THE CHURCH AT THE HEART OF TOTNES

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.

BACKGROUND TO THE TRUST’S KEY PROJECTS

St Mary’s Totnes 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.

THE BIRTH OF TOTNES 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 St Mary's Totnes Heritage Trust registered with the Charity Commissioners with Registered Charity Number 1182256. In 2020 the trust decided to adopt the working name of simply the Totnes Heritage Trust, to better reflect its objectives.

THE TRUST’S OBJECTIVES

  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

GEORGINA ALLEN

Georgina grew up between the South Hams, Kent and Hong Kong.  She studied ancient and medieval history to masters level, then spent the next few years living and working abroad, teaching and writing about museums, before returning to the UK for further study. She settled in London, starting a family and taking up travel writing. In 2013, she returned to Totnes and campaigned to save the marketplace and central car parks. An interest in the machinations of the planning system compelled her to stand for town council and she now combines that with journalism. 

SUE STABLER

Before retiring, Sue was a management consultant specialising in contracts and negotiations in the oil and gas industry. Before moving to Totnes,  she assisted her local church in Maidenhead, as treasurer and project manager of the £850,000 redevelopment of the east end of St Peter's to provide several independently functioning activity spaces. The project provided circulation space between meeting rooms, a large foyer, new toilets, a community kitchen, an office and five, variously sized meeting/activity spaces.  Sue was then involved in overseeing the build.

JOHN ANDERSON

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.

 

REV JIM BARLOW

As the newly appointed Team Rector, Jim is convinced that the redevelopment of St Marys Church and the surrounding area is long overdue and will be of immense benefit to all residents of Totnes, for generations to come. He longs to see a space where people can gather with friends and families, but also share, learn and be enriched through music, art, poetry and stories and through a shared commitment to a just and sustainable way of life, undergirded by an authentic and inclusive spirituality.

JOHN BIRCH

John lives in Totnes and is employed as a consultant solicitor by a leading law firm. 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. In 2017 he became the project leader of the St Mary's  Project for Totnes and Bridgetown Parochial Church Council. 

EMILY PRICE

After graduating with a degree in 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 living out of a suitcase during the week, Emily moved to Totnes to write. She is a Totnes Town Councillor and trustee of several local charitable trusts. 

ZOE SHEARMAN

Zoë is currently a curator and was previously a contemporary art consultant with the National Trust. She has worked with a range of public galleries, museums and arts organisations, with a focus on contemporary art, social practice, and revisiting histories. Her experience also includes curatorial consultancy, fundraising, production and evaluation, writing and lecturing, and mentoring artists and curators. She lives in Totnes and volunteers with Totnes Caring. 

LYNNE BIRCH

Lynne Birch is a member of the St Mary’s congregation and served as secretary of the Totnes with Bridgetown Parochial Church Council for 11 years. She feels privileged to be playing a part in helping to shape the future of the church as a trustee. A former English teacher, she moved to the town 20 years ago and has a clear vision of the community space this project will provide and its potential as a key heritage attraction to the thousands of people who visit Totnes every year.

PENNY MARTIN

Penny is a long-time parishioner of St Mary’s, having moved to Devon in 1979. Penny has a degree in Latin, postgraduate diploma in librarianship and a more recently realised interest in local history. While working as PA to the previous rector, she gained valuable insights into the workings of the church and its interaction with the town, principally that only by true collaboration can anything meaningful be achieved. Penny feels St Mary’s has a pivotal role to play.