When lockdown started, the future for Totnes high street – like thousands of other across the country – looked bleak.
One by one, shops closed and notices were pasted in windows until only a handful of increasingly essential shops remained.
As the weeks turned into months, the sea of brown paper streaked across windows made it apparent lockdown had dealt a fatal blow for some.
On Tuesday, June 9, when the government gave the go ahead for non essential shops to reopen, many feared it was too late for the high street.
People had got used to shopping online, to brown boxes appearing on their doorstep, to keeping their distance from others, to not spending money.
And yet against all the odds, Totnes has seen a renaissance in recent weeks. Not only has the high street reopened, it’s blossoming.
At least three brand new independent shops have opened in the past month and there are more visitors to the town than ever.
Six weeks ago, Totnes Town Council agreed to ban cars from the high street on a Saturday morning.
It was an experiment in response to a petition set up by Delphinis gelato shop owner Johan Van As to help with social distancing as well as provide a safer and better environment and it’s been a roaring success.
This Saturday the high street was packed with visitors, there were queues snaking down the street outside several shops as they enforced social distancing measures and restricted numbers inside but found people were prepared to wait.
Butterworth’s Vintage Co is the latest addition to Totnes high street, opening on the Narrows on Friday, July 31.
A unique vintage clothes shop specialising in French and European pieces, it’s been flooded with customers in its first few days.
Store owner Colin Butterworth has been selling his clothes on Totnes market since October but saw the opportunity to open his own shop when the previous tenants, Small Folk, expanded and moved across the road.
A well known entrepreneur in the vintage clothes market who opened his first shop, Dustbowl, in Bristol years ago, he said: “It was always our idea to have a shop again and this seemed like a good space for all the stock we have.
“We’ve mainly been selling online, but it was a good opportunity to bring the clothes out and sell to the people of Totnes.
“I think people are ready to come out and shop again. It’s been really busy. It feels quite positive and all the customers have been great.”
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Next door, boutique wine store Wine and Greene opened at the end of 2019, also as a shop front for a business that has previously been online.
Owner Ben Greene said while the shop shut in lockdown, their online business took off, but since they’ve reopened, they’ve seen a real change in Totnes.
“The first couple of weeks after lockdown, we were really the only shop open up here and it was pretty dead. But in the last few weeks the holidaymakers have been down, the local people have come out and it has definitely got busier than ever.”
At the other end of town, one side street has become an artisan food haven – the home of Country Cheeses, Annie’s famous grocery store, Flour and Rice, purveyors of delicious Japanese food and Italian pizzas and as of this week, a new boutique fishmonger.
Aarik Persaud, a chef and former butcher who’s worked in Toronto, London, Hong Kong and Australia, came to Totnes with his wife two years ago and fell in love with the town.
The charismatic Canadian finally moved here two months ago and opened Cormacks Seafood, named after the Canadian boat that became the forerunner for Greenpeace.
“The premise of the shop is that we only work with small, local fishing fleets,” he told me, in between serving a stream of eager customers delighted to have a fishmongers back in the town after several years.
“I work with a couple of local fishermen who come into Brixham and Plymouth and a small mussel farmer in the Teign.
“You get the freshest fish. I get a text each night to tell me what’s come in and that’s what I sell.”
He make up his own fish fillets, burgers, salt fish, curries and roasts as well as serving the fish as it comes straight from the sea.
Artist Charlie O’Sullivan signed the lease on a new gallery space opposite Yvonne Coomber’s gallery in the Narrows. It’s turned the corner into an artistic hub, which could prove a real draw for Totnes.
“We came up with the idea of A Pickled Thought and we opened on July 4,” said Charlie, who was sketching in the gallery as passers-by peered through the windows at her bright and striking contemporary paintings.
“It’s myself and my daughter who are running it and we felt like we needed a new challenge. If you’re going to take on a challenge, why not do it in a pandemic?” she laughed.
O’Sullivan’s work is in galleries around the world, from Singapore to London, and she’s recently been commissioned for a painting in the new Nightingale hospital in Exeter.
“The whole concept of this space is to allow me to paint what I what to show. I deal with narrative, so I paint what I see. I sketch the stories of people that I see and hear and it’s really important to me to bring joy.
“When we opened, all of a sudden it was almost like people were desperate to bloom again, to socialise and to be out.
“People have been really sensitive and social distancing and from a shop point of view people do wear masks and they do stay apart.
“Week by week Totnes has flourished and you can see it getting busier. It’s about people feeling the confidence to go out. You go through Totnes and there’s this vibrance that is contagious.”