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Although technically in the Parish of Wonersh, most people perceive Barnett Hill to be in Blackheath. It sits on the border of the two villages and has been a big influence on the lives of both communities.
Barnett Hill was nothing more than a wooded hilltop when Frank Cook, the wealthy son of Thomas Cook, the travel agent, bought the 26 acre site in the early 1900's.
The architect, Arnold Mitchell, who specialised in parish halls and schools was commissioned to design the house,staff cottages and stabling. It was completed in 1905. In Queen Anne-Style the project was completed for the princely sum of £35,000.
Craftsmen from all over Italy were brought to Surrey to lavish their skills on the dome-shaped ceiling above the main staircase with intricate plasterwork designs. The Oak Hall, a walnut-panelled Drawing Room, French tapestries and crystal chandeliers added to the grandeur of the house.
Frank built the house for his American wife Beatrice, who came from New England. She ensured that the new idea of central heating, popular in the States, was installed in her new house.
The estate was further expanded when Frank Cook purchased more land and cottages within the village of Blackheath. He had a cricket ground and pavilion constructed on part of this extra land, opposite the entrance to the main drive, for a few show-piece matches.
Sitting in spectacular grounds that are 360ft above sea level it commands magnificent views over the Surrey hills. From the Camellia bank, Charterhouse School can be seen, and Guildford Cathedral can be viewed from the Woodland Walk. The estate employed 14 gardeners (mostly from Blackheath village) in the grand days of the Cooks.
The Wendy house, built in the garden for the Cook's daughter Beatrice is still a source of fascination today with its antique furniture and kitchen range, it even had its own gardener at one time.
Many villagers worked at the house, housemaids, chauffeurs, cooks and pantry maids. Many of the staff lived in either the main house, cottages and bothies or made their way along Blackheath Lane to work from Wonersh and Blackheath.
The stables were later converted into well equipped garages and workshops to maintain the Lancaster cars. An engine house, battery room, and workshop were added to provide 100 volt electricity to the Barnett hill estate. When this was installed, and at the end of the installer's maintenance period, Frank Cook needed someone to run the system, and also needed another chauffeur to join Mr Hobbs. He appointed Fred Monk (father of current Blackheath resident Brian Monk). Fred over the years had an amazing array or jobs including house services, vehicle and apparatus maintenance, ambulance driver and fireman!. He remained at Barnett Hill until his retirement in 1969.
Mrs Cook remained at Barnett Hill and ran the estate, albeit on less ambitious terms until the outbreak of the Second World War.
In 1940, Mrs Cook moved from Barnett Hill to Sparkes Place, Wonersh and loaned Barnett Hill, to be used as a convalescent home for wounded Service men, to the Joint War Organisation of the British Red Cross and the Order of St.John.
The red Cross provided medical, nursing, recuperation training and administrative staff. The maintenance was by the remaining Barnett Hill staff. Mr. Dale managed the grounds, Cyril Mace managed the house staff, and Fred Monk was responsible for the maintenance of the buildings, allservices and vehicles. Some refugees from Poland and Lithuania were also brought is to help with maintenance.
During the war years the recuperating Service men enjoyed splendid grounds, and were entertained by lantern slides and film shows, and ENSA concerts. The families living at Barnett Hill enjoyed greater access to all the grounds than they had before the war, and they also joined in the Service men's entertainment.
The Service men were known as the ‘blue boys’ in the village on the account of their blue uniforms. Fred Monk would drive up to London or go to Guildford Station in the ambulance to collect them. Pubs were out-of-bounds to the men and their distinctive blue garb acted as a signal to local landlords. As they became more mobile the men were often seen around the local villages and were regular visitors to the YMCA canteen in Blackheath Village Hall, a short stroll from Barnett Hill.
There was much excitement during the war years when one of the needleworkers employed at the convalescent home know as Mina, was found with a camera and Morse- code kit in her sewing machine. She was arrested as a German spy.
In 1944, Mrs Cook made an outright gift of the house to the British Red Cross, including much of the antique furniture including the mahogany grandfather clock which still chimes in the marble-floored entrance hall.
There was a special service in June of that year (only a week before D.Day) in Wonersh church, followed by a ceremony at Barnett Hill, when the deeds and the key to Barnett Hill were handed over by Beatrice Cook to the patron of the British Red Cross, Queen Elizabeth (now the late Queen Mother). Eleven year-old Eileen Talman was chosen to present her with a bouquet.
Beatrice Cook continued to live in Wonersh village until her death in 1953.
After the war, The British Red Cross Society decided to turn Barnett Hill into its National Training Centre and in 1947 it was formerly opened by The Princess Royal, daughter of King George V and Queen Mary.
Due to high maintenance costs and recession in the mid-1970s, the Red Cross decided to open the doors of Barnett Hill to the business world. It became a conference and training centre in around 1976.
In 1996, the British Red Cross leased the property to the Chudley family, who, at the time, had been operating Highgate House Hotel in Northamptonshire for over 30 years.
In 2005 the Sundial Group purchased the property from the Red Cross.
In 2016, Alexander Hotels purchased the property and have since upgraded the facilities.
Today the gardens are continually evolving and improving - many projects are taking place on the estate but the overall ambience is kept and many of the original features can still be seen in the grounds. The summerhouse, teahouse and greenhouse are all in original condition and the yew hedges, Lilly pond and many mature trees show how the estate looked in the days of the Cooks.
Eileen Talman’s (nee Monk) recollections of the people who worked at Barnett Hill during WW2
Matron - Miss White
Assistant - Miss Girador
Quarter Master Secretary - Mr. Evans
P.T.Instructor - Mr. Kinnear
House Services/vehicle and apparatus maintenance, ambulance driver and auxiliary fire serve– Fred Monk
In charge of house staff- Cyril Mace
Head gardener- Mr. Dale
Gardeners - Ted Pettit, Arthur Atfield, Walter Garrick, Charlie Tavenor, along with several Balchins and Edwards.
Needle workers - Elsie and Hilda Talbot