Earlier this year I went on a nostalgia trip back to Exeter where I was at college. One of the places I wanted to see again was Killerton, the home of my tutor Sir Richard Acland.
Apart from being an extraordinarily inspiring teacher Sir Richard was a gifted and principled, if sadly ultimately unsuccessful, politician, and the man who gave the National Trust its largest ever gift of land – the Holnicote and Killerton estates in Devon and Somerset – not to avoid death duties or maintenance bills but because he thought it was philosophically and morally the right thing to do.
Killerton, as a house, is a quirky architectural patchwork but this has made it very ‘ liveable’. Its gardens and parkland are the combination of the work and vision of both the owners, generations of the Acland family who acquired the estate in the early 17thc, and the gardeners, generations of the Veitch family who were also nurserymen and plant hunters and who worked for the estate in the 18th & 19thc.
Read on to find out more about how these two exceptional gardening dynasties worked together to create Killerton’s renowned gardens…
A house was built on the Killerton site in the mid 16thc and was bought the early 17thc by John Acland, a neighbour from Columbjohn less than a mile away on the banks of the river Culm.
Columbjohn served [at different times of course!] as the base for both the Royalists and Parliamentarians during the Civil War but was abandoned around 1680 when Sir Hugh Acland opted to make Killerton his family home. The house must have been demolished at some point before the mid-18thc because only a small group of buildings, are shown on the estate map of 1756, and now just the gateway and tiny chapel remain
The present mansion at Killerton was built as ‘temporary’ house in 1778-79 by John Johnson for Sir Thomas Dyke Acland, [the 7th Baronet] to be lived in only while something even grander was planned and constructed on the hillside overlooking the site. Somehow that never happened and instead the house was adapted many times to suit the changing needs of the family. Johnson also built the impressive stable block and presumably the walls of the kitchen garden
In 1772 Sir Thomas took on a 20 year old Scotsman, John Veitch as his gardener and they worked together until Sir Thomas’s death in 1785. Veitch had grown up helping his father Thomas manage the woodlands on the estate of Ancrum House, nr Jedburgh. Later he was apprenticed at Robert Dickson & Son, Scotland’s leading nursery, which had developed gradually during the preceding twenty years to specialise in forest trees. [For more about Dickson’s nursery see Sue Shephard’s Seeds of Fortune].
Like many other Scots Veitch then headed south to England, by managing to transfer his apprenticeship to the celebrated Vineyard Nursery in Hammersmith run by Kennedy & Lee. This was a great success because it was James Lee, who recommended him to Sir Thomas.
Sir Thomas must have been impressed with Veitch’s early work at Killerton because, in order to persuade him to stay in the longer term, he offered him not only financial support but also estate land at Budlake to develop his own nursery business, and later to act as a landscape designer. Even more surprising, but very astutely, appointed him land agent for all of his extensive Westcountry properties and presumably must have encouraged him to marry and start a family which was still rare at a time when many staff were expected to remain single and thus ‘loyal’ to their employer. As a consequence Veitch remained linked to the Aclands and to Killerton, giving himself a secure base and effectively a grand trial ground, whilst the Aclands retained the services of the man who was to become one of the top-ranking nurserymen of his day.
Apart from working on his own account Veitch worked with other designers, even if only to supply them with plants. He is known to have worked with Repton on several occasions including at Luscombe castle …and it may have been from Repton that he got some of his ideas for Killerton. He got others from Capability Brown, having been sent by Sir Thomas to see him at work at Saltram.
The garden initially developed in what was later to be labelled by Loudon as the Gardenesque style – an eclectic mix of winding paths, scattered beds of flowers and shrubs, with specimen trees and shrubs planted into the grass. There were picturesque rustic buildings as well as a classical orangery [sadly demolished in 1937] and more formal garden areas.
This mix, akin to a Regency era pleasure ground, is still the prevailing spirit of the Killerton gardens.
But Veitch also used the rolling landscape to create stunning views, especially to the south, which could be seen from a series of terraced paths snaking up the rising ground to the summit, but which are only gradually revealed in theatrical fashion ,through an ingenious use of topography and tree planting. These planned views still work despite the intrusion of the M5, and the proximity of Exeter.
Killerton has an exceptional microclimate, sheltered from the north winds by Killerton Clump, the steep hill that rises behind the house and with gentle slopes falling away south towards the Culm valley. There are no frost pockets and the soil is acidic, with no lime, which makes it particularly suitable for plants such as rhododendrons, camellias and magnolias – all of which were being introduced by 18th and 19thc plant collectors, many of them through Veitch’s nursery.
Veitch worked hard. By 1801 pleasure grounds were laid out round the house and were fenced off from the surrounding parkland. The earlier landscape – mainly used as a hunting park – still survives with a legacy of many veteran trees. In 1808 when Sir Thomas, the 10th baronet, [usually known as Great Sir Thomas because of his important political career] came of age he wanted to make his mark on the estate, and working hand in glove with Veitch, the garden developed rapidly.
Large numbers of ornamental trees were planted in Park Wood and on Killerton Clump, reinforcing the topography, although sadly rather to the detriment of the Iron Age hill fort there. An Ice House was constructed, as was a rustic timber shelter now known as The Bear’s Hut because it was later used as the home of a Canadian Black Bear, bought back as a pet by one of the family in the 1860s. It has a stained glass window comprised of fragments collected by the family, and an extraordinary internal decor that uses bark, deerskin, pine cones and twigs etc.
In 1813 John Veitch decided that although he would continue with his work for the Aclands, particularly at Killerton, he would ‘retire’ from his own nursery business. His eldest son James took over.
James was to give the nursery an international reputation. In 1832 he expanded the business by opening additional grounds in Exeter. It was he who gave apprenticeships, including time at Killerton, to both William and Thomas Lobb before sending them out as plant-hunters. [For more on the Lobbs see Toby Musgrave & Sue Shephard, Big Tree and Blue Orchid, 2014]. As new exotics from all over the world began to be introduced by the business, the close relationship between the two families meant that many trees and shrubs were ‘tested out’ at Killerton where the growing conditions made it a wonderful trial ground for new species.
This is particularly noticeable in the planting on Killerton Clump, which became one of the first arboreta in the country. There are, amongst other things, original plantings of Sequoiadendron giganteum from seed brought back by William Lobb from California in 1853. [see post December 6th 2014]. The largest is now surrounded by an iron fence and has a plaque nearby stating that this tree was 125ft (37m) high and 7ft (2m) in diameter in 2002. There are also specimens of Coastal and Dawn Redwoods. More information about them can found at:
The first deodar cedar to set seed in Britain is here too, and there are also impressive examples of Magnolia campbelli [which can apparently be seen from 3 miles away when it is in flower!] Stewartia pseudocamellia, Taiwania cryptomerioides, and Liriodendron tulipifera amongst many others.
Lower down there are large plantings of rhododendrons from over 100 species: some 19thc introductions via Veitch and others from the 1920s as a result of the sponsorship by Sir Frances Acland, [14th Baronet],of Frank Kingdon-Ward’s plant-hunting expeditions to the Himalayas.
In 1911, the 140-year-old relationship between the Acland and Veitch families culminated in the development of a national diploma in horticulture, as Arthur [later Sir Arthur, the 13th Baronet) and Sir Harry Veitch both served on the horticultural education committee of the RHS.
Planting aside, little else changed in the gardens and parkland during the 19thc, but the accession in 1898 of Sir Charles [the 12th baronet] and, more particularly, his wife Lady Gertrude saw many changes. She had been a keen gardener at the family’s secondary estate at Holnicote for many years and called in William Robinson to offer ideas on Killerton.
Overgrown shrubbery at the top of the garden was cleared out and and a glade of early rhododendrons – ‘Lady Gertrude’s Glade’ – planted among John Veitch’s old Giant Redwood trees.
Elsewhere, drifts of cyclamen and daffodils were seeded in the grass. Their head gardener, John Coutts, [who later went on to be curator at Kew], developed an old quarry behind the Bears Hut into a rock garden. It was has recently been replanted with species associated with Sir Francis’s sponsorship of Frank Kingdon Ward in the 1920s.
But most noticeable change was the 100m long Great Terrace constructed on the south and south west side of the house and that was originally planted with more than 100 varieties of roses underplanted with herbaceous plants. There was also a 65m long herbaceous border in high Edwardian style. Both areas were subsequently altered but a new herbaceous planting scheme designed by Graham Stuart Thomas and John Sales has recaptured their spirit.
The liberal politics and sentiments of the Aclands have always played a part in the estates history. For example, one of the hilltops in the park was renamed Mount Peel, in honour of Sir Robert Peel’s free trade policy. In 1916 Sir Charles gave the National Trust a 500 year lease on 8,000 acres of Exmoor, doubling the size of their landholdings at a stroke. Sir Francis opened the gardens to the public in the 1920s and invited Lloyd George to address a huge crowd on the terrace in 1926 which led to Killerton being called ‘the Castle of Beautiful Liberalism’. It was all taken one stage further by Sir Richard who inherited the estate in 1939.
Elected as the Liberal MP for Barnstaple in 1935, his politics rapidly changed course and in 1942 he founded the Common Wealth Party, arguing amongst other things for the public ownership of land. To finance the party he “sprang the idea” on his wife ‘that he would get rid of the estate” to raise funds. She apparently retorted that “estates are not just property; they are communities of people for whom I feel responsible.” The result was that 1500 acres would be sold to the National Trust finance Common Wealth but that the rest would be donated to them. Lady Anne wrote that “this compromise satisfied Richard’s scruples about private property and my own concern for the long term well being of the estates.” [National Trust Guidebook, 2000]
Common Wealth won 3 by-elections during the war but was swept away in the Labour victory of 1945. Sir Richard then joined Labour, becoming MP for Gravesend but resigned in 1955 over their support for nuclear weapons, fought a by-election and lost. He became a teacher in a Wandsworth secondary school and then a tutor at St Luke’s College in Exeter and Warden of the hostel for St Luke’s students that was set up at Killerton. He lived in a house on the estate, retiring in 1974 and died in 1990.
Given the enthusiasm with which they welcomed students and visitors to their former home I have no doubt that Sir Richard and Lady Anne would be delighted to know that not only did they secure the long term future of both the Holnicote and Killerton estates and their communities but that their old home welcomed a record 187,509 visitors in 2013/14.
You can find a more detailed history of Killerton on our database: http://www.parksandgardens.org/places-and-people/site/1921/summary