History | More tales from Barrington House | Mike Scanlon

FLASHBACK WITH FAUNA: Darryl Lewis feeds the birds outside Barrington House in 1985 as featured on a SCC annual report.
FLASHBACK WITH FAUNA: Darryl Lewis feeds the birds outside Barrington House in 1985 as featured on a SCC annual report.

NOTHING stays the same, although we often might wish it could.

Barrington House, about 46 kilometres from Dungog, was one special example. The popular wilderness retreat is, sadly, no more, having been destroyed by fire in 2006 and never rebuilt.

Surrounded by rainforest at the foot of the World Heritage-listed Barrington Tops region, the rare, large 1927 country guesthouse was an icon for countless visitors for almost eight decades.

LONG-TIME OWNERS: Lyn and Darryl Lewis with a model of Barrington House.

LONG-TIME OWNERS: Lyn and Darryl Lewis with a model of Barrington House.

The Hunter-based Lewis family owned Barrington House (BH) for 25 years until early 2002 and were its longest owners. Darryl and wife Lyn Lewis with son Brad managed BH, gradually expanding its accommodation while keeping its old-world charm.

Due to a huge response from Weekender readers to last month’s column on Barrington House, here are more tales from that well-remembered time.

Besides its remote bush location, guesthouse attractions included four-wheel drive tours, long bush walks to scenic spots, tennis, swimming in rock pools, horse riding and the wildlife.

“People told me being at Barrington House was like going back to grandma’s place. It had a friendly and familiar feel. People liked that,” Darryl Lewis, now 80, said.

“And the wildlife around the house was all tame. Each morning there could be 60 birds waiting to be fed sunflower seeds. And 10 to 12 kangaroos would also appear when you went around the back to light the fuel stove fire.”

As the couple talked, the stories kept coming. Like the time in 1993 when the Westpac Rescue Helicopter crashed on guesthouse land. And the two occasions when son Brad received a police bravery award for undertaking difficult bush rescues and how Darryl, a builder, also found time to erect the Maitland Cinema complex.

Their guesthouse also once gave jobs to numerous local people and helped keep three butcher shops operating in Dungog. Each school holiday, there was naturally always a long waiting list of people wanting to stay and experience the guesthouse.

Lyn said that besides families dropping in at BH, other guests over the years ranged from federal and state politicians, to prominent businessmen and even someone who much later became infamous as Sydney’s ‘granny killer’.

Memories: Riding guests pictured beside the iconic Barrington Guest House in 1935. The main entry stairs are at bottom right. Picture: Author’s collection

Memories: Riding guests pictured beside the iconic Barrington Guest House in 1935. The main entry stairs are at bottom right. Picture: Author’s collection

“He was the loveliest man,” Lyn Lewis recalled.

Then there were the unusual guests, often regulars, such as the ‘Snakeman’ and ‘Batlady’.

“The Snakeman, a researcher called David, would stay for a week away from the house and request three bath towels. He’d collect snakes and have them hanging in bags over the bed,” Darryl said.

“He’d take kids out at night, hunting, to catch frogs to feed to his snakes.”

Lyn said the ‘lady with the bats’ used to collect them in special nets slung across bush tracks.

“She was studying the fleas on feral bats and kept her catches in socks overnight to keep them warm. Later, a CSIRO group would come up every year for studies also.”

Darryl said one unpublicised aspect of Barrington House was that they agreed to take “excess animals”, such as quolls, from Sydney’s Taronga Park Zoo breeding program to release in the bush.

“The Gosford Reptile Park also sent people up at various times on projects. Barrington Tops is an unusual NSW region, with our largest surviving ancient sub-tropical rainforest coming south and cool temperate forests going north,” Darryl said.  

There were unusual guests, such as the ‘Snakeman’ and ‘Batlady’

“All the rivers in the Hunter Valley start up here, you know. Just bubbling up out of the sphagnum swamp. Thirteen rivers, from the Hunter to the Williams to the Pages, start up there. There’s no other source of water, and it all starts at Stewarts Brook.”

But there was a downside to the popular business with the busy, if idyllic lifestyle, to match.

“We had 14 horses for horse-riding trips,” Darryl said.

“They were old trotters. Nothing scared them. They were just the best, they never spooked.” 

But they said that didn’t stop one guest who deliberately fell off her horse to claim compensation.

“Luckily, we had witnesses who heard her telling of her intentions to sue us beforehand,” Darryl said.

Because of the likelihood of legal action, they were finally forced to go offshore to Lloyd’s of London for insurance, before reluctantly dropping the horse-riding option forever.

Another time, a woman slipped in a bush creek many kilometres away from the guesthouse. She immediately declared her intention to sue for damages, rather unfairly the Lewis family thought.

But there were happier memories also, like the time Hollywood star William Holden came to the area to shoot the 1980 movie, The Earthling. Lyn remembers the movie ‘magic’ well, especially the film makers spreading marble pebbles around “so they looked like snow flakes”.

“But, in the end, the film got a bit silly I thought with a steam spa scene in the bush, like those New Zealand hot springs,” she said.

The couple also said that visitors trying to access the guesthouse in the 1920s initially had to pass through 13 property gates en route.

“Visitors once had to open and close 13 separate gates because the land was a part of an old Dungog ‘soldier settlement’ created after World War I,” Darryl said.

And life does take some strange turns. Many years ago, Darryl said his building firm erected the first 12 cottages for Latec Investments in the then new suburb of Rankin Park.

“It was only to help push sales along, but would you believe, many years later we now back living in the same suburb,” Darryl said.

mikescanlon.history@hotmail.com