The town that's twinned with Narnia
The medieval Devon town of Totnes is the capital city of pseudoscience, but local rationalists are mounting a fightback. James Gray goes through the wardrobe
Rationalists have a right to feel embattled at the moment. With celebrities cheerleading for bogus therapies, the internet teeming with conspiracy theories and creationists lining up to get their own schools, it can feel like the hard-won advances of the Enlightenment are unravelling before our eyes. And nowhere is this apparent re-enchantment more evident than Totnes, the medieval market town in south Devon that has built a reputation as Britain’s capital of pseudoscience. It is said to have a higher concentration of healers, channellers and psychics than anywhere else on Earth. The Society of Homeopaths has its education office here and the local radio station broadcasts a weekly show on astrology. This blurred line between fantasy and reality is captured in the longstanding joke that Totnes is twinned with Narnia.
But there are rumblings of a fightback. Earlier this year “holistic physician” Stephen Hopwood, who runs a clinic in the town, announced he would hold a conference “dedicated to exploring a deeper understanding of alternative cancer health care”– featuring, among others, a disqualified Italian doctor who claims that cancer is a fungus that can be cured with sodium bicarbonate. The event was eventually cancelled by the town council after a campaign backed by the town’s MP (and GP) Sarah Woolaston, but the experience seems to have galvanised the town’s rationalists into taking a more assertive stand for evidence and reason.
At the heart of Totnes are two narrow shopping streets that wind gently down a hill towards the river Dart. They are lined with innumerable independent shops offering second-hand books, organic food, handmade jewellery, traditional toys and “mind, body and spirit” paraphernalia. The town is indisputably beautiful, all the more so in the clear light of the perfect summer’s day on which I visit. But while the Tudor town houses, colonnaded walkways and ancient coaching inns give the tourist board an easy life, Totnes has avoided the fate suffered by similar English towns now preserved solely for the amusement of coach parties. It’s a lively, purposeful place. You could say it has an energy.
It’s also fiercely independent. Within moments of arriving in the town, I’ve spotted at least ten “No to Costa” posters. The high-street coffee chain’s plans for a branch in Totnes have prompted a furious campaign in defence of the town’s 40-plus independent cafés. If Costa do succeed in opening here, I don’t see them staying around for long. Whatever you say about Totnes, it’s unique – and its residents clearly want it to stay that way.
Totnes’s alternative side is immediately apparent. Next to the tourist map of the town is a noticeboard crammed with flyers advertising drop-in Tarot and meditation classes, art healing workshops and psycho-spiritual dance sessions for “women of a certain age”. I find similar displays in shop windows throughout the town – even the coin-op laundrette has one. Craniosacral, reflexology, holistic massage, facial rejuvenation acupuncture, Kundalini yoga, Transcendental Meditation, it’s all here in Totnes. And lots of healing: rhythmic healing, reconnective healing, Meir Schneider self-healing, healing Shiatsu, healing circles.
Locals admit it can all get a little overwhelming at times. “You get lots of people saying, ‘I’m thinking of moving here because I’m a therapist,’” says Naomi from one of the town’s three healing crystal shops. “I almost feel like saying, ‘Go somewhere else because there’s too many already.’”
For decades Britain’s New Age and alternative communities kept Totnes largely to themselves, but the town is now very much in the international spotlight thanks to its status as the world’s first Transition Town. The Transition concept hinges on the certain belief that the world has already reached “peak oil”, the maximum level of oil production, and that the net energy supporting humanity is in terminal decline. The aim is not to avert environmental and economic disaster, but rather to prepare for it by learning traditional skills, reconnecting with the living environment and jumping off the “oil-addicted treadmill” towards low-energy lifestyles.
Transition Town Totnes has been the subject of many a gushing broadsheet article and has – somewhat inevitably – earned the approval of Prince Charles. Locals say “TTT” has attracted a new wave of migrants to the town, wealthy early-retirees looking for simpler, smaller-scale lifestyles. And not all these “blow-ins” have made a favourable impression on the locals. “People who appear very New Agey and fluffy and nice and very open-hearted, some of those people are still confused in their issues,” says Philomena from the Rhythm and Light shop, which offers a very Totnesian combination of healing crystals, fossils and folk instruments. “They haven’t dealt with baggage from the past.”
I’m eager to see Totnes from a therapist’s perspective, so I arrange to meet homeopath Anne (not her real name) in the bar of the 16th-century Royal Seven Stars Hotel. Anne came to Totnes seven years ago after attending a number of talks in the town. “It’s a very spiritually oriented place,” she says. “A healing place.” Anne says the town’s strength is its open-mindedness. “There’s a great tolerance. So if you’re not into homeopathy but are into angels, that’s fine.” And what about Totnesians who think it’s all nonsense? “They just move away, hopefully.” She laughs, but it’s difficult to tell if she’s joking.
Anne suggests a visit to the Arcturus bookshop will help me appreciate what makes Totnes so special, so I walk back up the hill to take a look. Arcturus has been a major source of alternative ideas and beliefs in Totnes for more than 30 years. Its shelves – arranged into categories like “Channelled”, “Earth Energies” and “Pagan & Shamanism” – heave with books of spells, exposés of sinister cabals and how-to guides on contacting all manner of ultra- and extraterrestrials. Hopwood’s clinic is above the bookshop, and there are yet more adverts for the services of local gurus who practise from its treatment rooms. Some of these techniques would strain the credulity of even the most spiritually minded: Mayan prophecy, Lemurian connections, angelic empowerment, unicorn healing.
It’s starting to feel oppressive, so it comes as a relief to meet up with a group of local atheists, sceptics and humanists who have agreed to tell me what it’s like to be a rationalist in Totnes. Unbearable, right? Well, no. “I like it,” says maths teacher Stuart Allen. “I think that’s an important thing to say about this town. It’s a really friendly, happy, safe town and I’m glad to live here. I really like it here.”
Allen says he likes living alongside those who share his view that “the universe is just totally mind-blowingly amazing” – even if it’s expressed through angel channelling rather than physics – and says the town’s suspicion of big business and the mainstream media is generally healthy. “It’s just unfortunate it gets turned into a weird, CIA-dominated conspiracy theory that’s all about having to be rescued by unicorns.” (Hopwood has some rather countercultural takes on a range of topics other than medicine – climate change, 9/11 and the Rothschild family, for instance – which seem to find a receptive audience in the town.)
Doesn’t it make you want to scream sometimes? “I’m not confrontational by nature, so I’m not going to pick a fight with people about these things,” says Allen. “The tricky bit is when they [the therapists] start trying to spread the word and I’m duty bound to say, ‘Hang on a minute, I just can’t stand by and let you say that.’”
The group cites the area’s low immunisation rates for childhood diseases such as mumps, polio and whooping cough as an example of how Totnes’s rejection of the mainstream can put lives at risk. “Everybody’s in favour of being open-minded, but there’s also an element of risk in being so open-minded that your brain falls out,” says student and science communications events organiser Jo Torres. “There needs to be a line drawn as to what is seen as acceptable.”
It seems Hopwood crossed that line, and in doing so compelled the town’s “silent sceptics” to confront the issue head-on. The controversy surrounding the conference led to a lively public debate on the merits of a complementary and alternative medicine at nearby Dartington Hall. It was a bold choice of venue. The Hall, a medieval manor house a few miles outside Totnes, has been a centre of alternative living since the 1920s when philanthropists Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst set up an experimental educational and arts centre there. Today the estate is home to Schumacher College, which offers the world’s first MSc in “Holistic Science” and hosts visiting teachers like Deepak Chopra. Totnes’s predilection for mysticism is variously attributed to ley lines and planetary alignments, but the influence of Dartington Hall seems a more credible explanation.
The debate felt like a turning point, inspiring Torres – who already ran Plymouth Skeptics in the Pub – to set up a branch at Dartington. The aim of the group, which held its inaugural meeting in July, is to explore questions raised by the town’s unique character while providing a “safe haven for rationalists”. She insists, however, that the approach will not be confrontational or preachy. After all, “There’s only so many times you can stand up and say, ‘Homeopathy is bollocks.’” She even hopes to see some of the town’s healers there.
Before visiting Totnes I wondered if it was the toughest place in Britain to be a sceptic. There are certainly aspects that are infuriating – and I sense that the town is not quite as tolerant as its residents might like to think – but if you take belief and religiosity seriously you will find endless stimulation here. “You’re able to pursue it in a way you wouldn’t elsewhere,” says Joe Byng, who convenes the talks at Dartington alongside Torres. “Perhaps it’s actually one of the best places to be a sceptic.”
On my way back to the station I take a detour to the Leech Wells, three ancient springs hidden behind a row of cottages at the top of the hill. Said to have healing properties, the springs are a site of veneration for local druids, who have tied brightly coloured strips of fabric (“clouties”) to the railings above. The scene, with its playful sense of mystery and nostalgia for an idealised past, strikes me as emblematic of Totnes – if the rationalists are to succeed, they’re going to have to work with this spirit, rather than against it.