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Escomb Saxon Church (County Durham)

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One of the oldest churches in England built around 670AD.

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      03.11.2013 17:37
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      An old Saxon Church with plenty of notable features

      I was on my way to spend a few days exploring the Hadrian's Wall area when I stopped off at Escomb Saxon Church. I'd read about this place previously and knew that I'd one day pay it a visit, when I was nearby. Escomb is a small village in County Durham near Bishop Aukland and the church is well sign posted from most of the major roads that pass close by.

      When you arrive in Escomb you'll find a quiet, sleepy village with a pub, a few houses and apart from the church very little else. It's possible to park on the road just outside the church , which stands on a green called Saxon Green. Surrounding this green there's a few wooden benches to sit on, which enjoy an elevated position above the church.

      The first thing I noticed even before I went through the gates into the churchyard was a large information board that provided some information on the history of the church. The second thing I noticed was a note on the gate that said that if the church was locked then the key was available from one of the houses at the back of the church.

      The information on the board outside refreshed my memory of what I'd already read. Built around the year 670AD this claims to be one of the oldest churches in England. The majority of the stones that were used in its construction are however believed to be much older than this as they were thought to have come from the nearby Roman fort at Binchester.

      Since the church door was looked I headed off to the house in hope of obtaining the key (No. 26 Saxon Green) but even before I got there I was confronted by a very friendly lady heading towards me, waving the key in her end. "Just hang it back on the hook at the side of my front door, when you're done" She said. It felt a little bit odd being left alone with the key to one of the most important Anglo Saxon churches in England, but I was extremely grateful for the opportunity.

      Inside the church my eyes were immediately drawn upwards towards the roof rather than towards the altar at the front. Part of the roof was replaced during its renovation between 1875 and 1880 but the main cross beams are believed to be at least 12th century. Looking upwards I noticed that the stones were all uneven in shape with their size becoming smaller the higher I looked. Many of these stones were criss-crossed with deep, diamond shaped gouges, which was common practice in Roman stonework to allow the plaster to adhere to it. The next thing I noticed was that the church seemed to be very high in relation to its relatively short length and width. This is typical of many Irish/Celtic churches and further evidence of this influence can be found in the shape of a cross painted onto one of the walls. In addition to this cross there is also a stone cross behind the altar. This is believed to be as old as the church itself and some historians believe that it might even pre date the first construction as it is known that many Anglo Saxon churches were built on the site of a Preaching Cross or Preaching Stone.

      Walking around the church I was fearful of missing anything of importance but then I spotted a guide book, with a note asking for it to be returned back to where it was. This booklet contained a plan of the church and highlighted all of its key features. There is no doubt that without this book I'd have missed many things including a faded carving on one of the door jambs that is believed to represent Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. There is also an inscribed Roman stone. Apparently it was only discovered in the 1960's by a schoolboy on a school trip. The inscription is difficult to make out but reads ""Bono rei publicae nato", which means "to the man born for the good of the state". Historians believe this might have originally been at the foot of a statue of a Roman Emperor.This stone also bears the inscription "LEG VI" (Sixth Legion) and although the origins on the stone are not known it pre-dates the church by about 600 years. Curiously this stone has been erected upside down, or rather on its side, which was probably because most people at the time this church was built were illiterate.

      I'd already noted the crude stone font and I knew from its shape and size that it was Saxon in origin, but my guide book confirmed this. Saxon fonts were large enough to allow the baby to be fully immersed in water and unlike those erected after the 13th century there is no cover. The guide book also made me pay particular note to the archway and the windows.

      The arch is thought to be a Roman archway and its quality is so good that no mortar is required to support it. Originally this would have been plain but it was plastered at some time around the 12th century and painted white. With regard to the windows, there are 5 small windows, 2 on the south wall and 3 on the north wall. The book suggested that I looked carefully at these to see if there is anything odd about them and indeed those on the south wall have rounded lintels and those on the north wall have square lintels. It is not known why this should be but there are other examples of rounded lintels on south facing walls and straight lintels on north facing walls at other early Saxon churches in north east England (at Corrbridge, Jarrow, Monkwearmouth and Bywell). The use of a single stone lintel above each window is also similar to those found at Hexham Abbey, a place I would visit a couple of days later.

      I have no idea how long I spent inside this church but I did suddenly realise that I ought to return the key before the lady thought I'd done a runner with it. Just before I left, I left a donation in a box by the door and then I locked it back up, to wait for its next visitor. I hope they enjoyed it as much as I did.

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