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A Book of the West/Volume 1/17

CHAPTER XVII.

TOTNES

The legend of Brutus—Derivation of the name—Castle—The charter—Old houses—Piazzas—The church—The screen—Dartington Hall—Little Hempston Rectory—Old gate—Priory—Berry Pomeroy.

WHAT a pity it is that the dear old legends that lie at the root of history have been dissipated! That we can no longer believe in Romulus and Remus and the she-wolf—no, not even when the Lupercale remains on the side of the Palatine Hill, after the palaces of Augustus, of Tiberius, of Caligula, of Septimius Severus, have been levelled with the dust.

How cruel, too, that the delightful story of Alfred and the cakes, that also of Edwin and Elgiva, are relegated to the region of fables; that we are told there never was such a person as King Arthur, and that S. George for Merry England never was a gallant knight, and certainly slew no dragon, nor delivered fair maid!

Dust we are, but is it absolutely necessary that all human history, and the history of nature, should spring out of dust? that the events of the childhood of our race should have been all orderly and unromantic, as if every nationality had been bred in trimness as a Board School scholar? Now, what if we could
A Book of the West - ON THE DART.png

ON THE DART

believe that old gossiping—I am afraid I must add lying—historian, Geoffrey of Monmouth! Why, the transformation scene at a pantomime would be nothing to the blaze of wonders and romance in the midst of which the England of history steps on to the stage.

Ah! if we could but believe old Geoffrey, or the British book which he saw and translated, why, then, Totnes would be the most revered spot in England, as that where the first man set his foot when he landed in an uncultivated, unpeopled island. Is there not on the Palatine the Lupercale, the very den in which the she-wolf suckled Romulus and Remus, to prove the tale? Are there not Arthur's Seats enough in Cornwall, Wales, Cumberland, Scotland, to show that there must have been an Arthur to sit in them? And is there not the stone in the high street of Totnes on which Brut, when he landed, set his foot to establish against all doubters the existence of Brut and the fact of his landing there?

The story is this.

As it fell upon a day there was a certain king called Sylvius in Italy, and when he was about to become a father he consulted a magician, who by the stars could tell all that was to be. Now this magician read that the child that was to be born to Sylvius would be the death of his father and mother.

In course of time the child was born, and at his birth his mother died. "He 's a Brute," said King Sylvius, and so that was his name.

But King Sylvius did not have his child exposed to wild beasts; he gave it to be nursed by a good woman, who reared the "Brute" till he was fifteen.

Now it fell out that one day King Sylvius went a-hunting in the merry greenwood with horn and hounds, and the little "Brute," hearing the winding of the horn and the music of the hounds, picked up the bow he himself had made, and with the arrows he himself also had winged, forth he went to the chase. Alas! it so fell out that the first arrow he shot pierced his father's heart.

On this account Brute had to fly the country.

"And away he fared to the Grecian land,
With a hey! with a ho! and a nonny O!
And there he gathered a stalwart band,
And the ships they sail on the blue sea O!"

Now the mother of Brute had been a Trojan, so all the refugees, after the destruction of Troy, gathered about the young prince, and formed a large body of men. Brute took to wife Ignogne, daughter of Pandrasos, King of the Greeks, and resolved to sail away in quest of a new country. So the king, his father-in-law, gave him ships and lading, and he started. A fair wind swelled his sails, and he sailed over the deep blue sea till he reached a certain island called Loegria, which was all solitary, for it had been wasted by pirates. But Brute went on shore, and found an old deserted and ruinous temple, and there he lit three fires, and he sacrificed a white hart, and poured the blood mingled with wine on the broken altar, and he sang:—

"Sweet goddess above, in the light of love,
That high through the blue doth sail,
O tell me who rove in the woodland grove,
O tell me, and do not fail,
Where I shall rest—and thine altar dressed,
Shall finish this wandering tale."

These words he repeated nine times, after which he took four turns round the altar, and laid himself down on the skin of the white hart and fell asleep. About the third hour of the night he saw a beautiful form appear with the new moon in her hair, and a sceptre with the morning star shining on its point, and she said to him:—

"Far, far away in the ocean blue,
There lieth an island fair,
Which giants possessed, but of them are few
That linger to haunt it there.
O there shalt thou reign, in a pleasant plain
Shalt found thee a city rare,
From thee shall a line of heroes divine
Carry triumph everywhere."

When Brute woke he was much encouraged by the vision, and he returned to his ship, hoisted the mainsail, and away, away, before the wind the ship flew, throwing up foam from her bows, and leaving a track as milk in the sea behind. He passed through the Straits of Gibraltar and coasted up Aquitaine, and rounded the Cape of Finisterre, and at length, with a fair wind, crossed the sea, and came to the marble cliffs of Dunan Dyffnaint, the land of deep vales, and in the cliffs opened a great rift, down which flowed a beautiful river, and he sailed up it. And lo! on either side were green pastures spangled with buttercups, and forests of mighty oaks and beech, and over his head the white gulls screamed, and in the water the broad-winged herons dipped; and so he sailed, and before him rose a red cliff; and now the tide began to fall. So he ran his ship up against the cliff and leapt ashore, and where he leaped there his foot made its impress on the red rock, which remains even unto this day. Then, when Brute had landed, he sat himself down and said:—

"Here I sit, and here I rest,
And this town shall be called Totnes."

Which shows that Brute had not much idea of rhyme, nor of measure in his rhyme.

It must be told that the very spot where Brute sprang ashore is half-way up the hill from the river Dart, up which he sailed; but then the river was much fuller in those days, or men's legs were longer.

Totnes, in fact, occupies a promontory of red sandstone rock, round which the river not only winds, but anciently swept up a creek that ran for two miles. In fact there was a labyrinth of creeks there; one between Totnes and the sea, another between Totnes and the mainland, so that the town was accessible on one side only, and that side was strongly fortified by castle and earthworks. The creek to the south still fills with water; its mouth is below Sharpham, and the tide now rises only as far as Bow Bridge. Formerly it ran quite a mile further up. The town of Totnes, in fact, occupies one point alone in a ness or promontory that was formerly, when the tide rose, flushed with water on the three sides. It has, however, been supposed that the term Totnes applies to the whole of that portion of South Devon to the coast; some even assert to the whole peninsula of Devon and Cornwall. The creeks have silted up with the rich red mud, and with the washings from the tin mines on Dartmoor, to such an extent that the true ness character of the little district of Totnes and the villages of Ashprington and Harberton has not been recognised. It is a hilly district, and the clefts which formerly filled with water are natural dykes fortifying it.

The Ikenild Street, which was a British trackway, passed through Totnes, which is the old Durium of the Itineraries. The river Dart is the Dour, that comes out as Durium in Latin, and is simply the Celtic word for water. We have it again in Dorovernia, Dover, and in Dorchester, the castle or camp on the water.

The name Totnes is probably Saxon, from tot, toten, "to project," as in Tothill, Tottenham; and we have it again in a promontory on the coast, as Dodman's Nose, which is peculiar, for this is a combination of three languages. Dod is the Saxon, man is the Celtic maen, stone or rock, and ness is the Scandinavian nose or headland.

The railway station and line to Plymouth now occupy the old creek, up which barges, and undoubtedly smuggled spirits, went to Dartington. Anyone standing on the Dartington side and looking across at Totnes will see at once what was the old character of this headland. The town occupies a long ridge, which reached to the river by one street that ran its entire length. The magnificent church of red sandstone, with its grand tower and pinnacles, occupies the centre, and on the land side, the only side assailable, towered up the castle on a mound that was thrown up in prehistoric times.

The castle is now ruined; the circular "mote" remains, and a few crumbling walls and great elm trees full of rooks' nests rise in the place of towers and battlements. The grounds about the ruins have been nicely laid out, and what remains of the castle is saved from further disintegration. The character was very much that of other castles in the West, as Rougemont, Plympton, and Launceston. There was no square keep, but a circular drum, and a large yard surrounded by walls that stood on earlier earthworks. A picturesque gate gives access to the town near the castle. The town itself is quaint and full of interesting relics. A great number of the houses date from Elizabethan times, and belonged to the wealthy merchants of Totnes, which was a great place for the manufacture of woollen cloth. Indeed in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries it was already famous.

Totnes is one of the oldest boroughs in the country. Its earliest charter dates from 1205, and I believe I am right in saying that at a dinner at the Mansion' House given by a Lord Mayor of London within the last few years to the mayors of England, precedence was given to the representative of the borough of Totnes over all others.

The houses of the merchants of Totnes have been sadly tampered with. The requirements of modern trade exact large shop-fronts, and to satisfy the demand of the public to see at a glance what is to be sold within, the venerable houses have been transformed externally, at all events on the ground-floor. But let anyone interested in such things go within and ask to be shown the panelled rooms and plaster ceilings, and he will see much to interest and delight. A peculiarly fine piece of plaster-work is in the parlour of the local bookseller, and if the visitor desires to have his hair cut he can have it done in a chamber of the local barber, where the woodwork is of the sixteenth century.

Totnes preserves its old piazzas, or covered ways in High Street, very much like those of Berne or an Italian city, or, indeed, of the bastides or free cities built by our Edward I. in his duchy of Guyenne, of which Montpazier, Beaumont, St. Foye are notable examples, and seem to show that piazzas were a common feature of English towns and of towns built under English influence in the thirteenth century. The same sort of thing is found at Chester, but not, that I am aware, in any other English towns. If in Italy these covered ways are an advantage, in that it allows those who walk along the streets to look in at the shop windows with comfort when the sun is shining, in Totnes it allows them the same advantage when the rain is falling;

"And the rain it raineth every day."

One unpardonable outrage has been committed at Totnes. There existed in front of the churchyard and in continuation of the piazza, a butter market, which consisted of an enlarged piazza, supported on granite pillars of the beginning of the seventeenth century. The vulgar craving to show off the parish church when so many pounds, shillings, and pence had been spent on its restoration; the fear lest visitors should fail to see that the shopkeepers of Totnes had put their hands into their pockets to do up their church, made them destroy this picturesque and unique feature.

The church itself is a very fine building. It was originally a Norman structure of the eleventh century, but was rebuilt in the thirteenth, and is, as it now stands, a structure of Perpendicular work of the fifteenth century. It is of red sandstone, of a warm and pleasant colour. In the tower are niches containing figures of saints of lighter colour. The church has gone through a restoration more or less satisfactory, or unsatisfactory, at the hands of the late Sir G. Gilbert Scott, who had no feeling for Perpendicular work. It is a stately church; its chief glory is a superb rood-screen of carved stone, erected in 1460, and richly coloured and gilt. This supported a wide gallery that extended over half the chancel, and access to this gallery was obtained by a splendid carved and gilt newel staircase in the chancel. The top of the screen is delicately spread into fan-work, intended to sustain the beam of the gallery. In the so-called restoration of the church the entire gallery was removed, consequently the stair leads to vacancy and the screen supports nothing. Moreover, one of the most striking effects of the church was destroyed. A broad belt of shadow was designed to cross the chancel, behind the screen, throwing up, on one side, the gilded tracery of the screen, and on the other, the flood of light that bathed the sanctuary and altar. All this is gone, and the effect is now absolutely commonplace. There are screens near Totnes of extraordinary richness—at Great Hempston, Ipplepen, Harberton, and Berry Pomeroy—covered with gold and adorned with paintings. But none are perfect. A screen consisted of three parts. The lower was the sustaining arcade, then came the fan-groining to support the gallery, above that, the most splendid feature of all, the gallery back, which consisted of a series of canopied compartments containing paintings representing the gospel story. This still exists in Exeter Cathedral; the uppermost member is also to be seen at Atherington, as has been already stated, but everywhere else it has disappeared. Formerly there stood a reredos at the east end of the chancel of Grecian design, singularly out of character with the building, but hardly worse than the contemptible concern that has been erected in its place.

At the east end of the church, on the outside, the apprentices of Totnes were wont to sharpen their knives, and the stones are curiously rubbed away in the process.

The registers of Totnes are very early and of great interest, as containing much information concerning the old merchant families and the landed gentry of the neighbourhood with whom they married.

The nearest great manorial house is that of Dartington, which was a mansion of the Hollands, Dukes of Exeter, and now belongs to the Champernownes. It possesses ruins of the splendid hall, of the date of Richard II., whose device, a white hart chained, appears repeated several times. On the opposite side of the river is the most interesting and unique parsonage of Little Hempston, a perfectly untouched building of the fourteenth century, exactly the priest's house of the time of Chaucer. The house consists of a structure occupying four sides of a tiny quadrangle. It has a hall, buttery, kitchen, and solar. Every window, except that of the hall, looks into the little court, which is just twenty feet square, and the rooms accordingly are gloomy. The late John Keble, who was often a visitor at Dartington Parsonage, would, when missing, be found there, dreaming over the life of the parish priest in the Middle Ages.

A very singular circumstance is connected with the old Champernownes of Dartington. Gawaine Champernowne was married to the Lady Roberta, daughter of the Count de Montgomeri, leader of the Huguenots. On account of her misconduct she was divorced in 1582, by Act of Parliament passed for the purpose. However, oddly to relate, no sooner were they divorced than they patched up their quarrel and continued to live together as husband and wife, and had a large family. Happily the eldest son and heir was born before the Act was passed, or in all certainty he would have been illegitimate in the eye of the law. But the two younger sons and three daughters were the issue after the divorce.

The old south gate of Totnes still remains, and at one time the chamber over it was a public-house. It has since been converted into a reading-room, and contains some good wood-carving of the Tudor age and a fine plaster cornice.

On the north side of the church are the remains of the old priory of S. Mary, founded by Judael, Earl of Totnes, at the Conquest. These have been transformed into guildhall, prisons, and sexton's houses. The priory must have been a modest building. It stood just within the old town walls, which may be traced in fairly good preservation thence to the south gate. The church of Totnes is a vicarial church, as Judael granted it to the Benedictine Abbey of Saints Sergius and Bacchus at Angers.

The priors had the right of presentation to the parish church up to the time of the dissolution of the religious houses, except during the wars with France, when the Crown appointed, this being an alien priory. In 1414 there was a quarrel in the church between the prior and one John Southam, what about we do not know. They seem to have punched each other's nose, so as to bring blood; whereupon the church was closed till the bishop could hold investigation whether the sacred edifice had been desecrated thereby. Bishop Stafford did hold inquiry, and in ecclesiastical language, and with proper gravity, pronounced that the case was "fudge," that the matter had been made a great deal more of than there was occasion, and that the vicar was to recommence services in the church.

Torbrian Church, picturesquely situated in a glen, has been already alluded to. This parish is the cradle of Lord Petre's family.

The splendid ruins of Berry Pomeroy Castle are within a walk or drive, and will repay a visit, not only from the interest of the remains, but also from the beauty of the situation on the brow of rock overhanging the water.

Below the town of Totnes is the quay, at which the steamboat may be entered for the beautiful descent of the Dart to Dartmouth.

On all sides, peeping out of woods, above smooth lawns, backed by orchards, appear numerous smiling villas. It would seem that many well-to-do people have come to the same conclusion as did Brute, and have made Totnes their seat, saying:—

"Here I sit—and here I rest."

And the visitor will think that old Brute was no fool when he said that, and will wish that he could do the same.

Note.—Books on Totnes:—
Cotton ( W. ), Graphic and Historical Sketch of the Antiquities of Totnes. London : Longman, 1850.
Windeatt (E.), "An Historical Sketch of Totnes," in the Transactions of the Devonshire Association, 1880.
Dymond (R.), "Ancient Documents relating to the Civil History of Totnes," in the Transactions of the Devonshire Association, 1880.