The Saxon church at Escomb, County Durham

By Bernard J Taylor

During a recent society holiday in Northumberland, the group visited a wonderful Saxon church. The building has been a place of Christian worship for over 1300 years. The pre-planned visit turned out to be one of the many highlights of the holiday. Lilian, a wonderfully eloquent lady, who said that her claim to fame was that she had met and appeared with Fred Dibnah, was our guide. If you have never visited this lovely church then please take my advice and do so. However, perhaps I may give you a guided tour to whet your appetite. The following text has been compiled by the late Rev.d N. Beddow and appears in a booklet, which is available at the church. The photographs are from my archive.

exterior
Saxon church at Escomb

Who built it? When? and Why?

This is the first mystery about Escomb. We cannot tell for certain just who built the church; when it was built; or why it was built in this particular location. The first written reference to the village of 'Edicum' dates to the end of the tenth century when the village was mortgaged by the Bishop of Durham to some Viking earls (it was later returned). However various architectural features and archaeological evidence suggests a much earlier date of construction; sometime between 670 and 690 A.D. seems likely.

The height of the church is of particular note; also the stones in the upper courses are smaller than those lower down. Just why this should be remains something of a puzzle. It seems very tall for its size, and this together with the ground plan suggests Irish Celtic influences, but some have argued for a connection with ancient Gallic chapels. Most are agreed from the general shape and style of the building that it could not have been constructed later than the end of the seventh century and that it belongs to the earliest period of Northumbrian Christianity.

Inside

Special notice should be taken of the supports for the channel arch with their distinctive "Escomb style long and short" stonework. The actual arch itself is believed to have been reassembled from a Roman archway, and the quality of the stonework is so fine that no mortar was needed. The plaster on the underside of the arch with its traces of abstract -work' design is reckoned to twelfth or thirteenth century, but affinities of colour and texture with plasterwork excavated at Jarrow. On the wall behind the pulpit you will see an incised consecration cross.

interior2
Interior of church and QLHS members

The shape of this cross again suggests Irish/Celtic influence. The stone cross-erected behind the altar probably dates to the ninth century and would have formed part of a standing cross or grave but the date may possibly be much earlier and some have conjectured that it was part of a 'preaching cross' that predated the church. The slab of Frosterly marble on the floor of the sanctuary is a grave cover.

marble

There are five smaller windows. The two on the south wall of the Nave have rounded lintels, and so too does the one high up on the West wall, but those on the North wall are straight. All are splayed to let in the maximum amount of light, while keeping out some of the wind and rain. It is not known why two should have straight lintels and the remainder curved. They all share the same basic construction and in all cases single stones form the lintels. The design of the windows links them with the very earlier period of Saxon church building, and there are certain affinities with the shape of Saxon windows found in the churches at Jarrow, Monkwearmouth, Corbridge and Bywell. The solid carved lintels have similarities with door lintels found in the crypts at Hexham and Ripon. Although similar they are not identical in particular, posing many questions as to the background of the stonemasons who fashioned them. The Limewash that covers the walls is modern, but the tradition of whitewashing goes back many centuries and there is a reference dating to 1967.

We have to remember that our generation finds bare stonework aesthetically pleasing but the survival of the detail of so much of it depended upon the fact that for many centuries it was covered in plaster both inside and out.

There are two doorways in the North wall. The one in the sanctuary has been filled in, and once connected with a vestry, whose foundation lines can be seen on the outside of the church. On the right hand doorjamb can be seen some early carving which has been interpreted as Adam and Eve standing below the tree of life. The doorway in the nave is something of a puzzle. Many of its features suggest that it formed part of the original building: the doorjambs slant towards each other; there is 'long and short' stonework; and a single squared stone lintel. The piscina (stone bowl for washing Communion vessels) in the sanctuary and the two lancet windows are thought to be thirteenth century in design. An engraved stone incorporated into the lancet windows in the sanctuary is similar in composition and has affinities with Saxon grave memorials found at Hartlepool.

font
Octagonal Font

The crude octagonal font, still used for baptism, is thought to be tenth or eleventh century, but may be earlier, especially as the shape allowed for the total immersion of infants. The grooves at the top were carved in the thirteenth century in response to an ordinance from the Archbishop of York that fonts should be lockable so as to protect the Holy water retained for baptism from various superstitious practices.

On the left hand side of the small Saxon window on the North wall closest to the sanctuary, there is a Roman inscription on one of the large supporting stones. The limewash on the stone is thinner and the area more grey in colour. The inscription is on its side, and was only discerned by a schoolboy visitor in the 1960's and reads, "Bono rei publicae nato" - 'to the man born for the good of the state'. This stone may have originally formed the base for a roman statue or possibly an ornate milepost erected in honour of the Emperor or some notable servant of the Empire.

Many of the stones have cross-hatching. This is called 'diamond broaching', and is a distinctive feature of Roman stonework prepared for overlay with plaster. It is often suggested that these stones and many of the other large blocks came from the ruins of the nearby Roman cavalry fort at Vinovium (now called Binchester and also open to the public). The use of stone and the efforts made in transport and construction suggest that Escomb was a religious centre of some importance. There is even a possibility that what we have is a remodelled Roman building.

The main cross beams in the roof may well date back to Saxon times, but an educated guess puts them no later than the twelfth century. Their style of construction is known as 'vernacular', but there are significant differences to the ones in the nave and those in the sanctuary.

roof
Vernacular styled roof beams

However, much of the roof was restored during the period 1875-80 (at a cost of 500!) through the initiative of the Revd. T.E. Lord who together with friends and parishioners saved the church from near ruin. A Victorian church had been built opposite the vicarage, at the top of the bank, and for 20 years or so the Saxon church had been deserted and allowed to fall into decay. Thomas Lord recognised the historical and spiritual value of the church and began the process of restoration, which has meant that, though the Victorian church has now gone, the Saxon one remains.

A Millennium project reflecting aspects of the village since Saxon times is the 'Escomb Textile'. Needle workers included church members, Durham City Embroiders Guild and Escomb school children. The work was inspired and directed by Ann Clare and undertaken under the Northern Arts banner of The Year of the Artist. Supported by Wear Valley Arts and Northern Arts.

tapestry

The Churchyard

The churchyard wall outlines the original roughly circular shape of the "God's Toft". This circular shape strongly hints at a Celtic origin for the church, and a sacred tradition that may well go back even earlier to the Romano-British period and beyond.

Until the last century, a small stream used to run down the street outside the churchyard wall on the North and West side of the church, and there are also various other springs in the village (now culverted) which may have provided a focus for Roman worship and settlement. Certainly the River Wear once flowed much closer to the church, and the village has always been a recognised crossing point connecting two ancient trackways which followed either side of the river into Weardale. Leadmining in the Stanhope area dates back to Roman times, and the village has a history of coal mining which reaches back to the Boldon Book', a record of the North produced around about 1183 A.D.

At the west end of the church can be found the foundation lines marked out for part of the original building, where stones were later transferred and used in the construction of the porch sometime in the thirteenth century. The rooflines for the original extension can still be seen high up on the wall. We do not know for certain what the annex was used for, but it mayhave formed a two storeyed dormitory building used to house the priests who ministered in the church. There may also have been a crypt beneath, and legends in the village still speak of a tunnel to the cellars of Vicarage Farm to the south of the church. The farm is now pebble dashed and looks fairly modern, but its origins go back many centuries and in Curry's description of Escomb in the mid nineteenth century there is a report of the priest-in- charge of the chapelry, stabling his horse at Peacock's Farm, as it was known then.

Later, there was a charnel house at this end of the church used for storing bones found when a new grave was dug. Two of the gravestones close to the porch have skulls and cross-bones carved on them. This is often supposed to denote a death as a result of plague, or even that the people were robbers and pirates! This is not the case. The skull and thigh bones were reckoned, by medieval theologians, to be a desirable minimum from which the angel Gabriel could constitute our resurrection bodies on the day of Judgement, In origin, therefore the skull and cross-bones is a symbol of hope of the Resurrection to eternal life. It was only later that pirates used the macabre device.

Hundreds of years later this north door became linked with superstitions so it was used in rituals, blocked up or locked. At one period it became known as " the Devil's Door to be left open at infant baptisms so that any 'evil spirits' could escape as the child was christened. During this period it was thought that the north side of the church was the sinister side (Latin; sinestre = left): the side where the evil spirits could hide in the shadow of the building.

On most summer evenings one can see the tiny Whiskered Bats flying around the church. Small gaps in the stone roofing provide the entrance to their roost. During the day they hang by their feet from the roof boards. On very hot summer afternoons it is possible to hear the bats shuffling their feet when they get too hot.

BJ Taylor Photographic Archive 2005

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