St Mary’s Church in Totnes is one of Devon’s most outstanding mediaeval church buildings. Its full name is St Mary’s Priory and Parish Church, recording the fact that it was once part of Totnes Priory, the remains of which underlie its churchyard, and extend into the Elizabethan Guildhall just to the north of it. The original Norman church was rebuilt in the middle of the 15th century, a time of peak mercantile wealth in the town. It is a particularly fine and complete example of the architectural style known as Perpendicular, and has one of the most outstanding stone rood screens (between nave and chancel) in the Southwest.
St Mary’s has been a landmark standing proudly and symbolically at the centre of Totnes for a good part of 600 years. Surrounding it is an area of exceptional heritage value. To the South is a virtual square on the High Street, lined with Listed buildings, once the homes of wealthy Elizabethan merchants. Immediately around St Mary’s is a churchyard which is largely a Scheduled Ancient Monument, surrounded on its East and North sides by a walkway along the remains of the walls of the mediaeval town, leading to the famous Eastgate. Immediately behind the church lies the Listed Elizabethan Guildhall, with priceless surviving interiors – and still in use for local governance. All this comprises a uniquely valuable historic townscape.
THE BACKGROUND TO THE HERITAGE TRUST’S KEY PROJECTS
Totnes St Mary’s Heritage Trust was registered in 2019 as the successor to two community projects: the St Mary’s Restoration and Reordering Project, run by Totnes with Bridgetown Parochial Church Council; and the St Mary’s Heritage Area Project, run by Totnes Trust. The Church Restoration and Reordering project was established in 2008 to tackle the increasingly urgent external repairs which had caused the church to be put on the Buildings at Risk register. Essential work involves rectifying crumbling Devon red sandstone masonry and Beer stone dressings, deteriorating stone windows, penetrating damp, and worn out leadwork. The interior also needs many repairs to walls, floors and other fabric, plus the replacement of old heating and other service installations. The cost of this work is estimated at about £4 million.
Parallel with this urgent repair work, it was felt that the building needed major improvement to make it fit for congregational and community use in the 21st century. This part of the project aims to make the interior more flexible for a wider range of events; to cater properly for specific uses like concerts; to provide meeting spaces (perhaps by inserting a balcony in one aisle); to install catering facilities and toilets; and to ensure adequate ‘back of house’ space for storage etc.
The Heritage Area Project was set up by Totnes Trust in 2016 in order to conserve and enhance a cohesive historic area centred on St Mary’s. A key aim is to make the churchyard more accessible and more attractive as a green space for community use, and as a well-interpreted historic monument. Access would be enhanced at the High Street from a more open and attractive public square showing the church and other ancient buildings to best advantage for townsfolk and visitors. An inviting new route through the churchyard would be created to draw people to visit the Guildhall, which suffers from a remote and hidden location despite proximity to the High Street. This well-signposted route would also connect to a refurbished Ramparts Walk. The total cost of this work would be in the region of £750,000.
TOTNES ST MARY’S HERITAGE TRUST
During 2016 it became apparent that the two projects above were so inter-related that they should come together for mutual benefit, and so a St Mary’s Partnership was formed to pursue a Heritage for Life programme. Totnes Town Council had an interest in the heritage area, because it maintains the churchyard, and of course owns the Guildhall: it was therefore invited to join the Partnership.
By 2018 the scale and complexity of the proposals, which had been widely welcomed in several public consultations, was such that the PCC and Totnes Trust felt that establishing a specific new Trust, dedicated to securing professional fundraising and project management, was essential. The Town Council agreed with that proposal.
A team of founding trustees and supporters was formed in July 2018 and has been registered with the Charity Commissioners with Registered Charity Number 1182256.
THE TRUST’S OBJECTIVES
The registered objectives of the Trust are:
(1) To conserve and enhance the historically-significant mediaeval priory and parish church of St. Mary’s in Totnes, and the outstanding heritage area around it, by repairing, restoring, renewing and redeveloping the building, structure, fabric and interior, and its surrounds, for the benefit and education of the general public in the fields of local and ecclesiastical history and heritage, either through using funds raised directly as project manager, or by giving grants to other organisations to enable them to carry out such project management.
(2) To develop and improve the townscape and heritage area immediately surrounding the mediaeval priory and parish church of St. Mary’s Totnes for the benefit of the general public by creating accessible public spaces for community-building, education, relaxation, leisure and public amenity, either through using funds raised directly as project manager, or by giving grants to other organisations to enable them to carry out such project management.
(3) To campaign to raise community awareness about heritage and conservation issues within the town of Totnes, identifying other sites of heritage importance, for the benefit and education of the general public.
(4) To raise funds to extend proactive conservation and enhancement works to further buildings and landscapes of public amenity and benefit within Totnes that are also of historical, architectural or local importance, using such funds raised directly as project manager for those works, or by giving grants to otherorganisations to enable them to carry out such works.
Meet The Team
Before Sue retired she was a management consultant specialising in contracts and negotiations in the oil and gas industry.
Since retiring and before moving to Totnes Sue assisted the local church, St Peter’s, Maidenhead both as treasurer and as project manager of their building project. This building project was the £850,000 redevelopment of the east end of the church to provide several independently functioning activity spaces. The new build provided circulation space between meeting rooms, a large foyer, new toilets, a community kitchen, an office and five, variously-sized meeting/activity spaces.
As project manager Sue led a team of five in the development of this project. Once they had completed all of this Sue was then involved with the architect and external project manager in overseeing and managing the building phase.
John has worked as a journalist and
corporate communications executive in a variety of locations, including New York, London and Bahrain. While living in New York, he was active in Christ Church Riverdale, an Episcopal church in the Bronx for which he served as Clerk of the Vestry,
Prior to moving to Totnes five years ago, John served on an interim basis as the speechwriter for the US Ambassador to the UK. He previously volunteered at the
Homeless Shelter in Totnes and currently works with a charity that represents people in court who don’t have a lawyer.
Lynne Birch is a member of St Mary’s Church congregation and served as secretary of the Totnes with Bridgetown Parochial Church Council for eleven years. As a trustee of the Heritage Trust, she
considers it a privilege to be playing a part in helping to shape the future of the church. It was love at first sight when she first visited Totnes in the 1990s and, having moved to the town twenty years ago, she quickly became known to many local people through teaching English at The
Mansion. She has a clear vision of the way in which the church will be made fit for the future, of the wonderful space it will provide for the community and its potential as a key heritage attraction to the
thousands of people who visit Totnes
John lives in Totnes and is employed as a consultant solicitor by a leading firm of solicitors. He advises on legal matters relating to construction projects and represents both contractors and employers. He has also been involved in the project management and successful completion of commercial and community building projects in Devon. Prior to entering the legal profession John was a quantity surveyor and was Chief Quantity Surveyor for an international construction company, working in Kuwait before returning to the UK to study law and qualify as a solicitor.
In 2017 he became the project leader of the St Mary's Church Renovation and Reordering Project for Totnes and Bridgetown Parochial Church Council.
After graduating with a BSc (Hons) Psychology, Emily lived abroad for many years, working in Italy, Thailand and Spain, and ultimately co-founding a business and language school in Vietnam. Returning to the UK, she spent several years in financial services, running a Europe, Middle-East and Africa team for Thompson Financial, (now Thompson Reuters). After years spending her working week constantly travelling and living out of a suitcase, Emily moved to Totnes to write. She is a Totnes Town Councillor and trustee of several local charitable trusts. She speaks fluent Italian and enough Vietnamese, Thai and Spanish to get into trouble.
Georgina grew up between the South Hams, Kent and Hong Kong, which was a slightly bewildering upbringing. She did a first degree at St Andrews in Ancient and Medieval History, followed by a masters in Ancient Greek Slavery, which she found fascinating. Georgina spent the next few years living and working abroad; South Africa, Indonesia, New York and Berlin mostly teaching and writing about museums, specifically museums of peace and nation building initiatives, before coming home to do a post-grad at Cambridge University, followed by a degree in Museum Education. She took a sabbatical because of illness and took the opportunity to have a baby and settle down in London, where she worked in Early Years as a consultant in Hackney and Walthamstow, became a travel writer and did a further degree. In 2013, she came back to Totnes for my her to go to school here and started a campaign to save the market place and central car parks. This interest in the machinations and abuses within the planning system compelled her to stand for the town council and she is now working part time writing and partly as a councillor.