Newton Surmaville, just outside Yeovil, was bought by the Harbin family in the early 1600s, and they immediately set about constructing a very handsome new house. Sometime in the middle of the following century they added this summerhouse on Newton Hill, high above the house, and the story locally is that it was one of a trio of towers in the area, used by their owners to flag the message that it was time to ‘gallop over for a convivial evening’.
The Summerhouse at Newton Surmaville was probably built by Swayne Harbin soon after he succeeded to the estate in 1741. It is situated on the highest point in the area with sweeping views over the town of Yeovil and beyond. The hall and its summerhouse caught the eye of clergyman John Swete, who was touring the area in the 1780s. He asked a passer-by for information and recorded this exchange in his travel journal:
‘… pray my pretty lass (said I to a young girl I met with) […] whose house may that be under the wood? lord Zur doant you know! Why ’tis Squier Harbins! cawled Newton! – and pray what is that Building on the top of the wood? why Zur ’tis the Squier’s Zummer House!
‘Such was the vulgar dialect of the country’, concluded the patronising parson.
The two other edifices which were part of this (possibly mythical) signalling network are the tower on St Michael’s Hill at Montacute, built by the Phelips family in 1760, and a tower belonging to the Goodfords of Chilton Cantelo. There seems to be no trace of a tower at Chilton Cantelo today, but the tower at Montacute does survive, and is now in the care of the National Trust.
That it was built for the view is clear from the inscription in Greek above the door, which translates as ‘Periscope’. Collinson’s History & Antiquities of Somerset of 1791 confirms that there was indeed a ‘flag-staff fifty feet high, on which a flag is occasionally displayed’, as seen in the engraving below.
Happily the tower at Newton also survives. The building consists of a central tower with two low wings, which were probably added when the summerhouse was converted into a dwelling, as they are built of a different stone. By the middle of the 19th century it was marked on maps as ‘cottage and garden’ and for the rest of the century it was home to the estate shepherds. It has remained a dwelling ever since.
It was however the building’s original purpose which gave its name to the mount on which it stands – Newton Hill became known as Summerhouse Hill. An article in Country Life in 1952 described it as ‘charmingly designed’ and a ‘particularly pleasant example of folly architecture’. The building is now known as The Round House, which initially feels wrong as the central section is clearly an octagon: or is it? The Buildings of England (‘Pevsner’) volume for Somerset reveals that the summerhouse has a ‘sophisticated design’, and is ‘not octagonal because the diagonal faces are quadrant curved’. So the Round House it is.
The excellent news is that the Round House is soon to be restored as a family home. The Folly Flâneuse thanks the owners for inviting her to visit, and wishes them all the very best for this fabulous project. There are public footpaths on Summerhouse Hill, but the building is strictly private.
The tower at Montacute is accessed by a public footpath from the village.
For more images of the Round House see http://www.yeovilhistory.info/roundhouse.htm?fbclid=IwAR0MVPJcxkLiYDFAA7-_NrVqhNyQsuBqjsHpxql378kDtAF1r0X2M0WMvbM
There’s more on Newton Surmaville house here https://www.newtonsurmaville.co.uk
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