totnes at the wonderfully crumbled ruin of Berry Pomeroy Castle. Hidden away in a secluded wooded valley just outside Totnes, this 15th Century English Heritage castle is the epitome of romantic ruin and historical intrigue. We love a good ruin, especially if it comes with a few good ghost stories! Berry Pomeroy Castle is reportedly one of the most haunted buildings in the UK, but we felt perfectly safe visiting in broad daylight with the sun on our backs.
The building of the castle began in 1460 by the Pomeroy family, who had held the lands since the 11th Century. Financial difficulties saw them sell the castle to Edward Seymour (brother of Queen Jane Seymour!), who decided to add a great Elizabethan mansion in 1600. It was supposed to become the most impressive house in Devon, rivalling Audley End and Longleat, yet it was never completed.
Instead, by 1700 it was abandoned and the only residents since have been ghosts and a few ducks.
As moss clings to shadowy stone and ravens sit atop of towers, keeping a beady eye on proceedings, it’s easy to imagine the presence of ghosts. Maybe ghost hunting could be one of the more quirky things to do in Totnes.
There have been frequent sightings of two female apparitions. The ‘White Lady’ is apparently the lost spirit of Margaret Pomeroy, imprisoned by her sister Eleanor, who was jealous of her youth and beauty. Understandably she haunts the dungeons. The ‘Blue Lady’ on the other hand is rather more evil. She supposedly lures passers-by to her tower, where they fall to their deaths. The daughter of a Norman lord with whom she had an incestuous relationship, she murdered her own baby and now wanders the tower lamenting her loss. There have also been sightings of guards, children and even a Cavalier, and although we didn’t experience anything paranormal ourselves, I think visiting at night could have been a rather different story.
Today you can see the 15th Century defences of the first castle, surrounding the dramatic ruined shell of the later mansion. Walking quietly through the ancient halls and courtyards we really felt the presence of history, and could easily have spent a few hours just soaking up the unusual atmosphere. Definitely one of the top things to do in Totnes. In fact it’s probably one of the top things to do in the whole country, even up there with staying in one of the English capital’s most luxurious vacation rentals.
Opening hours: 10am – 6pm
Cost: £6.90 (includes audio tour – allow about 1.5 hours for this) or free for members.
Top Tips: Arrive first thing in the morning and you may well have it to yourselves, like we did! Or come for lunch – there’s a lovely little woodland cafe, serving light bites and home made cake. There are also lots of woodland walks from Berry Pomeroy Castle, so you could easily make a day of it.
Staying with the castle theme, we couldn’t miss visiting Totnes Castle, perched loftily above the medieval riverside town. One of the main things to do in Totnes, half the fun of visiting the Castle is climbing up the historic motte and being rewarded with the stunning views of the market town and surrounding River Dart Valley.
There isn’t much left of Totnes castle today, but the shell of the stone keep still remains, and gives a good idea of what this classic motte and bailey construction once looked like. It’s one of the best preserved keeps in Devon today, and you can even see the arrow slits if you look closely. The castle is within easy walking distance of the town centre, and with peaceful grounds beneath the motte, is the perfect place for a picnic on a summer day. Don’t forget to check out the graffiti on the trees left by prisoners of war during World War II.
Rather than hauling our own homemade soggy sandwiches around with us, we opted for a gourmet picnic from The Kitchen Table for lunch. A local Totnes catering company, The Kitchen Table is all about seasonal local food and local people. Most of their ingredients are organically grown here in Devon, and come straight from the supplier. We loved the inventiveness of our luxury picnic basket. Rather than boring old sarnies, we tucked into leek and blue cheese tortilla, chorizo and chicken pizza swirl, pasta salads and slaw, and my personal favourite, some utterly delicious strawberry rose cake made with actual rose petals! Yum.
As well as catering for events, they provide creative and delicious dishes inspired by their own travels for self catering holiday cottages in the local area. And let’s face it, who wants to be cooking every day when they’re on holiday! They also have a pop up restaurant at their unit in Totnes, so if you’re in town over lunch time, it’s worth going along to check it out.
Castle Opening hours: 10am – 6pm
Cost: £4.30 or free for members.
Top Tips: There is limited pay and display parking near the castle on North Street. Otherwise there is plenty of parking in town.
And so to the wine.
We’ve had the pleasure of wine tasting and exploring vineyards in South Africa and Slovenia, and like to think we know a thing or two about choosing the perfect bottle. Neither of us however has ever experienced English wine. Let alone visited an English vineyard! Surely Britain doesn’t have a climate suitable for growing grapes?
So we were a little sceptical as we drove down the narrow leafy lanes towards the 550 acre Sharpham Estate. Yet the sun was beating down on our backs, puffy little white clouds skipped their way across a brilliant blue sky, and we felt like we were in the south of France rather than Devon.
Sharpham Wine and Cheese is a vineyard and dairy just 3 miles downstream from Totnes. Tucked away on the sheltered banks of the River Dart, it produces award winning wine and cheese, and is one of England’s top producers. The Sharpham Vineyard turns out 100,000 bottles a year, so they must be doing something right!
We began our visit with a guided tour through the vineyards, strolling amongst the 12,000 vines, meadows and wooded slopes down the south facing hillside towards the river. It’s definitely one of the best things to do in Totnes! I loved that there are several colour coded trails which can be done independently by visitors who don’t wish to take a tour. Our guide explained the different grape varieties (the most abundant being a French grape called Madeleine Angevine), and told us that thanks to climate change, the conditions here in Devon are now the same as in the Loire Valley a decade ago, and in fact English wine is fast becoming a big player on the international stage. Having spent many childhood holidays down in the Loire, I can certainly see the similarities.
After our ramble we headed up to the tasting pavillion for the most important part of the day. Wine tasting. A few minutes later, our wine baskets laden with red and white, pink and fizz, we sat at one of the quirky wooden barrel bar tables and got stuck in.
The artisan cheese wasn’t bad either! I’m a HUGE cheese fan (and once paid £80 for a fondue in Switzerland as I love it so much), and it was great fun pairing the different flavours with our wines. All the cheese is made entirely by hand here at Sharpham, using milk from their own cows, and the dairy has viewing windows so you can see the cheese makers in action. And I’ll let you into an insider secret. Try the local celery chutney. Divine doesn’t even begin to cover it!
Opening hours: 10am – 5pm
Cost: From £9.95 for vineyard entry and 3 wines/2 cheeses, to £19.95 for the full ‘Vine to Wine’ tour and tasting.
Top Tips: You could easily spend half a day here. Start with a vineyard ramble and wine tasting in the morning, then have a spot of lunch at the cafe (which serves Mediterranean dishes from a wood fired oven using local produce).
Riverford Field Kitchen
We didn’t realise that Totnes was such a foodie heaven. It’s all about fresh organic local produce here, and nowhere is it more inventive than at the Riverford Field Kitchen in nearby Buckfastleigh. If you’d have told me last week that I’d be sitting companionably with strangers, munching on lettuce leaves plucked straight from the stem in the middle of the table, I’d have raised a perfectly manicured eyebrow in disbelief. I don’t do strangers. Or unadulterated lettuce.
Yet there we were, doing precisely that. And enjoying it!
Inside the Riverford Field Kitchen the vibe is vintage farmhouse, with rustic furniture and bundles of herbs, flowers and dried vegetables hanging from the walls. A simple chalk board displays the changing daily menu. There’s just one sitting each evening and diners sit together on communal tables to share the feast of seasonal salads and freshly picked veggies. Each day there is a different theme. We were there on vegetarian evening, which was a great opportunity to try out all the weird and truly wonderful dishes all made from produce grown here on the farm – and certainly one of the tastiest things to do in Totnes.
We tucked into balsamic beetroot with beetroot ketchup, watercress, pumpkin seeds and wild garlic dressing; smoky courgette with celery and preserved lemon salsa; and dukka roasted carrots with chermoula. All utterly delicious and unusual. Dessert was a bit of a treat too. Everyone had to line up by the kitchen and choose up to 2 puddings (delights like Eton mess, chocolate cheesecake, salted caramel torte, and sticky toffee pudding). The loudest got to pick first! Luckily there was still plenty left by the time I’d made up my mind.
The dishes were as good as they looked, and it’s safe to say I’ll never look at a carrot and call it boring again!
The Riverford Field Kitchen is more than just a restaurant. There are farm walks, cooking masterclasses and even the chance to go foraging with the gardeners. Even if you’re not particularly green fingered, and don’t have much to offer to dinner conversations about allotments and Gardener’s World, there’s still something exciting and natural about picking your own food. It doesn’t get more ‘field to table’ than this.
Best Places to Stay in Totnes
There are plenty of characterful places to stay in Totnes, from historic inns to Grade I listed halls. Whether you want to sleep in the heart of the market town, or out in the leafy outskirts, there’s something for everyone.
Here are some of the most popular hotels in Totnes:
- The Bull Inn – located just 300 metres from Totnes Castle, this charming inn is right in the heart of the action. There’s a relaxed vibe with top-notch food and individually furnished rooms.
- The Steam Packet Inn – another charming pub that has been tastefully renovated, The Steam Packet enjoys an enviable location right on the banks of the River Dart just a 5-minute walk to the town centre.
- The Old Forge – this 600-year-old property offers homely en-suite rooms on a bed and breakfast basis, in a quiet spot not far from the historic centre. Some rooms come with their own balcony.
- Royal Seven Stars Hotel – this former 17th-century coaching inn is a stylish stay near the centre of Totnes, with a cool saloon bar, plenty of ye olde beams, and contemporary bedrooms.
- Dartington Hall – this regal Grade I listed hall sits just outside Totnes in the rolling green countryside, with landscaped gardens and a medieval courtyard to explore. There’s lots going on across the Dartington Estate, and there’s a restaurant on site if you don’t fancy going out.
So would we return to Totnes?
Most definitely. We loved our time visiting Totnes, and it’s a great place for history enthusiasts, countryside lovers and foodies to base themselves on a trip to Devon. Totnes is also close to Exeter, Dartmoor and the south coast, so you could easily stay for a week to explore the area. If you’re looking for quintessential English rural idyll then this is the place!
Thanks to the lovely folks at Visit Totnes, English Heritage, The Kitchen Table, Sharpham Vineyard and The Riverford Field Kitchen for hosting our day with some fabulous things to do in Totnes. As always, words and opinions remain our own.