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The history of Abinger Roughs and Netley Park

A view of Abinger Roughs and Netley Park, Surrey
Abinger Roughs and Netley Park | © National Trust Images/Jo Hatcher

Discover the rich, interesting past of Abinger Roughs and Netley Park, from fields and heathland to visits from Charles Darwin and E. M. Forster, and involvement in two world wars.

Creating a wilderness garden

The Roughs was formerly part of the Abinger Hall Estate. In the late 19th century, the land was planted with specimen trees, plantations and rhododendrons to form open glades with interlinking paths: a wilderness garden. This was created by Thomas Henry Farrer of Abinger Hall, and you can still see some of the original garden today.

Charles Darwin at Abinger

The naturalist Charles Darwin was a regular guest at Abinger Hall (demolished c1946) in the 1870s. Darwin and Farrer walked the Roughs, and Farrer helped Darwin’s research by keeping a worm journal.

The Mayor’s path was named in honour of Darwin’s son, Horace, who married Farrer’s daughter, Emma Cecilia. He was Mayor of Cambridge from 1896 to 1897.

Wilberforce Memorial on the Roughs

On 19 July 1873, Samuel Wilberforce, the Bishop of Winchester, known as ‘Soapy Sam’, had a fatal riding accident on the Roughs. His family erected a granite memorial on the spot where he fell, and you can see this Grade II listed monument near Leasers Barn. He is best known for opposing Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Walkers at Abinger Roughs and Netley Park, Surrey
Walkers at Abinger Roughs and Netley Park | © National Trust Images/John Miller

The E. M. Forster connection

Piney Copse, the small woodland on the western boundary of the Roughs, was given to the National Trust in 1970 by the novelist E. M. Forster. He lived with his mother for a while at nearby West Hackhurst. The Copse and Abinger Hall are both mentioned in Forster’s book, The Creator as Critic and Other Writings.

Netley Park

Netley Park is a typical 18th-century gentleman’s estate nestled in the North Downs. All is quiet today, but in the past you’d have heard the sound of troops in the grounds. It was a First World War hospital and a barracks for the Canadian army in the Second World War.

Netley House and estate

The Netley Park Estate comprises around 85 hectares including Netley House, a farm, cottages, and woodland and was bought by the National Trust on 5 November 1940.

Beginnings of the house

In the late 18th century an old mansion was pulled down by the owner, Edward Shallet Lomax, and Netley House was built. The property has seen various changes over the years, especially following a fire in 1860.

The parkland was created around the turn of the 19th century and has survived substantially intact.

During the wars

During the First World War the house was used as a hospital. During the Second World War it was occupied by the Canadian army. The Canadian road, which forms the northern boundary of Netley, is now part of the North Downs Way National Trail.

During the war pillboxes were erected in the woods on the North Downs behind Netley House to defend London. You can still find six ‘Type 24’ pillboxes in the woods today.

The house today

The property was described as ‘heavily and gloomily classical’ by the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner. But it was listed as a Grade II building by Historic England on 21 May 1985.

The house isn’t currently open to the public, but you can see it from the A25 near the village of Shere or from the footpaths running through the parkland.

Autumn colour at Abinger Roughs and Netley Park, Surrey
Autumn colour at Abinger Roughs and Netley Park | © National Trust Images/John Miller

William Alexander Robertson’s legacy at Netley Park

William Alexander Robertson lost his two younger brothers, Laurance and Norman, in the First World War. When he died in 1937 he left a bequest to the National Trust to acquire property ‘within reasonably easy access of London’ to commemorate them, and Netley Park was acquired in 1940 through the W. A. Robertson Memorial Fund.

In accordance with William Alexander Robertson’s wishes, a memorial was erected, on the slope just above Netley House. The Robertson memorial commemorates the lives of Second Lieutenant Laurance Robertson (36) King’s Own Scottish Borderers, who was killed in action during the Battle of the Somme on 30 July 1916 and his brother, Captain Norman Robertson (40) of 2nd Battalion, Hampshire Regiment, who died on 20 June 1917.

The Robertson memorial

The Robertson memorial at Netley Park is one of nine placed on high ground around the south-east of England. It’s nearly 2.5 metres tall and takes the form of an obelisk. It’s on a hill, close to a Second World War pillbox, and has been listed as Grade II by Historic England. The obelisk was cast by Dove Brothers of London and the plaque was made by the Royal Label Factory, Stratford-upon-Avon, to a design by Laurence Turner.

There are eight other Robertson memorials at National Trust properties, at Frensham Common, Birling Gap, the Devil’s Punch Bowl, Toys Hill, Dunstable Downs, Hydon’s Ball and Heath, Sutton House in London and Sharpenhoe.

The Robertson bequest also funded the purchase of Sutton House in Hackney, London.

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