Finding Killerton’s 1776 House 2

To make sense of this you will need to read the first post which describes how a grand 18th century house designed by a famous architect was never completed. This is on the Killerton Estate near Exeter, Devon where the mansion house is…well.. it’s a little disappointing.

The many thousands of acres both at Killerton and on the Holnicote Estate in west Somerset were given to the National Trust in the 1940s by the Acland family.

It’s been 18 months since the first discoveries and things have moved on.


Killerton House with its roof covered in scaffolding. There is limited access for visitors while the repairs are taking place. The roof archaeology is being recorded and fragments of 19th-century wall paper and early 20th century photos of the Acland family have been found amongst the rafters. 

The present Killerton House is having its roof repaired and the 1776 house has been cleared of undergrowth.

We wondered whether the LiDAR survey had see the cellars of the abandoned house under the trees of Columbjohn wood. Now that we can see ground beneath the vegetation there are heaps of bricks everywhere.

The workers charged with salvaging the building materials had left the broken bricks behind.


The scrub has been cleared in what we think was the main cellar of the 1776 house and the remains of its demolition and salvage have been found:  lots of broken bricks scattered in piles in the hollow.

Project manager Fi has co-ordinated a series of events which will enable visitors to explore Killerton’s historic landscape. This will happen during the CBA Archaeology Festival later this month. A team of National Trust Heritage Archaeology Rangers have been trained and Bryn from South West Archaeology is supervising the investigation of the lost house of Killerton .

A couple of weeks ago they mapped the earthworks and these fit with the architect’s plans for great house. At the end of July, they will dig some evaluation trenches to ‘ground-truth’ the remains.

Visitors will be very welcome and the mock-up of an 18th century doorway has been erected amongst trees as an entrance to the excavations.

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The newly erected doorway based on the original architect’s drawings of the house that never was. Visit and pass through the doorway to see the excavations in a couple of weeks….

I will spend a couple of days at the folly on the hill-top working out what remains of the ‘white tower’. This folly is shown on an 18th century painting . At this stage we don’t understand quite what the building looked like. It had been demolished long before any photos had been taken.


The new National Trust HART ranger team for Killerton. Practicing making condition monitoring records of the 18th-century folly site on the conical hill top across the valley from Wyatt’s lost house. We will take off the turf on July 27th and see what lies beneath.

Finding Killerton’s 1776 House

Killerton near Exeter Devon is a large farming estate. The Acland family gave it to the National Trust in the 1940s along with their Exmoor Holnicote Estate.

Killerton was where the main house was and generations of the family lived there. If you go there today you’ll see the house nestled beneath Dolbury hillfort and surrounded by mature wooded parkland.


Killerton House with Dolbury Hill behind

In the medieval period, the old centre of the Estate lay to the west, beside the river at Columbjohn. There is still a chapel there where some of the Aclands are buried… but 250 years ago Sir Thomas Acland wanted a new grand house and shifted his home to a new location.


The chapel near the old manor house site at Columbjohn

I had a meeting a couple of weeks ago. It was to discuss the recent archaeological recording work and repair along Killerton’s scheduled park boundary wall.

When I got there I was shown a LiDAR image of the park. The amazing thing about LiDAR is that it can strip away the trees and show the archaeological earthworks hidden beneath. As the plane flies over, it fires numerous laser impulses at the ground. The first return hits the tree canopy but the second return is from the laser impulses that filter though and bounce off the ground beneath. The thing to do is to filter out the first returns and there is your picture of the archaeology on the forest floor.

The LiDAR showed something very strange in Columbjohn Wood. A big rectangular feature on the ridge top with an L-shaped feature to the west.

There was time. Friday afternoon, a bright clear winter day, leafless and no undergrowth. I set off on a ground-truthing exercise. Up past the mansion house, through the garden and the parkland edge, crossing the boundary into Columbjohn Wood. Then through the trees and along the ridge top looking at the ground beneath my feet (archaeologists tend to look at the ground).


The ditch and stone revetted boundary bank of the 18th-century deer park

Great views out to the south.. and there was the conical Mount Pleasant, which, I had been told, had the foundations of a hexagonal garden folly tower on it. Worth having a look….

…a great location and the stone footings were still clear jutting from the top of a barrow-like mound. The folly tower would once have been clearly visible in the surrounding landscape but not really from the present Killerton House.


Mount Pleasant from Columbjohn Wood with the folly mound on the top

Back down the hill and then up to Columbjohn Wood ridge again and ..there were some clay roof tiles churned up in an animal burrow and ..there was the L-shaped rampart and a large rectangular pit. A track cut close to its north side and here I bumped into a spread of brick rubble eroding out of the wheel ruts… Amongst the trees were scattered chunks of stone.



The site? of  Sir Thomas Acland’s never completed mansion in Columbjohn Wood.

I spoke to Denise at Killerton House. She told me that it might be the house that Sir Thomas Acland changed his mind about.

1775-76: in America, the British colonists had chosen to disconnect themselves from the mother country and at Killerton, Sir Thomas had chosen the location for his new house. He appointed a fashionable architect  James Wyatt and work began.

The Acland family archive contains the accounts for £1000s spent on building work.. creating the cellars and beginning to construct the walls, but something went wrong. There’s a terse exchange of letters in early 1777. Mr Wyatt was to cease all work and the builders were to leave the new site.

Everything stopped. Then the work began again in 1778-9 but at a different site and with Mr Johnson not Mr Wyatt. The accounts tell of payments to the salvage team, 33 men taking down bricks from the site on the hill and unpicking the mortar. Loading the materials onto carts to bring to the new site where Killerton House is today.

Nobody had worked out where this almost mansion was but it seems that the LiDAR has found it for us. Our big rectangular pit may be the cellars mentioned in the documents and the pile of stuff to one site may be unwanted building material left behind during the salvage work. IMG_3104

Old oak at the foot of Mount Pleasant

Perhaps this 1775-6 site was a windier location… but with great views across the Devon landscape and with the hill top tower folly clearly visible in the foreground. I wonder why Sir Thomas changed his mind.

Industrial beauty

The forge

The forge

I started my digging life on an industrial site near Barnsley in Yorkshire, and my relatives worked in the mills and mines of West Yorkshire, so I have a soft spot for industrial sites from the past.

A while ago I visited one of our small industrial gems in Devon. I had some leather drive-belts to drop off for them to use from a large collection we acquired in order to get the  right sizes for some for our grist (corn and grain) mills.

leather drive belts of all sizes waiting for new homes

Leather drive-belts of all sizes waiting for new homes

The property was Finch Foundry near Okehampton, the last working water-powered forge in England. There are three water wheels powering hammers, shears and blade sharpening stones. This set up lead to the foundry becoming one of the South West’s most successful edge tool factories which, at its peak, produced around 400 edge tools a day, of many designs and types.

One of the waterwheels can be seen through the opening in the wall on the left

One of the waterwheels can be seen through the opening in the wall on the left

When you visit you are met by the smells and the noises of the machines, a taste of what it may have been like to work in this forge. But it is only part of the noise that would have been made, as not all the hammers, shears and grinders are in use during your visit!

Some of the workers and owners of the forge

Some of the workers and the owner of the forge

One of the water powered hammers

The water-powered hammers on the right and large shears on the left

There is also a carpenters’ shed at the forge. As the business grew Finch Bros expanded into providing carts, gates and even coffins. At the property you can see the  large variety of edge tools made at the foundry, along with a display of tools used by the wheelwrights and carpenters and learn about the Finch family. I recommend calling in if you have a spare hour, its not far from the A30, and there is a lovely garden and of course there is tea and cake 🙂

I hope this short video will give a flavour of the site, with all its squeaks, quacks, whooshes and clacks.