The church of St John at Escomb in County Durham has been described as “the most complete small Anglo-Saxon church now standing” (Taylor and Taylor, 1965). It has been in continuous use as a church throughout its history, except for a short period of neglect from 1863 when a new Victorian church was built nearby. It was saved in 1879 by the Revd T. E. Lord, who recognised it for what it is and had it restored at a cost of £500. The Victorian church is now gone and, since the 1960s, St John has resumed its role as the parish church.
The small village of Escomb lies on the banks of the River Wear, 1.5 miles upstream from Bishop Auckland. The river once flowed closer to the settlement, which was a crossing point connecting two ancient trackways that followed either side of the river into Weardale. Mining in this area has a long history, from Roman lead mines in Weardale around Stanhope to coal mining around Escomb itself from at least 1183AD.
I have come across three suggested meanings for the name of the village. One, from greatenglishchurches.co.uk, says it means “valley where the ash trees grow”. Another, kepn.nottingham.ac.uk, gives the meaning as “at the enclosures” from the OE “edisc”, whilst the notice board in the church porch suggests “unenclosed pastures in a hollow” from the OE “edisc” and p-Celtic “cwm”. A tentative fourth suggestion (the most unlikely as it is mine!) is that it is an entirely p-Celtic name meaning “river valley”, derived from “isca” (water or river, as in Exe, Usk, Esk) and “cwm” (valley).
St John’s is a very early Anglian church. Taylor and Taylor (1965) think it dates from between 600-800AD, whilst Points (2012) narrows this down to between 680-700AD and the Church Guide to between 670-690AD. It sits in a circular churchyard and this, together with the proportions of the church, led Points (2012) to postulate that the original foundation may have been established by followers of the Celtic, perhaps Irish, form of early Christianity – or it may even have been a pagan site.
Apart from two 13th century windows, three 19th century windows and a 14th century porch, the church today looks pretty much as it would have done to our Anglo-Saxon predecessors; although it would have been a different colour as there are still traces of the original lime render on the outside walls. There would have been a little more of it too as the foundations of two now-vanished annexes are outlined in stone in the grass outside. The roofline of the former western annexe can still be made out as a scar on the west wall of the church; this annexe, possibly a baptistry, measured 3.83m (12ft 6ins) by 4.45m (14 ft 6ins). The other, smaller, annexe lay to the north of the chancel and may have been a vestry.
As it stands today, the church consists of a long rectangular nave with five small Anglian windows set high up in its lofty walls and a shorter square chancel. It is constructed of large, roughly-dressed square stones which decrease noticeably in size towards the eaves. Its quoin (corner) stones, laid side alternate, are huge, many 0.6m (2ft) high and up to 1.2m (4ft) wide, and these do not decrease in size up the walls. The large size of the stones suggests a Roman source and there is other evidence for the re-use of Roman stones too. On the north wall outside is a stone, now placed upside down, with the inscription “LEG VI”; the 6th Legion had been based nearby at Vinovium (modern Binchester), which was just across the river and the most likely source of the stones. Inside the church, another Roman inscription can be seen on one of the window jambs in the north wall. Several stones display Lewis holes and many have a cross-hatching pattern, called “diamond broaching”, which is a distinctively Roman method of preparing stones for overlay with plaster.
The four original windows in the side walls of the nave are 4m (13ft) above the ground and all have a large rectangular stone that forms the sill with 2 narrower rectangular slabs of stone forming the jambs which slope slightly together creating a narrower opening at the top. A single rectangular lintel forms the head of each window; on the north side these lintels are flat, whilst on the south side they have round heads cut into their lower faces. All these windows are splayed so that their internal size (1.7m, or 5ft 7ins high) is twice that of their external size (0.81m, or 2ft 8ins high); this ensured that the maximum light could enter the church with the minimum rain and wind. There is a similar window set high in the west gable of the nave. This one has an exceptionally large lintel with a round head cut into its lower face and each jamb is formed by two stones instead of one.
There are two original doorways in the north wall. The one in the nave is still used and is part of the earliest structure, whilst the one in the chancel, now blocked, is slightly later (but still Anglian) and would have opened into the now-gone vestry. They are both square-headed. The jambs of the chancel doorway are made from single, tall stones, whereas those of the nave doorway each comprise two upright stones with a stone between them laid flat to bond them into the wall. The upper stone of each jamb is mortised into the lintel – a wood-working technique.
Also outside, on the south wall of the nave is an impressive Anglian sundial, the oldest in England in its original setting. It is situated 4.9m (16ft) above the ground between the original windows. It is circular in shape, 0.48m (1ft 7ins) in diameter, with a serpent carved around its top and sides and a plait forming its lower part. The hole for the gnomon can still be seen and the dial is divided into four segments. Just above the sundial, and clearly part of the same feature, is a prokossos (beast head) projecting over it. The sundial has been dated to about 700AD. Above the porch sits another sundial, though this time of 17th century date.
When I first entered the church, I was struck by its tall, narrow proportions – and the feeling of entering a beloved, ancient, sacred space. The whitewashed walls throughout give a feeling of light, though the wash does make some features harder to pick out.
Dealing with the nave first: it measures 13.3m (43ft 6ins) by 4.4m (14ft 6ins) and its walls are 7m (23ft) high but only 0.7m (2ft 4ins) thick. It is considerably larger than the chancel which is a mere 3m (10ft) square. The jambs of the inner faces of the Anglian windows show traces of the vertical grooves which held the original wooden shutters (Taylor and Taylor, 1965). There is a consecration cross incised into the west face of the east wall of the nave and many stones with Roman diamond broaching. The octagonal font may be 10th or 11th century, but it is hard to date so could be much later.
The most impressive feature inside the church, however, is the chancel arch. Tall (4.6m or 15ft) and narrow (1.6m or 5ft 3”), it commands attention immediately. Its jambs have given their name to an architectural term: “Escomb type”. Their stones pass through the full thickness of the wall and are laid alternately upright and flat; this is very similar to “long and short work”, but the faces of Escomb uprights are wider. The imposts, at the base of the arch, do not project along the wall. The south impost is cut from such a huge piece of stone that the stone forms not only the impost but also part of the vertical face of the jamb. The whole arch may have been removed bodily from Vinovium and reassembled at Escomb (Taylor and Taylor, 1965).
Inside the chancel, part of another consecration cross can be made out incised on the east wall.
Immediately behind the altar, part of a late 8th/early 9th century grave marker has been attached to the wall. It is decorated with a standing cross on its west face with roundels in the centre of each arm and two “wreaths” hanging from its side arms. It would have originally been brightly painted.
The east jamb of the blocked doorway in the chancel has the remains of a possible carving of Adam and Eve with the Tree of Life, but it is hard to make out with the whitewash.
In the porch is an exhibition of Anglian stones and other artefacts that would make any museum envious, including parts of two late 7th/early 8th century cross shafts, part of a pillar of the same date, two early 9th century cross shafts, part of a wheel-head cross, a display of Anglian carvings and beads and, in another cabinet, a display of Anglian window glass fragments from the church. There is also a series of notice boards packed with information.
The key to the church can be obtained from a nearby house; there are directions at the church for this.
The age and completeness of this iconic little church make it one of the most important survivals from the Anglo-Saxon period; to be there is like stepping back in time – it is an absolute must-see.
Beddow, G and Roberts, M. The Saxon Church at Escomb: A Guide for Pilgrims. 2015.
Points, G. A Gazetteer of Anglo-Saxon and Viking Sites: County Durham and Northumberland. 2012. Rihtspell Publishing.
Taylor, H M and Taylor, J. Anglo-Saxon Architecture. Vol 1. 1965. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.
Notice boards in Church Porch