Christmas in Totnes

We arrived in Totnes after a long day walking across Dartmoor, from Morton Hampstead in the North. We had stayed for winter solstice in the Stewards Wood Community, just east of Morton. It was good hearty festivity, with a feast, songs, and a carved ash yule log. We’d been given a guest yurt to sleep in, complete with wood-burner, and we were intensely grateful for its glowing warmth.

In the morning, we had set off before the sun, to make our way toward Totnes, which legend states was the place colonized by the survivors of the Fall of Troy. “New Troy” is what “Totnes” is said to mean.

The day’s walk across the moors was made in misty alacrity. Dartmoor is a place of great and ancient mystery, a perpetual borderland which both invites and forbids. If we were to describe it any further, we would become less accurate, for it shows each person what it chooses, and what you find will be what you need to know.

We were only mildly fatigued on reaching Totnes, a destination that, from the time-travel of maps and the whisper of rumours, had been beckoning us for quite some time. We found it a fine stone town, full of warm smiles and taverns. It was late when we arrived, so we spent our first night with newly met friends, a couple and their baby who had invented a board-game of Buddhism. We played, and reached a dicey Nirvana late in the night. (

In the morning, after some gardening, we went into town, to see it in the daylight. We were keen to busk, as excited crowds of shoppers were taking their pleasurable strolls past gleaming windows of promises, and the streets seemed to be whispering in anticipation of the great festival tomorrow. We set up our sign and hat, and launched into a Cornish love song, about a girl being prevented from marrying her chosen man, by her parents who put her in an asylum. We were deliberately avoiding the typical carols, as they carry powerful stylistic baggage, and cannot be so freely sung. We also fancied that people have heard, by December 24, as many carols as they can stomach, and so we sung what we knew instead.

We did well, and people were complimentary and kind. We answered a bunch of questions, and were just carrying on, when a woman and her two daughters approached. We told her where we came from, and where we thought we were going, and when she asked us what our plans were for Christmas day, she nodded as we told her: “nothing as yet.”

“Then you’ll not mind spending the day with my family and friends. There’ll be music, and games, and lots of food. How does that sound?”

Not many seconds were needed, to briefly look at each other, to check the grin was mutual, before responding that it sounded “very good indeed”. Arrangements and directions were given and confirmed, and we carried on busking with the thought of a merry Christmas being happily given.

That night, on the Totnes exuberance, we went to the pub, and a number of parties, and sung all over the place in varying states of sodden joy. We slept in the camp of a girl we met, whose boyfriend didn’t like us at all, but whose caravan sat on technically un-owned land, and so was unmovable by legal force. It had thus managed to accumulate all the heavy comforts of a stable home in and around the limited confines of a small plastic box on wheels.

It was a lovely night, and we arose in the thick morning to see the others already passing round a bottle of Christmas cheer, which shocked our rising eyes. We ran off before inebriation befuddled our recovery, and hurried to meet our Christmas family. But as we were early, we sat for an hour beside the River Dart. We were feeling rather rough, a shade delicate. So we sang awhile, and the harmonies of ‘Claudy Banks’, a truly old song, melted our headaches into clear pointed energy. We were transformed, and went to meet our new friends for Christmas lunch.

A great family gathering followed, a great and beautiful welcome, with more food than we could ever eat, and games and music galore.

During these celebrations, which are still giving joy to our hearts, we sung a good few songs. But the lady who invited us there, and who gained the permission of all three families, soon took her guitar in her arms and sung with it. And we, and everyone else, were flown away to quite another place.

The songs are here:


The story of these songs, that were once busked by this singer as her sole income, have a long and incredible history. They are a family heirloom, a corpus of song that has been passed down for generations, and that still exists intact today. They are mostly Yiddish songs, with some Russian and Polish and German, and after the Second World War her family was able to survive by the family industry of binding these songs into slim volumes, and selling the books, for food, fuel and clothing.

They retain such simplicity, these songs, and are shockingly dissociative from even the idea of Holocaust. It is a strange path of history they follow, all the way to now, here, on this gifted Christmas day.

We stayed with this family for a few days, until Will’s birthday came on the 28th, we baked a few loaves of bread, and helped with the garden, but mostly we read, cleaned and fixed our kit and bodies, ate and slept.

The Totnes adventures continued, for on the day we intended to leave, we were taking a half of ale in a little pub, and a fellow come over saying: “I saw you singing in Chichester, a good while ago. I told my mate about you, and he’s coming over to ask you something in a minute.” – We waited, and then he sloped over, with a strange diamond grin, muttering “oh yeah, just wandered if you’re up for coming to meet me and my friends. We live in a mansion up the road. There’s loads of rooms, good people, pretty girls, cider, buckets of instruments and food. You up for that?”

And so our path took another turn, and another tale.

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