The whole time we were here we kept saying, ‘wait, what is this place.’ Is it a learning center? A dance school? A festival site or wedding venue or camp ground? An indie cinema, maybe, a vegan café, an outdoors playground? A walled garden and a great hall? What is it? And why is it here on this stunning, rambling estate in Devon?
Dartington, we found out, is one of those special places that are many different things to many different people, some of which we’d guessed at, and many of which we hadn’t. It’s like a polymath of a place. Covering 1200 acres just outside of similarly independently spirited Totnes, Dartington is all the things that it would take to put thought into practice. It’s the thinking piece brought together with the doing piece of living a multifaceted life in a multifaceted world.
You know all that talk of ideas changing the world, that we hear about again and again. Well here that actually happened. Way back in 1925 when Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst bought the house, the conversations and the connections that they nurtured amongst leading thinkers, politicians, and creatives of that day had real-world, lasting impact. The NHS, The Arts Council and Open University all had their start here. That’s a pretty impressive heritage. It’s also a progressive, forward-focused experiment that continues today.
Dartington is not an anachronism. That spirit of innovation and exploration, of bringing together change makers and thinkers, of nurturing creative entrepreneurs and impactful practices—is still as urgent given the ever-pressing realities of our modern lives. Now though the focus is brought across several categories— identified as arts and culture, agriculture and architecture, learning and making, socially minded business, social justice and sustainability— that ultimately interconnect and inform one another. Dartington is still pushing its agenda forward to a public that seems ready and very much willing to participate within it.
There are multiple ways to engage: Dartington offers programs, classes, workshops, and events that take myriad forms and can shape ‘a many-sided life’ that is really the goal at its heart. The appeal is looking through its strands and finding your thing, maybe even your Self, within it. Bringing its disparate elements into play in your own life as Dartington evolves and shapes the wider world. Whether that’s a slight dip with an indie movie at The Barn Cinema, a vegan lunch at The Green Table, or even a wild swim in the actual River Dart that flows through the estate. Or a longer engagement with a course, or mentorship, or partnership. Here you’ll find the brilliantly named The Craft Revolution, the School of Social Entrepreneurs, the summer literary festival Ways with Words. You can volunteer in the walled garden, attend the acclaimed Summer School that partners amateur musicians with professionals, and even camp within the grounds.
You can also just day trip, and seek out The Shops of Dartington, itself an experiment in social enterprise and community renewal. We recommend coffee at Bayards Kitchen and the quirky The Re-Store. Don’t let the many coaches belie its innovative intent.
We’re convinced that places can change the world. Dartington proves this theory in practice. What will it do for you?