Escomb Church, probably built in the seventh century, is situated in a hollow just west of Bishop Auckland in the north east of England, and is one of only four complete Anglo-Saxon churches left in England. The many substantial slabs of stone for the building are thought to have come from the nearby large Roman settlement of Vinovia, now Binchester, where there are very well preserved Roman baths that can be visited. It could be that there was a pagan site here suggested by the circular churchyard.
The blocks in the stone walls vary in size from small to massive and are laid in a rather random pattern, but the corners consist of immense ‘quoins’ laid on alternate sides as can be seen here; these strengthen the walls. The stones are mainly very neatly cut, again emphasising the Roman link. Stone buildings were quite rare at this time, in fact the skill of building in stone generally left with the Romans at the end of the fourth century. It was Benedict Biscop (628–690) who brought masons from Gaul to build the stone churches of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow, and who no doubt applied their skills here too.
Outside to the right of the porch there is a sundial set into the wall, thought to be the earliest sundial in its original position, dated to the seventh or early eighth century. There would have been a metal gnomon and the three lines carved into the stone indicate the hours of Terce (the third hour), Sext (the sixth hour) and None (the ninth hour), which are the times of the services held during daylight hours.
Inside the building is marked by its initial appearance of simplicity with whitewashed walls and wooden pews. The roof timbers have been dated to 1480–1490, and between 1875–1880 the roof was restored at a cost of £500.
The simple appearance is deceptive, because looking closer it’s clear that some of the building blocks have a history. Patterns and striations caused by chisels are visible in a number of stones.
And in the chancel, one of the vertical, narrow stones has a clear pattern that is thought to be the Tree of Life, with two figures at the base.
These two figures could represent Adam and Eve.
The windows are small, typical of this period, but open out to the inside to almost twice their size, thus increasing the light. It is quite surprising how much light these small windows give out.
The high, narrow chancel arch is of particular note as it is similar to those in Roman gateways and is again thought to have been dismantled from Vinovia and rebuilt here at Escomb.
There is evidence of painting on the underside of the arch, but only the red colour is still visible. The paint has been applied to wet plaster as in a fresco (fresco means fresh) rather than simply painted on once the plaster had dried. It is likely that the whole church would have been decorated in this way with patterns and pictures.
The simple altar cross probably pre-dates the church and would have been erected at a significant spot for visiting missionaries to preach and pray. Eventually a church would have been built to protect the congregation from the elements and the cross brought inside.
Escomb Church is such a delightful, seemingly simple building but its history and place in the annals of early Christianity in the area mean that it is well worth a visit and well worth, too, looking a little deeper and longer to gain greater insight into a really fascinating structure.