Dartington | South Devon Village Guide
May 8th, 2017 | By Ross Purdy
Famous all over the world amongst artists, academics and educators, Dartington is a little village with a big reputation. This is thanks to a fascinating history, which began in the interwar years when an American socialite fell in love with an English agriculturalist. Together they began a social and cultural experiment which continues to this day.
Getting to Dartington
Getting to this village is straightforward.
- From Totnes, simply follow the A385 out of the town for around two miles.
- From Plymouth, follow the A38 for around 14 miles then exit when you see the signs for Totnes and Dartington. Take the first exit at the roundabout and the A385 will take you to the village.
- From Exeter, take the A38/Devon Expressway until, after around 18 miles, you come to the exit signposted for Totnes, Dartington and Salcombe. Take this exit and turn left at the end of the road. Stay on this road (the A384) for 3.5 miles, which will take you to the village.
Getting to Dartington Hall
- From Totnes, follow the A385 towards Dartington until you come to a roundabout. Turn right at the first one, and go straight at the second (right if you want to go the Shops at Dartington). Turn right at the church a few hundred yards later and follow this lane to the estate.
- Alternatively, turn right onto Dartington Lane (narrow in places) off the A385, just past the secondary school in Totnes.
- From Plymouth, when you arrive in the village, turn left at the roundabout at Shinners Bridge, then go straight at the next one (or right to go to the Shops at Dartington), then turn right at the church. Follow the lane into the estate.
- From Exeter, once you’ve exited the A38 and joined the A385, follow the road for three miles. When you see a church on your left, turn left and follow the lane into the estate. To go to the Shops at Dartington, continue to the roundabout and turn left. Parking will be on your right.
There are also several walking and cycling routes from Totnes to Dartington. Joining Dartington Lane from the path that follows the River Dart and taking this road into the estate is a nicely picturesque option.
Our guide to Dartington
With a population of 876 at the time of the last Census, Dartington is a relatively small village. But it still manages to attract thousands of visitors every year, whether they’re coming to watch a movie at the Barn Cinema, share a drink at the Cott Inn or White Hart, marvel at the majestic Dartington Hall gardens or pick up some souvenirs in one of the gift shops.
The historic Dartington Hall estate is what makes the village so unique, so that’s where we’ll begin our guide.
The Elmhirsts and the Dartington experiment
The Great Hall that towers over the 1200-acre Dartington Hall Estate was built in the late 14th century for John Holland, Earl of Huntington. Half-brother to Richard II, John lost the estate (along with his head) following a failed uprising against Henry IV in 1400, and the Crown took ownership of Dartington Hall. It was purchased in 1559 by Sir Arthur Champernowne, whose family owned and lived in the hall until 1925. This is when the modern story of Dartington Hall began.
The Great Hall was mostly derelict by the time Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst purchased it and began transforming the estate. Dorothy, one of the richest women in America, was a social activist and patron of the arts. She met her second husband, Leonard, in 1920 when he was studying agriculture at Cornell University.
They dreamt of creating a new kind of rural community, defined by progressive education, transformative arts and a modern approach to agriculture. Unlike most couples, they had the means to turn their utopian dream into a reality. So the Elmhirsts took ownership of the Dartington Hall estate, formed a charitable trust, and began a unique experiment in rural living that was as inspiring as it was controversial – to local residents and global onlookers alike.
The Elmhirsts restored the buildings including the magnificent Great Hall and introduced a swathe of farming, forestry and educational projects. Dartington Hall School, Dartington Tweed Mill and Dartington Glass are all well-known examples.
Dartington College of Arts arrived in 1961 and continued for over four decades, producing illustrious alumni including comedian and actor Josie Lawrence. While other educational institutions are still going strong – these include Park School (a progressive primary school), the Schumacher College and some regular events such as the Dartington International Summer School and the Ways with Words literature festival.
Soon after the Elmhirsts arrived, international artists and thinkers followed them to South Devon from around the world and this trend has continued to this day. The famously ‘alternative’ feel of the nearby town of Totnes owes much to the Dartington experiment.
You can find out more about the history of Dartington Hall here: https://www.dartington.org/about/our-history/
Dartington Hall today
The estate remains a fascinating place to visit to this day. Your first port-of-call should be the Visitor Centre, which is located under the arch that leads onto the courtyard. Here you’ll be able to learn more about points of interest, historical curiosities and pick up a map so you can find your way around.
The Great Hall and the courtyard
A regular venue for concerts, lectures and other events, the Great Hall is a wonderful 14th century building, restored from a largely derelict state by architect William Weir at the behest of the Elmhirsts.
The White Hart
By the Great Hall, you’ll find the White Hart, a surprisingly contemporary bar-restaurant well known for its food that emphasises produce sourced from the estate itself as well as the surrounding area.
The outside tables are especially enticing on a sunny day, where you can enjoy the view of the lawn and the trees beyond, before or after exploring the magnificent gardens.
For a more informal café experience, pop into the Roundhouse Café, which also has plenty of outdoor seating. This is located opposite the Visitor Centre.
It’s worth making the trip to Dartington purely to see the landscaped gardens.
Walking around the tiltyard, it’s a challenge to keep an eye out for the sculptures and engravings without missing the overall grandeur of the garden and the natural scenery that surrounds it.
Most famous of the artworks on the estate is the Henry Moore sculpture, which occupies pride of place overlooking the Great Hall from the far end of the tiltyard.
The play area
The grass banks of the tiltyard are delicate, meaning visitors are discouraged from leaving the paths and dogs are not permitted within the sculpted gardens.
If the kids or four-legged friends need to burn off steam, there’s a play area and separate green where dogs can be let off their leads. You’ll find this about a hundred yards downhill from the car park.
The Barn Cinema
This 15th century converted barn, which is part of the grand courtyard, makes for an unusually atmospheric cinema and occasional performance venue. The film programme mixes independent and international cinema with blockbusters and ‘as live’ broadcasts from the National Theatre and similar organisations. The Roundhouse Café downstairs offers a range of drinks and some tasty homemade cakes to enjoy before the show.
The Shops at Dartington
Formerly known as the Cider Press Centre, the Shops at Dartington have their own car park just off Shinners Bridge. After leaving Totnes, take a right at the first roundabout you come to and another at the second. The car park will be on your right. It’s a straightforward walk from Dartington Hall, but it does involve tackling a sizeable hill so perhaps not ideal if you’re planning to come back with lots of shopping bags.
You’ll find a range of gift shops selling goods from stationary to kitchenware, an excellent deli and wine shop, plus a restaurant and Venus Café & Takeaway.
Elsewhere in Dartington village
There’s more to the village than the Dartington Hall estate, including a fantastic pub, which is known as one of the oldest in the country in terms of the length of time it’s served as an inn.
The Cott Inn
The Cott Inn, which has been welcoming customers since 1320 AD, is a glorious thatch-roofed pub/restaurant. It has everything you’d hope to find in a cosy traditional pub – an open fire in the winter, cob walls and uneven beams, plus a spacious beer garden for soaking up the summer sun.
The menu is more restaurant-oriented than ‘pubby’, making it a nice place for a romantic meal or to celebrate a special occasion with the family.
There’s live music on some Sunday evenings as well, so it’s worth checking their website regularly.
At the time of writing, there’s also a regular offer on Tuesdays for fish and chips: £17 for two.
St Mary’s Church
St Mary’s Church sits on the edge of the Dartington Hall Estate on the A384. This 19th century church was built partially using materials from the older church, which is located just over a kilometre to the west. The church tower of the original St Mary’s Church still stands alone inside the estate.
Being just a few miles from Totnes, taking care of grocery shopping and other practical matters is straightforward. To make it even more convenient, Dartington has a sizeable village shop/mini-supermarket, so you won’t need to jump in the car for convenience items. The Village Stores is on Shinners Bridge by the Texaco petrol station.
Being near the A38 and just a few miles from Totnes, the village is well located for a range of attractions, so you can easily stop by the village as part of your day trip.
There’s plenty to do in nearby Totnes, a medieval market town with a host of individual shops, cafés, pubs, restaurants and more. Totnes Castle is worth a visit for the incredible panoramic views alone, and from Totnes Littlehempston station you can take a steam train ride to Buckfastleigh, where you’ll find Dartmoor Otter Sanctuary and Buckfast Butterfly Park. In Totnes, there’s also the Rare Breeds Farm and a picturesque harbour where you can take a passenger ferry down the river to Dartmouth.
A few miles up the A384 you’ll come to the home of Riverford Organic Farms and the popular Field Kitchen restaurant, as well as a farm shop that’s great for stocking up on fresh local produce.
South Devon holidays
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