South Devon Railway

In which Joe finds not only an engine house but a castle.

Explorations: 25 June 2018.
Journey: Paddington to Totnes.

The tenth engine house on the South Devon Railway was in Totnes. The engine house proper and the boiler house still stand. Only the chimney is missing, although it was still present in a photograph dated 1937. By the summer of 1848 the 22-inch pipe was laid as far as Totnes, and the engine house buildings were ready for the installation of machinery, which was begun but not completed because of the Board's decision to abandon atmospheric power. Instead of a reservoir tank, water was probably to be taken from the River Dart, as it was from the Exe in Exeter.

If it had been activated, Totnes engine house would have had the easiest job of all of them, because in both directions, approaching trains were coming down steep grades and would have arrived by mainly by gravity.

Totnes OS map
— Totnes, Ordnance Survey 25-inch, 1890. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 courtesy National Library of Scotland.
Annotations by Joseph Brennan.

The Totnes railway property was just south of the River Dart and a secondary parallel water called the Mill Leat. The map shows a Goods Shed that lasted well into the twentieth century. Its stone foundation now supports the farthest part of the car park. From there visitors can walk on a public footpath and footbridges to reach the Totnes Riverside terminus of the heritage South Devon Railway and next to it the Totnes Rare Breeds Farm. The track seen here on the right was the Totnes Quay branch for freight.

An undated photograph that hangs on the wall of The Atmospheric Railway in Starcross shows where the chimney was. Some additions to the boiler house seen here were later removed.

old picture
— "Engine House at Totnes. Buildings in use as a cyder store." The Atmospheric Railway, Starcross.

The buildings were used from 1934 to 2007 by a series of creamery companies, with quite appropriately two gigantic horizontal boilers in the boiler house, which were however connected to a new cylindrical chimney. In 1966 the creamery reportedly produced a ton of Devon clotted cream each day! The last user, Dairy Crest Creamery, sold the buildings in 2014 to a community group for the price of 1 Totnes Pound, a local currency that is accepted for £1 at businesses in town. English Heritage has given the atmospheric buildings a Grade II listing.

Below are two of my photographs showing the buildings looking quite well by 2018, with new roofs and a new window on the engine house where it had been bricked up. On the left is the Signal Box Cafe, which served its original purpose from 1923 to 1987.

engine house
engine house

The view just above is from the station footbridge. There are four tracks in the station, the only place between Plymouth and Newton where fast trains can overtake stopping ones. The several buildings in the distance are other parts of the creamery, on both sides of Mill Leat, that are slated to be torn down or renovated. (From the shadows you can guess that my two pictures were taken hours apart.)

Here are some views of the town.

River Dart

The River Dart, looking downstream. When the South Devon opened, SDR publicity suggested changing at Totnes for boats to Dartmouth. (The almost all-rail route via Paignton opened in 1864.) The right bank here is Vire Island, separated by Mill Leat, here called Mill Tail, which joins the river this side of the white buildings in the distance. Locals say that the island was brought here in 1974 by tugboat from the town of Vire in Normandy.

Fore Street

Fore Street, looking west. It becomes the High Street after passing through East Gate Arch and there entering the oldest part of the town.

Totnes Castle

Remains of Totnes Castle. It's quite a climb, and makes you realize why modern stairways have occasional landings. This does not.

Totnes Castlee

View north from the top of the castle. Down below is the entrance from Castle Street. The creamery chimney marks the location of the station. From there, the track and up platform are visible to the left and the atmospheric buildings to the right. Further to the right, the distant railway curving to the left is the heritage South Devon Railway.


Totnes is reputed to be the most eccentric town in Britain. I mentioned already its own Totnes pound currency and the origins of Vire Island. The Telegraph in 2018 wrote, "This place has earned a reputation for a level of eccentricity beyond the usual cream tea and antiques shop fare that characterises a day trip in this part of the world." On summer Tuesdays the town has an Elizabethan market, with shop owners and many of the customers dressing appropiately.

I'm sorry now that I missed a chance to see the Timehouse Muzeum and Narnia Totnes, or, the Time Travellers Museum. It was behind the yellow shop front in my Fore Street picture. A vinyl record and collectibles shop opens into four floors of quirky rooms filled with pop culture assemblages from decades of the twentieth century, all of it an elaborate work of art by one person, Julie Lafferty. "It's bigger on the inside", says one review.

I also missed the Totnes Museum, across the street, in an Elizabethan house. The post of its spiral staircase was made from a ship's mast... maybe. What I wanted to see especially was the room celebrating local boy Charles Babbage, who worked on a "difference engine" and then an "analytical engine", and, I did not know this, an ophthalmoscope. My error was to visit Totnes on a Monday, when many museums are ordinarily closed.

Near the East Gate Arch is the Brutus Stone, a rough granite block set into the pavement. You could walk on it if you don't pay attention. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britannie, as translated by J.A. Giles in 1848, Brutus of Troy, the great-grandson of Aeneas, "set sail with a fair wind towards the promised island, and arrived on the coast of Totness. The island was then called Albion, and inhabited by none but a few giants. Notwithstanding this, the pleasant situation of the places, the plenty of rivers abounding with fish, and the engaging prospect of its woods, made Brutus and his company very desirous to fix their habitation in it." After describing battles with the giants and some other things, Geoffrey continues, "At last Brutus called the island after his own name Britain, and his companions Britons; for by these means he desired to perpetuate the memory of his name. From whence [sic] afterwards the language of the nation, which at first bore the name of Trojan, or rough Greek, was called British." This particular stone was where Brutus first set foot on England. Not in Geoffrey's history but from somewhere else even more creative, we are told that Brutus said, "Here I stand and here I rest. And this town shall be called Totnes". Because it rhymes with "rest" (almost). The sea was evidently much higher in the days when a ship could land there. Or else someone moved the stone.

The name Albion is mentioned in the ancient work Περι Κοσμου, long thought to be by Aristotle, but now believed to be from another later pen estimated to be from 350 to 250 BCE. The writer mentions that in the sea beyond the Pillars of Hercules there are two very large islands, Βρεττανικαι λεγομεναι Αλβιων και Ιερνη , "Brittanic [isles] called Albion and Ierne", which shows a very early use of the familiar names. These he says are beyond the land of the Kelts, meaning Gaul. From this it seems that Albion was the Brittanic people's name for Great Britain. A possible derivation from alb "white" might relate to the appearance of the cliffs of Dover, visible from the continent. So Geoffrey is in error for believing that the name Britain replaced that of Albion in Brutus's time.


Geoffrey of Monmouth's account, written about 1136 in Late Latin, has prosperis ventis "favorable wind" and promissam insulam "promised island" as I see in the Giles translation, and in Totonesio applicuit littore, "landed on the coast of Totonesium", a Latinate form that gives only a rough idea of the name. Geoffrey does not tell us why Brutus or the giants called it that.

But there is an earlier document than Geoffrey. The important port of Totnes is in the Domesday book. Terra Iudhæl de Totenais had 110 households, probably some 500 people, on land that had been held by King Eadweard in 1066. According to The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-names the name is derived from the personal name "Totta" and "ness" meaning a headland, which was more evident as a "ness" in earlier times before the surrounding low ground was filled in. I do not know why it is spelled with only one s, except to be eccentric.