Sunday, September 10, 2006

Storming the castle and everything else OR HAPPY BIRTHDAY TOTNES

Thursday, Sept. 7th, 2006

This week marks the 800th anniversary of Totnes. To celebrate the occasion, the town is hosting the Totnes Festival from the 6th to the 16th of September. There are events to take in from musical performances, plays, storytelling, movies, and walks.

I joined the free Heritage Walk of Totnes. It left from the Tourist Information office by the river. For two hours we walked from the river to the top of town, looking at buildings and areas of significant events around town. When the Saxons arrived at Totnes they erected a large tower where the castle stands today. Totnes was and still is the highest navigable point on the River Dart. The river provided easy access for merchants to move there goods. The area along the river is lined with old warehouses and mills. The TI is built in an old mill. Paper and cloth was made in the mills. The warehouses also housed another key export, cider. We walked up Fore Street, the narrow and busy main street. The area closest to the river is the most "modern" since it was redeveloped time and time again from the 18th Century to the 20th Century. There are Georgian buildings next to drab modern ones. As we climb up the street, the buildings get older.

Totnes flourished in Tudor times. The Elizabethan merchants of the area did well and Totnes thrived. Since then, business moved elsewhere, and the town was left relatively untouched. This is why it has so many surviving Tudor style buildings. Another factor that preserved the buildings is the slate tile that covers them. Slate adds a protective skin and protects the old timbers beneath them. Fire can still do serious damage, and since the buildings are built adjoining one another, much like San Francisco, fire spreads easily and can take out many buildings. There is a long history of fire in Totnes. Even the historic East Gate, the arched gate that crosses over Fore Street is not the original. This was restored after a fire in the 1950's.

There are lots of other old buildings. The Guildhall is dates from the 15th Century. It had been a priory that survived Henry VIII's dissolution of the church. Most church buildings were destroyed, but this one managed to dodge the wrecking ball and was given to the town to use. It is still in use today by the town council and other civic groups. Concerts are also held there, as they are this week for the festival. The Guildhall is situated behind the Church of St. Mary. This red sandstone church dates from the 1400's. Inside is a beautiful barrel ceiling. The most unusual feature is the rood screen in front of the alter. It is carved from stone, not wood. The elaborate tracery and delicate fan work and fading paint reveal a level of devotion and skill that is lost today. It was carved as if it was wood. Wonderful detail work.

We continued our tour at Totnes Castle. The castle was originally built of wood by the Saxons to overawe the locals and stake their claim on the land and set up protection from the Viking raiders. Then the Normans moved in and added the stone motte and bailey. This tower housed soldier and the local government, originally. People lived just below the manmade hill inside the stone walls that surrounded the hill and tower. The tower itself was used as an area of last retreat and as a vantage point. We didn't actually enter the castle. No free admission today. We all stood at the castle gate and looked up at the keep from the outside.

We walked back up to the main street which takes a left turn into what's called The Narrows, a part of the road where the buildings take over and the street is almost an afterthought. Pedestrians are left to fend for themselves for the sidewalk is a mere six inch slab of granite, more to act as a safety buffer for the shops if a car should stray too close, not provide a safe place to walk. We walked up to another narrow street that intersects The Narrows called South Street. It is the site of an old bakery. It has shutters that open up to allow passersby to purchase bread through a side window. That was not the only significant thing here. Our guide pointed out the large spigot below the window. This spigot is part of the public water system that has been in place since the 1500's. Clean drinking water has been available to the citizens of Totnes for centuries. The water was carried from springs to taps all over town via elm water conduits. The pipes lasted for centuries. They were finally replaced in the late 1800's when people began to complain about the sediment in the water. The wood was finally rotting. There are several surviving sections of wooden pipes at the Guildhall and the Totnes Museum.

We continue up beyond The Narrows to Leechwell Street. We went beyond the Kingsbridge Inn (my favorite pub) and went to another favorite spot of mine, the Leech Wells. Our guide recently learned that the three springs that flow through the Leech Wells still offer healing relief to those who seek it. When she was preparing the tour, she mentioned to a colleague that she was going to the Leech Wells. His five your old daughter pipes up, "Oh the place with the magic waters. I love that place." It seems that the little girl has terrible eczema. Her father, being a local historian, knew about the healing properties attributed to the waters, so he thought he'd see if the water still worked. Each of the three springs has a name that corresponds to its healing properties. The spring on the left is called Snake, and it is supposed to cure snakebites. The center spring is called Toad and it helps with skin diseases. The right hand spring is called Long Cripplers and it is used for eye diseases. Many of the holy wells seem to help heal eye problems. The little girl has found immense relief from the water of Toad spring. I guess there is no reason the water should not help, even if the site is not in pristine condition. A leper hospital was built nearby to take advantage of the spring.

Our walk concluded at the Kingsbridge Inn. This pub is the oldest in Totnes. It is at least 600 years old. I had thought it was older than that, but there are accounts of it going back several centuries. Inside is an old pump that draws water from the Leech Wells. Due to health regulations, they are not allowed to use it, but it still works should anyone try. Like any old pub in England, this one has a ghost. Her name is Mary Brown and she was a barmaid. She was killed by a drunken patron and will only appear to women. Totnes has a lot of ghosts around. Old buildings must soak up all kinds of memories and energies. Or people just like Totnes so much they don't want to leave. The Guildhall supposedly has a few ghosts, too.

I eat a quick lunch at Café India, the Indian restaurant at the top of the town. It was surprisingly good. My favorite dish, Saag Aloo, potatoes in spinach was made with fresh spinach and delicately seasoned. Usually the dish is very saucy and heavy. This was not. It was sautéed. I enjoyed everything on my plate. I drove back to Ticklemore and caught Nick, Liz and Ben at the end of their lunch break. Nick grabbed the keys to the van and raced off down the driveway. He returned a few minutes later with a friend from New Zealand. Andy is a set builder/carpenter and is on a six week vacation. He used to work with Nick at a restaurant in Dartmouth. As he put it, in order to take a vacation, he must leave the country. So he's here and he eager to drink. He likes English beer and he likes to hang out in pubs. He's pretty self sufficient, I suppose. I guess everyone has their own way of relaxing. Everyone around here seems to know that I don't drink much. I seem to keep sticking my foot in my mouth when I start condemning excessive drinking. I am not used to it and they are. It must be a cultural thing. Part of the pub culture that I glimpse occasionally. I'm learning to bite my tongue when these guys talk about sitting around and drinking all day. That is not my definition of fun. I'd rather go to the movies, go hiking, throw a Frisbee, or read a book. I'm not in California, am I?

Ben and I go to Sharpham to pick up the cheese for the shop. We load up the back of the van with Sharpham Bries, Rustic, and Ticklemore Goats. Ben and I talk about what's involved in the building of a cheese making facility. Boring stuff like good drainage, wall coverings, size, etc. As we're driving I see a tractor harvesting corn to be used for silage. "You don't call it maise?" Ben asks. "No, it's corn," I reply. "What do you call corn?" I asked. "Wheat or barley," he said. "OK. So what do you call the corn that you eat?" "Sweet corn," Ben says. He's about to say something else, but he's getting caught into the same trap that I'm caught in. When is corn, corn? When is it maise? Is sweet corn also maise? I'm still not clear, but at the grocery store I see it called sweet corn. We arrive at the Dairy and unload the cheese.

I enter the dairy around 6pm to tend to the new cheeses. There's the usual batch of Devon Blue from the morning. They made a large batch of Harbourne Blue in the afternoon. No Ticklemore Goat. I see some experimentation going on.

The moon is full tonight. It is huge. It is bright. It is stirring the animals in the fields around me and I hear them yipping and calling. It is also making the high tides even higher. Localized flooding on the tidal rivers and creeks. The moon is so bright it is hard to sleep.

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