Our photograph albums are full of soaring cathedrals and humble Saxon foundations. I especially love the ones that date back to the beginnings of Christianity and beyond. You can imagine my delight to discover that Escomb church was only an hours drive away from her home in Birtley near Hexham.
We drove through dazzling sunshine, the drab tarmac cutting a path through stunning countryside, and crossed the border into County Durham. We eventually discovered Escomb some mile and a half outside Bishop’s Auckland. I have never been so surprised at the location of an ancient monument in my life.
Rather like Neath Abbey the modern world has crowded in upon Escomb and where I had expected to find a secluded place for quiet contemplation, what I found instead was that Escomb church, complete with its oval pre- christian enclosure, stands in the middle of a 1960’s housing estate.
The church has stood for some 1300 years, making it one of only three surviving Saxon churches in England. The world has evolved, the church has witnessed Viking occupation, Norman invasion, reformation, pestilence, industrial revolution and yet the village has still managed to thrive and grow from a few humble monastic cells into a modern day community.
The improvements that dragged the village from squalor into comfort, mercifully left the church and the churchyard intact and, today, the church stands as a monument to the continuity of religious belief from pagan times, through religious and social change.
Today, apart from the hideous modern furniture inside, a visit to the church is like stepping into another world, and not just a Saxon world. The chisel marks belong to builders and masons from Roman Britain for much of the building stone was taken from the fort at Binchester some two hundreds years after the Romans withdrew.
The rough and squarely hewn stone still bear the criss crossed marks of Roman broaching and painted decoration is still visible on the underside of the chancel arch. The long and short style of the stonework is distinctive and the arch is believed to have been reassembled from a Roman one, the stones matched so finely that no mortar was necessary. The painted plaster on the underside of the arch, with its traces of abstract scroll-work is judged to be twelfth or thirteenth century, but the similarites of colour and texture with some similar plasterwork excavated at Jarrow suggests a much earlier date.
There are the five small windows dating to the Saxon period. The two on the south wall of the nave and one high up on the west wall have rounded lintels but those on the north wall are straight. All are fashioned to let in the maximum amount of light but also keep out as much wind and rain as possible. They are all of the same basic construction and the lintels are made from single stones. The two lancet windows in the sanctuary and the piscina, a stone bowl for cleaning communion vessals are thought to date from the thirteenth century and in the 17th and 18th Centuries the three largest windows were added; one on the south side, and one on the east and west end.
Most intriguingly one of the small Saxon windows on the north wall bears a Roman inscription which reads ‘Bono rei pulicae nato’ or ‘to the man born for the good of the state’. It is believed that this stone originally formed the base for a roman statue or possibly is the remains of an ornate milepost erected in honour of the Emperor. To the Saxon builders the stone was simply a conveniently pre dressed piece of building material, they set it high up and upside down and, as a result, this stone with its inscription remained unnoticed until spotted by an eagle eyed school boy in the 1960’s.
The style of the north door is of celtic origin and, due to the way the stone has been dressed it has been suggests that it may have come complete from the Roman fort at Binchester.
The alterations and maintenance made over the years have not detracted from the integrity of the church’s origins. The exterior north wall remains more as less as the Saxons built it, solid, square and untouched by thirteen centuries of change. The height of the walls and the reason why the stones in the upper courses are smaller than those lower down remain a conundrum. The height and the ground plan point to possible Irish Celtic influences and a connection with ancient Gallic chapels has been suggested.