Above the estate, along the North Downs, runs the Pilgrims Way and to the south, across the Tillingbourne River, lie the ruins of the Gunpowder Mills that were in production from the early 17th Century until shortly after the First World War. Chilworth Manor has, quite literally, been at the centre of both stories.
Once a Saxon manor, as recorded in the Domesday Book, it was given by William the Conqueror to his half-brother Odo, Bishop of Bayeux under whose support it evolved into a monastic site. Augustinian monks ministered to the pilgrims en route to Canterbury or the Holy Land at the ancient church of St Martha’s-on-the-Hill, above the house.
Any trace of the monastery itself was lost in the reign of Henry VIII, but within the gardens of Chilworth Manor the old Stew Ponds, which supplied the monks with fish, can still be seen. To this date, the ponds are fed by the same spring waters and underground streams. Stories abound too of secret tunnels linking the site to St Martha’s, but these are yet to be discovered!
The Manor, as it exists today however, owes more to the fortunes of the Randyll family during the 17th and early 18th Century, with business interests in the Gunpowder Mills and the pull of political ambition.
The success of the Gunpowder Mills enabled the building of the south front in the mid-1600s, but after frequent and expensive elections to Parliament as an MP, Morgan Randyll was forced to give up the property in the early 18th Century.
Subsequently, Chilworth Manor passed through the hands of Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough. Her legacy is seen in the classic early 18th Century north wing overlooking the extraordinary tiered Walled Garden that she developed during her tenure.
The modern identity of Chilworth Manor owes much to its post-war owners, Sir Lionel and especially Lady Heald, who took over the house in 1946 – the property having been the headquarters of the Canadian Army during the war. A spinney of trees planted by the soldiers stands to this day.
Tireless in her commitment to charity, Lady Heald was an energetic and ingenious fundraiser to the very end of her remarkable life at the grand age of 99. As Chairwoman of the National Garden Scheme for 30 years, the gardens were frequently opened to raise money and the estate became a focal point for the community.