Friday, 4 January 2013

Number one of fifty-two

As it happens, I am writing this on my tablet in Rumour, the bistro in Totnes, and I really can't think of a better place to start my 2013 Friday blogs.

At the bottom of Fore Street is an hotel called “The Seven Stars”. Marcia's father often attended meetings at the head office of Staverton Construction (a company that has long since closed and of which he was a director) which, not surprisingly, had its offices in the old mill on the River Dart at Staverton just a few miles up the river from Totnes. He was responsible for their Bristol office which is why the family lived in north east Somerset. However, sometimes during the school holidays he would bring the entire family down when he had to be at some meetings and then they would stay at "The Seven Stars".

In those days there was a large, round table in the middle of the dining room on the first floor and there the entire family – five girls and their parents – would breakfast. Not surprisingly the hotel staff came to refer to the family as “the seven stars”.

So it was that Marcia's first visits to Totnes took place even before she started school – not over-surprising then that this is probably her favourite town. I think it is also mine (but Dartmouth is a fierce competitor, as you would expect). Totnes can honestly claim to be very special. It is difficult to be sure as to how this happened. The acquisition of the Dartington Hall estate – then derelict – in 1925 by Leonard and Dorothy Elhurst may have had a lot to do with it. The next ten years were spent in renovations, including the restoration of the wonderful hammerbeam roof that covers the ‛Great Hall’ (see below) and then something rather marvellous happened: the creation of the Dartington Hall Trust. 

A quick look at will give you some idea of what the trust does today. This means that people from all around the world end up in Totnes and I am sure some of the magic that has surrounded Dartington from those early days has rubbed off on the town.

Whatever the reason, Totnes is much loved by free spirits . . .

. . . and has become home to many of them. Some of the shops reflect this: many are devoted to alternative medicines and organic produce. 

Buskers are a common sight (some playing classical music on classical instruments) and people wear just what they want to: dreadlocks stand beside coiffure, ragged jeans against high fashion, peoples of all colours and tongues, men on tricycles with trailers stuffed with merchandise for sale, market stalls . . .

Paul Chapman, here every Friday and Saturday, is putting the finishing
touches to one of his  ducks.

. . . selling a wide range of commonplace and outlandish goods and you see a huge variety of hats (some of which are, frankly, rather bizarre). 

Hats of all sorts - this one worn by Lydia

When Marcia started to write, Mary Wesley and Joan Brady both lived in the town. Both, like Marcia, tended to be somewhat reclusive but both gave her great encouragement as did another local writer who became a friend, James Long. I remember one glorious summer afternoon at Dartington Hall during a Ways With Words festival watching a game of croquet. Mary Wesley and James Long were playing Joan Brady and Marcia. Of the four, the most ruthless and competitive was, somewhat surprisingly, Mary. Not so surprising was that fact that she and James beat the other two by an embarrassingly large margin.

Looking across the table at Marcia - who seems to be deep in conversation with Kit Chadwick (who returns to take part in the book presently in the writing) - the memories keep flooding back. Some are of real people but I must admit that the town is also populated by Miggy and Georgia having come up from Dartmouth by river boat; Gus and Susannah busy at work in their studio; Caroline and Prue enjoying tea and cakes in The Quaker - sadly neither of them nor that café are still with us.

Before I go, an apology to those of you who put up comments last week or have sent emails which have gone unanswered. Not a good excuse, but last week turned out to be even more frantic than usual.