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Our last, late summer visit to a west country garden, Killerton, did not disappoint. We enjoyed a very informative tour in a golf buggy and strolled around the grounds on a sunny afternoon. Lying just outside Exeter, Killerton is a massive estate and we had a little trouble actually finding the entrance (road signs and sat nav conspired against us!). Nevertheless we had a warm welcome.

Killerton is notable as the ‘home given away’. It’s last private owner,  Sir Richard Acland did just this with the whole estate of over 2,500 hectares (including 20 farms and 200-plus cottages), one of the largest acquired by the National Trust. Acland held a strong belief in the common ownership of land and was a founder member of the British Common Wealth Party, formed in 1942 to oppose the wartime coalition and to advocate a co-operative form of socialism, in contrast to the state-led approach of the Labour Party. However, the group never achieved an electoral break through and Acland joined the Labour Party in 1945. He was also one of the founders of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).

The original gardens at Killerton were designed in the late 18th century by John Veitch, one of the leading landscape designers of the time. It features rhododendrons, magnolias, herbaceous borders and rare trees surrounded by rolling Devon countryside. Many of the trees and the views of the surrounding countryside are very impressive – here are some pictures.

The grounds also house – typically for the 19th century – an Ice House and a curious Summer House which is of a rather gothic design and features a strange assortment of decorative materials – including animal bones, hides and fir cones! Here’s a second set of pictures.

However, the ‘parterres’ or mixed herbaceous borders, full of late summer colour when we visited, stand out as my most significant memory of Killerton. These were designed by the late 19th century gardener, garden writer and designer William Robinson. They have some classic plant combinations and bold drifts, typical of the mixed herbaceous borders coming into vogue around this time, and which have been influential in English garden design up to the present day. This area features a central path and secondary paths with Coade stone urns as focal points. The layout of the borders is perhaps curious given Robinson’s advocacy of  ‘wild gardens’ – a more naturalistic approach to garden design. But even these semi formal designs, with their ‘loose planting’, were seen as revolutionary.  Apparently, Killerton’s head gardener at the time said:

‘it of course spoilt the park, starting as it does and ending nowhere, I got into bad odour condemning it’.

Robinson’s ideas about ‘wild gardening’ spurred the movement that evolved into the English cottage garden, a parallel to the search for honest simplicity and vernacular style of the British Arts and Crafts movement. Robinson is credited as an early practitioner of the mixed herbaceous border of hardy perennial plants, a ‘naturalistic’ look in stark contrast to the high Victorian ‘pattern garden’ of planted-out bedding schemes. Here is a gallery that, hopefully captures the best of these glorious borders.

Further information:

National Trust website

William Robinson- Wikipedia

Old School Gardener

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