The sun was beating down on my back on a rare warm English summers day. The hill ahead looked slightly daunting via foot but I could see the peak of the castle looming. Almost there. Totnes Castle would be my Very First English Castle. And I was well excited. Pictures of Romantic Ruins, moats, turrets and drawbridges floated through my mind.
Reality was a kicker.
A wee bit o’ history
Totnes Castle was built soon after the Norman Conquest in a high, commanding position over the town. It was built to control the Saxon town of Totnes and the river Dart. Juhel, one of William the Conqueror’s commanders in the mid 11th Century was said to have built the Castle. It is an early ‘motte-and-bailey’ castle – an earthwork and timber construction. The Norman timber defences were replaced with stone in the 13th or 14th century. The ‘motte’ can still be seen as the impressive mound that the castle resides on.
By the late 13th century the castle had been passed into the hands of the de la Zouch family. Totnes Castle was kept in the family until 1485 when the Tudor regime re-allocated the castle to Sir Richard Edgecombe. The decline in the town meant that the castle was no longer needed and the castle fell into disuse and ruin. The castle was revived during the Civil War but evacuated before the arrival of Parliamentary forces. Since then Totnes Castle has stood above the town, becoming more of an icon than anything else.
Fun Fact: There were few castles built before the Normans introduced them into England. Large numbers of castles were built by William the Conqueror and his supporters throughout his newly won kingdom.
Totnes Castle today
Today Totnes Castle is really just a circular stone wall on a mound. The dreams of Romantic Ruins and Turrets were sorely crushed as I made my way closer to the castle. But hey, I could tell my friends back home that I had seen a Bona Fide Castle. In person. Boom.
Walking the footsteps of the past
The wall is still pretty impressive. As you walk the circle views stretch past the town, over the river and out into the countryside with its patchwork fields. The sight of the quaint stone buildings was still new to me at the time. I think I stood there for a good stretch of time just taking in the views (and cooling down from the walk up the hill).
After circling the wall I came down to the courtyard (the grass inside the wall). There are still clues as to what the courtyard used to look like. Stone foundations of a Norman timber tower lie in the grass, stubbornly holding onto their spot. After exiting the castle I sat under the shade of the tree and reflected.
Reflecting in the sun
It felt kind of bittersweet. There was very little trace of what would have been a grand sight back in the 11th century. No traces of the higgledy-piggledy timber buildings. No traces of the bustling activity. Just silence and an empty grass area, occasionally dotted by the odd picnic or tourist.
It is inevitable life moves on. What was once grand often falls to ruins. Totnes Castle was once a grand, bustling hive of activity. Now it is a place for nosey tourists or a quiet picnic in the sun away from the busyness of the town. I felt a little ashamed of myself that I was initially met with disappointment when I first set eyes on the ruin. Not everything in life needs to be spectacular. A modest wall on a mound holds as much significance as towering turrets. We often seek grandeur, but reality is often much more simple.
Totnes Castle is a modest but historically significant castle. It is one of the earliest castles in England and tells the story of Normans, wars and conquest. An intriguing castle set above a small, peaceful village in South-West Devon. If you are in the area, it is worth stopping on by. For more information, check out the English Heritage website. For other Castles in the area, check out my post on Berry Pomeroy Castle – rumoured to be the most haunted castle in England.
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