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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

Interesting…

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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.

Bodies in Trenches 2013

A good time to review some of the discoveries of the past year. Much of what we have written here is to do with work that National Trust archaeologists have carried out themselves. However, resources dictate that I usually need to a ask archaeological contractors to carry out recording work.

A typical watching brief situation. This time for a new water pipe at Ebworth, Gloucestershire dug in September this year.

A typical watching brief situation. This time for a new water pipe at Ebworth, Gloucestershire dug in September this year.

Here are some of the discoveries from repairs, developments and service trenches that needed excavating this year. At some places, a trench can be dug where there is a near certainty that archaeology will be affected…even when the location has been chosen to avoid it. At others, we do not have enough information to know what will be discovered. Geophysics can help… but often it is difficult to know what lies beneath the ground.

Montacute, Somerset built c.1600. There are lost garden features and earlier settlement evidence here. Particularly an ornate gatehouse which is supposed to lie between the pavilion buildings shown on this picture.

Montacute, Somerset built c.1600. There are lost garden features and earlier settlement evidence here. Particularly an ornate gatehouse which is supposed to lie between the pavilion buildings shown on this picture.

In January, trenching for a new drainage system and fibre-optic cable line around the house at Montacute, Somerset was watched by Mike and Peter of Terrain Archaeology but nothing much came up there despite the the archaeological potential of the place. Beyond history there is only archaeology to help us understand. A similar trench at Tyntesfield recorded by Jim of Talits (The Answer Lies In The Soil) found the footings of the original entrance lodge for the mansion complete with its fireplace and flagstone floor. Sam of Absolute Archaeology watched a cable trench for the new IT system in Kingston Lacy Park and this revealed a concentration of flint tools evidence for a Neolithic and Bronze Age occupation site here over 4000 years ago.

Bottle Knap cottage, Long  Bredy, Dorset. A new service trench came across 2 burials recorded by Peter and Mike of Terrain Archaeology.

Bottle Knap cottage, Long Bredy, Dorset. A new service trench came across 2 burials recorded by Peter and Mike of Terrain Archaeology.

In May, bodies were found. Bottleknap Cottage in Long Bredy, west Dorset is the only piece of National Trust land in the Bride Valley. Peter and Mike were asked to watch while a new drain and soakaway were dug there. At about a metre deep, the digger bucket brought up bones beneath a pile of rubble. Remains of two human skeletons had been discovered in a completely unexpected place… several hundred metres from the parish church. Probably pre-Christian but there was no previous evidence for an ancient settlement site here.. so we will have to wait for the radiocarbon date to find out how old they are.

The parish church at Long Bredy. The Bottleknap burials were found a few hundred metres from the church yard. The hollow-way to the right leads up to the chalk downland where the South Dorset Ridgeway Bronze Age round barrow cemetery can be found. Perhaps the Bottleknap bodies are pre-Christian like those beneath the burial mounds.

The parish church at Long Bredy. The Bottleknap burials were found a few hundred metres from the church yard. The hollow-way to the right leads up to the chalk downland where the South Dorset Ridgeway Bronze Age round barrow cemetery can be found. Perhaps the Bottleknap bodies are pre-Christian like those beneath the burial mounds.

In the summer… and now into their stride, Mike and Peter watched a drainage trench at Thomas Hardy’s house at Max Gate. Although late Victorian, Max Gate sits on a large Middle Neolithic enclosure.. it dates to about 3000 BC (like the earthwork around Stonehenge). Hardy found Iron Age and Roman burials here when his house and garden were created, so a new excavation was bound to hit something ..wherever it was located. The trench was dug carefully.. by hand but sure enough it uncovered the top of a Roman burial. The skeleton was covered and the pipe placed above it and whoever it was.. was left it in peace.

Thomas Hardy's House at Max Gate, Dorchester is built on a Middle Neolithic enclosure like the one surrounding Stonehenge, the stone in the foreground comes from the site. Thomas Hardy found Iron Age and Roman burials here and Peter and Mike found another this year.

Thomas Hardy’s House at Max Gate, Dorchester is built on a Middle Neolithic enclosure like the one surrounding Stonehenge, the stone in the foreground comes from the site. Thomas Hardy found Iron Age and Roman burials here and Peter and Mike found another this year.

Bob of Forum Heritage has been recording historic buildings for us.. the paper mill at Silverton, Killerton Estate in Devon and the Almshouses in Sherborne village, Gloucestershire. He is currently making a record of Hyde Farm in Dorset while it is being refurbished. The walls have subsided over the last 200 years. The reason being that they are sinking into the pits and foundation trenches of an Iron Age settlement.

Jon of AC Archaeology did some archaeological recording while the Knightshayes cricket pavilion, Devon was being built. We thought that settlement remains from the nearby Roman fort might be found but the evidence was limited to the footings for a guardhouse used by the Americans during WWII.

These are all small important fragments, pieces from jigsaws of the past. Trenches are windows. Archaeological layers can only be broken up once. An experienced eye is needed, someone to write the story of what they see.

I wonder what 2014 will bring. On Monday I go to Lacock to discuss the route of a new sewage pipe for the Abbey.The new trench will have to negotiate a lot of buried archaeology.. as we found out when the old one was repaired in 96.

A new sewage treatment plant was needed at Lacock, Wiltshire. The site of the medieval monastic infirmary lies in this area and so AC Archaeology excavated it in 1996. Further work is needed this year.

A new sewage treatment plant was needed at Lacock, Wiltshire. The site of the medieval monastic infirmary lies in this area and so AC Archaeology excavated it in 1996. Further work is needed this year.