On the former Stella Hall estate, high on the south bank of the River Tyne, are the remains of an elegant octagonal pavilion which gave its name to this lofty spot: Summerhouse Hill.
Stella, now in Tyne & Wear but historically in County Durham, was originally a seat of the Tempest family, before passing by marriage to the Widdrington family. Henry Francis, 5th Lord Widdrington (1700-1774) had technically been stripped of his title, but he remained commonly known as Lord Widdrington. In 1774 he left the estate to his nephew Thomas Eyre of Hassop (?-1792) and from there it passed by descent to the Towneley family of Lancashire.
A 1736 history mentioned the ‘magnificent House and Gardens’ and a century later the mansion was again described as ‘magnificent’, with the north front overlooking the river and the south facing ‘a beautiful small park, which is pleasingly diversified with rising ground and clumps of trees’. Frustratingly, the summerhouse is not mentioned in either of these accounts.
We do know that it was extant by 1755 when, known as The Mount, it was furnished as a banqueting room with a circular mahogany table, four Windsor chairs and a mahogany ‘footman’. The latter is a rare alternative name for a piece of furniture sometimes called a ‘Dumb Waiter’ with 3 or 4 revolving tiers from which guests could serve themselves in the intimate setting of the little pavilion. The basement room would have served as a space where the servants could prepare the meals. James Paine has been suggested as the architect on the grounds that he reportedly remodelled the house – but to date evidence that he, or any other architect, worked at Stella has proved rather elusive.
The only known view of the building before it became derelict is an image in the collection of Gateshead Libraries. Sadly, its source has become forgotten over time, so we can’t even be sure it is a true representation, but it shows the octagonal brick chamber topped with a tall dome and a ball finial.
The octagonal building is shown on the tithe map of 1839 on land belonging to Peregrine Towneley. Its condition at that date is unknown, but by 1865 it was described as being in a ‘dilapidated condition’ and the ‘magnificent’ ceiling – presumably the decorated plasterwork interior of the dome – was lost. The same source, A Sketch of Stella Hall, notes that there were two statues close to the summerhouse which were commonly known as Adam and Eve, although the writer found this description ‘questionable’. Elsewhere it is written that the figures represented the god Apollo and ‘the playwright Aesculapius’. Again, time seems to have muddled the facts: Asclepius was Apollo’s son and the Greek god of medicine. The statues had been moved closer to the house by 1913, but neither figure is known to survive today, although they are remembered in the name of a slope in the former park: ‘Image Hill’.
In 1850 Stella Hall was bought by the Cowen family. Joseph Cowen junior (1829-1900) was a wealthy industrialist and radical politician whose friends included Giuseppe Garibaldi, who played a key role in the unification of Italy. Cowen erected a statue of his friend near the summerhouse but after Stella Hall was demolished in 1954 the statue was thought lost – until locals began to find fragments dotted around the area.
Garibaldi’s head spent some time as a garden ornament, but can now be seen in Blaydon Library. In 1992 the Newcastle Journal reported that his torso was part of a floral display in a private garden, whilst his legs were the ‘centrepiece of a flower bed’ at a local school. With regret the paper concluded that ‘Garibaldi, like Humpty Dumpty, will never be put together again’.
The summerhouse continued to decay until the mid-1970s. Local history societies then began to put pressure on Gateshead Council to consolidate the building, which was repeatedly subject to attacks by vandals. Gateshead Council pleaded poverty, and eventually Tyne & Wear County Council provided the funding, with the proviso that Gateshead Council would ‘maintain it in future to a high standard’.
Today Summerhouse Hill has been contracted to Summerhill, and you can still access the grade II listed summerhouse from this road. The building is now backed by vegetation, and has lost the full panorama it once commanded, but there are still great views over the (now heavily developed) valley.
There are no servants available to prepare a picnic today, but the Folly Flâneuse, who is constantly wondering where her next cup of coffee is coming from, is delighted to recommend this refreshment stop at the bottom of the hill.
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