Creating a country house setting at Killerton

Killerton house and the clump from above

Sir Thomas Dyke Acland 7th bt wanted to create a landscape, garden and house at Killerton that reflected his family's importance and position in society. He hired John Veitch in 1772 as his landscaper and they worked together until Sir Thomas's death in 1785. Together they left a lasting impression on the landscape and a lasting relationship between the two families.

John Veitch 

John Veitch grew up in Scotland, helping his father Thomas manage the woodlands on the estate of Ancrum House. He wanted to become a gardener and landscape designer, and as a teenager went to learn his trade at two nurseries in London. John apprenticed at Robert Dickson & Son in Scotland, then Vineyard Nursery in Hammersmith, ran by James Lee, who recommended Veitch to Sir Thomas Acland 7th bt..

Designing Killerton

John Veitch was influenced by Capability Brown and worked with Repton at Luscombe castle. His initial garden designs included an winding mix of paths, open views, and rustic buildings, such as the Bear's Hut and Ice House, and a classical orangery (which was later removed). The picturesque art movement inspired his landscaping and planting, and is still a major influence of the parkland and gardens you will find today.

He dramatised the hill behind the house by planting tall trees on it, contrasting below with a gentle sweep of lawn into the valley floor beyond. New paths and drives followed natural contours, placed to take advantage of breathtaking views in the distance. 

Sir Thomas was so impressed with the Veitch family's work at Killerton that, in order to persuade John to stay for the long-term, he offered him the funds and land at Budlake to develop his own business. Sir Thomas also allowed John to act a freelance landscape designer, and encouraged him to marry and start a family (very unusual at a time when many staff were expected to remain single and loyal to their employers).

Inspiration and influence

Alongside working for the Aclands, John developed his own reputation by working with other designers, even if only supplying them with plants. He was sent to Saltram near Plymouth to witness Capability Brown at work.

Veitch was inspired by his time with other designers and by the fashions of the day, including the picturesque movement. By 1801 the garden around the house was fenced off from the parkland and in 1808 when Sir Thomas 10th Baronet came of age, work developed quickly, and large numbers of ornamental trees were planted to emphasise the steep hill of the Clump and Park Wood to make Killerton a more dramatic point in the landscape. He added rustic buildings and features to make the views of the countryside all the more special.

A family business 

John Veitch retired in 1813, but still had a hand in the family nursery, but with his son James at the helm. Veitch’s family and nursery went from strength to strength over succeeding generations, becoming one of the biggest and most prestigious nurseries in Victorian England. They sent plant hunters across the globe to bring back specimens.

The Veitchs continued to use Killerton’s grounds to test new plants right into the twentieth century. The garden is therefore an excellent showcase for plant hunters and their adventures around the world. 

The family still had a relationship with the Aclands 140 years later when Sir Arthur Acland and Sir Harry Veitch both served on the eduction committee of the Royal Horticultural Society.

Later developments

The head gardener during the late nineteenth century was John Coutts. He developed an old quarry near the house into today's rock garden, inspired by alpine plants. The one hundred metre long terrace was built overlooking the rolling Devon countryside to the south of the house. It was originally planted with a large range of roses, and is now home to a half hardy border.

Killerton's garden is a canvas of colour in the summer
The garden terrace at Killerton in the summer
Killerton's garden is a canvas of colour in the summer

Veitch's plant hunters

In 1813 John Veitch handed the nursery business on to his eldest son James, who had worked with him at Killerton and the nursery from a young age. Under James Veitch the nursery expanded, and began employing plant hunters to bring back exotic plants from abroad. In 1832 he gave apprenticeships to William and Thomas Lobb, which included sending them off around the world to look for plant and tree specimens to bring home to Killerton.

The nursery took advantage of the special conditions at Killerton to plant the freshly arrived seeds and saplings. Sheltered from northerly winds by the Clump (Dolbury Hill) and with rich acidic soil and a south facing slope, the microclimate at Killerton is excellent for plants such as camellias, magnolias and rhododendrons. These were brought back by the plant collectors for a trial before going on sale through the nursery.

Killerton became one of the first arboreta in the country, with trees from all continents except Antarctica. There are over 100 species of rhododendron, the first deodar cedar grown in Britain, and fine examples of magnolia which can be seen from miles away when it's in bloom.

Some of the first giant redwoods (Sequoiadendron giganteum) to be planted in England arrived at Killerton. They were brought back from California in 1853 by William Lobb. The tallest specimen is 41 metres high, and over 2 metres wide. Nearby is a Japanese cedar and Persian ironwood, while Deodar Glen is named after the Deodar cedars planted there to re-create a Himalayan valley.