architecture, belvedere, eyecatcher, Folly, garden, landscape, Somerset, Summerhouse, Tower

The Summerhouse, Newton Surmaville, Somerset

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.

The tower on St Michael’s Hill, Montacute
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Jim

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.

This engraving of Montacute from The Gentleman’s’ Magazine of 1817 shows the hill with the tip of the tower and an over-sized flag.

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.

Courtesy of Bob Osborn’s excellent Yeovil History website

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 fine masonry of the central tower.

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

There’s more on Newton Surmaville house here

Thank you for reading, and if this post has prompted any thoughts or questions please scroll down to comment. If you would like to receive a folly story in your inbox each week then why not subscribe? 



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8 thoughts on “The Summerhouse, Newton Surmaville, Somerset”

  1. Gand says:

    Oh for the days when we can once again “gallop over
    for a convivial evening’.
    Or at least drive over in the car.

    1. Editor says:

      Yes, the irony was not lost on me. Will fly the flag here as soon as we can socialise again.

  2. Georgina Anne Craufurd says:

    The owners of Montacute were the PHELIPS family (with an ‘i’ in the middle). not Phelps. But otherwise such a pleasant piece; thank you!

    1. Editor says:

      Thanks for spotting my mis-typed error and letting me know, I have amended the post. Glad the mistake didn’t spoil your enjoyment!

  3. Julia Abel Smith says:

    What a terrific restoration project.

    Firepit and gazebo on order; getting ready to fly the flag and welcome four others to join us here in Tier Two Essex.

    1. Editor says:

      Isn’t it just!
      Thank goodness for follies, where social distancing is seldom a problem

  4. Beverley Jones says:

    Such an interesting article! My daughter was asking about the house in Summerhouse Hill. My parents live in Chilton Cantelo so I was very interested to read about the tower. They tell me that talking to Mrs Goodfords in the village, she said originally their land ran from Chilton right up to the junction of Mudford Road and Coombe Street Lane and that their gatehouse is still there between the 1930s houses. So it could be possible that the tower was near that too perhaps?

    1. Editor says:

      Thank you Beverley. Next time I am in the area I will have another look at Chilton. It’s a fascinating story.

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