Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Escomb Saxon Church (NZ189302)

[please note this article was originally written in 1994 so may be a little out of date – though, in view of the subject matter, probably not too much!]

It is distinctive of Escomb that it has no history. It is just a little, obscure church – probably preserved by its lack of importance.
[ a former Bishop of Durham ]

Well, maybe so.  Nevertheless, this “little, obscure church” of ours, nestling somewhat embarrassingly in the midst of a 1960s housing estate three miles west of Bishop Auckland, is arguably the finest example of its kind in Britain. Of the three surviving, intact Anglo-Saxon churches nationwide, our very own at Escomb is the pick of the bunch many say. Having been thus preserved by its “lack of importance”, it is now, ironically, perhaps our most treasured relic of Northumbria’s ‘Golden Age’.

The monument’s – and indeed the village’s – early history are shrouded in mystery. Scarcely mentioned in our early written histories, even the source of its name is disputed. Undoubtedly Old English in origin, it may mean Edi, Eda or Ida’s combe (combe meaning a hollow enclosed with hills, or a valley); or, alternatively, may be a derivative of the O.E. edisc (park), Ediscum therefore meaning ‘a place where there are parks’. It seems likely, however, that there has been almost continual habitation in the area since Anglo-Saxon times. The site is certainly typically Anglo-Saxon in nature.

Although similar to its more famous and near contemporaries at Jarrow and Monkwearmouth (built 675-84AD), Escomb Church does, however, exhibit features of an earlier generation. It is, if you like, more ‘Celtic-like’. Prior to the 664AD Synod of Whitby, Celtic Christianity very much held sway over the Roman version in the North.  Escomb, with its circular graveyard, pyramidal construction and Celtic artifacts, hints at a pre-664AD founding. It has unmistakable Celtic dimensions, too.  Its official date of construction of c.675 is probably therefore a little conservative. The locals, once converted in the 640s or 650s, would have soon set to work on their place of worship – it is fortunate indeed for us that they chose stone rather than wood. The choice, though, was an easy one – the crumbling nearby Roman station of Vinovia (Binchester) provided ample pickings.

Earliest documentary records dating from c.990-95AD concern the mortgaging or pledging of the estate (church included) to a Danish Earl, Northman, who, it seems, quickly sold it back to the See of Durham. It then fell under the administration of the parish of Auckland St.Andrew in the late thirteenth century, and its somewhat undefined role remained largely unchanged with its post-Reformation appointment as chapel-of-ease to its big brother.

Come the nineteenth century and Escomb itself was finally made into an ecclesiastical parish in its own right. A vicarage was built in 1848 (priests had previously been non-resident) and all looked rosy. The tiny churchyard soon filled, however, and a new church was built and burial ground created as early as 1863 half a mile away. The old church was thus abandoned and left to decay.

Thanks largely to the efforts of a certain Dr.Hoopell, however, the old building was rescued from imminent demise. Funds were raised throughout the late 1870s, local support rallied by the caring and much-loved incumbent, T.E.Lord, and tasteful refurbishment work carried out. Bishop Lightfoot did the honours on 4th October 1880 as the chapel was re-opened to the public.

By all accounts Victorian village life was pleasant enough thereafter under the watchful guidance of the Revd Lord. The ‘new’ church remained the parish church; its ancient neighbour being used periodically when the fancy arose. Twentieth century life took its toll, however, and the village gradually declined until clearance work in the 1960s preceded the construction of the present housing estate.

During the 1960s, too, it was decided to demolish the Victorian church (due to upkeep problems) – an act finally carried out in 1971. In the meantime the old Saxon church was overhauled again (including the installation of heating and lighting) in preparation for its restoration, once again, to the status of parish church proper in 1970.

So, a “little, obscure church” with a fascinating story… and a happy ending!


Don’t miss the chance to visit the place today; for if you’re ever in the area a quick diversion to take in the ‘Church of St.John the Evangelist, Escomb’ is well worth the effort. By reading the notice on the gate you’ll find the key to the same hanging on the wall of a nearby house (just take it without knocking). The church is open 9.00am-8.00pm during the summer and 9.00am-4.00pm in the winter.

Mention should be made of some of its features. Internally, the building measures 43ft x 14ft (nave) – the chancel being some 10ft square. The walls are an impressive 2ft 5in thick, and the building stands some 34ft to the point of the roof.

The southern porch and bell-cot were added during the twelfth or thirteenth century and, originally, there was an additional building to the west (the chancel is on the east wall) – though only traces of the foundations of this remain. Many extra windows have been added over the years. The site was, incidentally, excavated in 1968.

Note the narrowing or pyramidal form of all the vertical features of the church, including the building itself. Curiously, the upper courses of stone are much smaller than the rest (though still the originals).

Inside, there are medieval grave-covers lining the porch, an odd-shaped font and some original Anglo-Saxon pebbled flooring to the west of the nave. But most interesting of all is the cross fragment behind the altar and the complete Roman arch which now frames the entrance to the chancel – undoubtedly from the Binchester ruins. The fading artwork on the underside of the arch is some 800 years old.

Roman markings adorn the building inside and out. Indeed, many of the stones have clearly been fashioned by Roman masons. High on the exterior of the north wall is the legionary inscription “LEG VI”, though another legend on the inside of the same wall was not spotted until 1969 by an eagle-eyed schoolboy!

Evidence of an earlier age comes in the form of the Celtic cross over the porch entrance. What is probably the oldest Saxon sundial in the country sits high on the south wall, whilst a seventeenth century version adorns the porch.

Today the church is whitewashed within, but most probably would have also been brightly plastered without, too, in the Middle Ages. Those twelfth century paintings would also have adorned a good deal of the interior. By sitting alone on the back pew in complete and utter silence it is easy, even today, to picture the ancient scene of yesteryear. Simple, austere, reverent beauty.

And most moving.

[ This article has appeared in various publications over the years, including in my Aspects of North-East History, Vol.1 – see here ]

1 comment:

  1. My great-great-great grandparents (who lived at Etherley Lane / Witton Park) were married in this church in 1851. I'd really like to visit.