architecture, Banqueting House, belvedere, country house, eyecatcher, Folly, garden history, landscape, Northumberland, Summerhouse, Tower

The Summerhouse, North Seaton Hall, Northumberland

North Seaton Hall stood in the hamlet of the same name, just inland from Newbiggin by the Sea on the Northumberland coast. The house and ancillary buildings were demolished in the 1960s, and the land developed for housing: only the road called ‘Summerhouse Lane’ gives a clue to a fascinating feature which once ornamented the grounds.

Detail from Armstrong’s 1769 map of the County of Northumberland. Courtesy of McMaster University Library, CC BY-NC 2.5 CA

The hall, seat of the Watson family, was described as newly built in 1730. It is shown on Armstrong’s 1769 map of Northumberland, and alongside it stands what looks like a substantial tower or summerhouse. At that date the hall was home to Stephen and Dorothy Watson and their family. Little is known of the Summerhouse’s early history,  but it was probably used as a banqueting house and belvedere to take advantage of the views to the coast.

View of North Seaton hall from a collection of drawings by Charles Greenwood and Frederick Peake produced c.1840-1850. Courtesy of a private collection.

The Summerhouse may have had a less frivolous purpose at a time when Britain feared invasion by the French. Stephen and Dorothy’s son, William Watson (1751-1830), supervised the ‘Beacon man’ at Newbiggin. His role was to keep a lookout and be ready to light a warning beacon should the French fleet be spotted. In November 1796, with invasion thought imminent, Watson charged him to be ‘more than usually attentive and give immediate notice if anything extraordinary appears at Sea’. Watson’s summerhouse would probably have been equipped with a telescope so that he too could survey the North Sea: the building was known locally as ‘the Lookout’.

Detail from the drawing above showing the Summerhouse.

It is not known who designed the mansion or the quirky Summerhouse with its pretty gothic glazing in the windows (varying on each storey), pierced battlements and curved roof giving just a nod to chinoiserie. Local architect John Dobson has been suggested, and his daughter Mary wrote a memoir of her father in which she states that the first house he designed was at ‘North Seaton’ for J. Nicholson Esq. in 1813. Many texts repeat this attribution, but in 1813 North Seaton Hall was the established seat of the Watsons, so it would seem that Nicholson’s new house was elsewhere. Dobson may however have worked at North Seaton at a later date: the drawing featured here was part of a collection that included many of Dobson’s houses in Northumberland, and so it may record recent remodelling of the house and/or summerhouse. Sadly few records from Dobson’s practice survive to provide answers.

By the middle of the 19th century the house was described as an ‘elegant mansion […] surrounded by pleasing scenery’. The 25″ Ordnance Survey map, surveyed in 1896, shows the tower with its curious, charming, meandering external staircase, as also seen in old photographs. Although sometimes described as a ‘lodge’, this map makes it clear that it was a garden feature and did not, at that date, sit on the drive.

The Summerhouse as pictured in the ‘Journal and North Star’, March 1930.

The Watsons left the estate in the middle of the 19th century, and there were then a number of owners and tenants. In 1930 the hall was converted into a Migration Training Hostel where young men were given tuition for work they might do overseas. Almost immediately the demand for emigrants dried up, so the hall was then used as a holiday centre before the contents were sold in 1933. Local newspaper Blyth News was saddened at this ‘chequered history’ and was at a loss to know ‘what will transpire next’.

The hall as pictured on an early 20th century postcard. Courtesy of a private collection.

The hall was converted into council apartments after the Second World War, but in 1953 the families were rehoused as the house was badly infested with woodworm. In that same year the decision was taken to demolish the grade II listed hall, although no immediate action was taken. At that date it was thought that the summerhouse  ‘could be retained as a historic building’, but with the house empty the thieves and vandals arrived. In 1954 the County Surveyor reported that the summerhouse was in a poor condition, and that the police were seeking the thieves who had stripped the roof of its lead. Despite it being a scheduled monument (grade II), it was decided that the summerhouse ‘should be demolished in the interests of health and safety’, and the stone retained for use ‘elsewhere’.

The Summerhouse as seen from the lane. Undated photograph. Northumberland Archives NRO 5283/K6B. Reproduced by kind permission of Northumberland Archives.

Nikolaus Pevsner visited around this date when researching for his Buildings of England volume on Northumberland, which would be published in 1957. His depressing summary was that the hall was ‘very neglected’ but he did note the summerhouse which described as ‘solid early 19C Gothic Revival’. In May 1961 the inevitable (for that period) demolition work began. It was thought too dangerous for the rotted interiors to be dismantled, so the structure was deliberately set on fire, with the local fire brigade tackling the blaze as a training exercise. The remains of the mansion were then pulled down, along with the Summerhouse, and the grounds developed for housing.

Today, the Summerhouse is remembered only in a street name.

Thanks to the team at Northumberland Archives for their help with this story.

Your thoughts are always welcome. Please scroll down to the comments box at the foot of the page to get in touch. Thank you for reading.

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15 thoughts on “The Summerhouse, North Seaton Hall, Northumberland”

  1. Gwyn Headley says:

    Fascinating. What a beautiful building, and what a sad (but inevitable for the time) loss. Well done Madame La Flâneuse for yet another revelation.

    1. Editor says:

      Good morning Gwyn. Thank you. I was delighted to discover the elegant and quirky Summerhouse. A sad loss.

      1. Moira Garland says:

        Thank you for another fascinating account of these once existing buildings. Loved the 1930s photo showing the folly in all its architectural glory.

        1. Editor says:

          You are right Moira, it was glorious. But at least there is a photographic record so we can enjoy this lost treasure.

  2. Caroline Davidson says:

    Alas. I appear to have my lost my complimentary message to you, in mid flow, therefore unfinished and unsigned. But it may have reached you anyway.

    If you are puzzled, the sender is loyal subscriber and constant reader Caroline Davidson in London.

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Caroline. This message safely received, and I gracefully and gratefully accept your compliments! Thank you for taking the time to contact me.

  3. Garance Anna Rawinsky says:

    What a tragic end when we know a Summerhouse (even in the midst of winter – vis QAS) can give such solace. That image you conjure up of the local fire brigade using the building as a ‘training exercise’ should stay with us and act as a beacon to warn against indifference towards our heritage.

    1. Editor says:

      Good evening Garance. It would have made a wonderful landmark – close to the sea and with the beauties of Northumberland on the doorstep. As it was already doomed I like to think that at least the fire service made some use of it. But a great loss, a really interesting building.

    2. Gwyn Headley says:

      What a coincidence. I first came across the word Garance two weeks ago when I discovered it is the French word for Madder. So I’ve come across the word twice in the past eight decades.

      1. Editor says:

        Garance – over to you for a full history of your name!

        1. Garance Rawinsky says:

          Correct Gwyn. Rose Madder will be recognised as a colour by those who paint, it’s also used as a dye for textiles. However… my mother served in Paris during the war and was a Francophile. The film Les Enfant du Paradis (children of the gods – as in the less well heeled who frequented the top seats in the theatre) was made during the occupation and was totally escapist! Mother was enthralled by the film, specifically the leading lady (Arletty) in her role as the character Garance. I will not go into detail about the character, you can read about her online and make your own judgement as to my mothers’ thinking. At one time there was a website: The Other Garance’s which linked eight people who shared the name, most of us worked in the creative industries. Not sure we could be classified as Reds though.


    The design of the summer house was very artistic and I thought brilliant as a professional artist myself -noted one of the front elevation sketches was drawn with the use of a ruler tragic to be destroyed..the predictable council vandalism..I had a lodge which had the lead stolen just before final purchase..Dec-1979 ..and needed much work; the North lodge to Cannon Hall Cawthorne Nr Barnsley …took me around 10 years…and was my studio gallery during the eighties -built in the 1700’s -owners were asking £40.000 after purchasing from the Cannon hall estates for £25.000 they eventually re-sold for £26.000 ..woodworm can be treated.. and oak cannot be penetrated too far as the central core is like iron ! -exposed dragon tie beams and more -featured on TV etc….lost in divorce in 1990 valued at £750.000…interesting book on lodges published in the eighties called’ Trumpet at a distant gate’…as lodges were normally serving a baronial hall as a resting place for the horse and carriage,, presumably connecting with hunting horns.? nearby cannon hall farm feturing on ch4 farming series.

    1. Editor says:

      Hello and thanks for getting in touch. It is a great sketch. Cawthorne is a lovely place – fascinating little museum and good pub! I have the book you mention – the lodge appears in so many different architectural forms.

  5. Claire Davison says:

    This hall belonged to my family . I have my family tree with the Watson family dating back over centuries. It’s so lovely to see this article on the house.

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Claire and thanks for getting in touch. I am delighted that you have enjoyed reading about the former family home and I hope my article helps keep its memory alive.

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