High above the village of Yealand Conyers in Lancashire could once be found this pretty little summerhouse. It was built to take advantage of the ‘extensive and picturesque views of the adjacent bay of Morecambe, and the bold and much admired Mountain Scenery of Cumberland and Westmorland’.
A tower or summerhouse first appears on a 1786 map of the County Palatine of Lancaster, but nothing else seems to be known of the early history of the building, or indeed if the tower on the map is the same as that which stood in living history.
As the map shows, the view took in the house and parkland of Leighton Hall, seat of the Gillow family (of furniture fame), but the summerhouse was part of the adjacent Morecambe Lodge estate, later renamed Yealand Manor. Morecambe Lodge itself is not named on the 1786 map, but it probably started life as a small country retreat which developed into something much more substantial over the years. At the time the map was published it was the summer retreat of the Ford family of Lancaster, who possibly built the summerhouse, although no evidence has been found. John Ford’s wife Mary died in 1789, and this may have been the catalyst for the sale of the estate two years later.
In 1791 Morecambe Lodge became the summer residence of Thomas Rawlinson (1751-1802), a merchant involved in the Slave Trade. His principal home was an elegant Georgian townhouse in Lancaster, where he was also a prominent member of the Society of Friends (he was disowned for a period for arming his ships, although the Lancaster Monthly Meeting did not censure his ownership of plantations and slaves)*.
Soon after purchasing the estate Rawlinson began to improve the surrounding landscape: in the six months from November 1791 to April 1792 alone he planted 62,191 trees. He continued to plant in subsequent years and his work was recognised by an award from the Royal Society of Arts. The summerhouse would have been an elegant object in Rawlinson’s pleasure grounds.
Rawlinson died suddenly in October 1802 after a carriage accident. Morecambe Lodge was offered to let in 1805 when it was described as ‘well-calculated for the residence of a genteel family’, and in 1815 it was sold to John Ford, a fellow Quaker. In 1911 Helen Cordelia Ford of Yealand Manor (as Morecambe Lodge had been renamed) wrote a series of articles about Yealand for the Lancaster Guardian. By that date the origins of the summerhouse were long forgotten, and Mrs Ford could learn nothing of its early days. She did however record local memories of its more recent history, and was told that it had served as the village reading room before being vandalised. It was then used as a store until a sporting use was found early in the 20th century: the summerhouse became a mini-grandstand/tea-room when the plateau in front of it was used as the village cricket pitch.
By the 1950s it was in a poor condition, and it continued to decay before the upper section disappeared completely. The rustic base of local limestone and a few courses of masonry are all that remain today, but the building is remembered in the name by which the eminence is known today: Summerhouse Hill.
On the same plateau as the summerhouse are a number of limestone boulders. An investigation by North & Spence in 1936 concluded that these were the remnants of a great stone circle some 460 feet (140m) in diameter. The authors surmised that ‘probably the missing stones of the circle were broken up to form the plinth when the summerhouse was constructed’. Others dispute the circle theory and believe the stones are just randomly placed. Whilst the archaeologists argue, the Folly Flâneuse will just conclude that whatever their origins they add greatly to the charm of the hilltop.
The remains of the summerhouse, and the outstanding views, are easy to find. Just follow the sign from the lovely hamlet of Yealand Conyers.
After a period of institutional use Yealand Manor is once more a family home and can be viewed from the footpath to Summerhouse Hill.
* This failure to disown Rawlinson, and other Lancaster merchants involved in the Slave Trade, went against the London Yearly Meeting, the central decision making body of Quakers in Britain. The Lancaster Friends of today describe this as ‘a cause of great discomfort’, and they ‘acknowledge this history and seek to address the impact its legacy has today’.
You can read all of Mrs Ford’s Sketches of Yealand and much more on the excellent Mourholme Local History Society website http://www.mourholme.co.uk/?Publications:Books
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