I have a list, created some time back, long before I thought of coming to Durham, entitled ‘Places I would like to see one day’. Escomb Church is the first place I put on it. Thus it was the first eager destination in my explorations of Co. Durham.
It is Saxon you see and an intact Saxon stone building, looking largely as would have done when it was built, is vanishingly rare. This also makes it one of the oldest surviving buildings still in use on our shores (it still has services and weddings and the like) and because I’m apparently an increasingly insufferable nerd this is exciting enough to me to write about and therefore subject you to.
It was back in the warmth – the North East is cooooold in the dark months for someone nursed in the damp mildness of Kernow – when I came upon Escomb standing stoutly in the hazy dappled autumn, bright and friendly despite her age and settled within her circular churchyard. I liked it immediately, as I thought I might. Circular churchyards are, by the by, always a strong clue you have found yourself at a pre-Christian site, a piece of land once imbued with meanings now only speculated at, a Brythonic link to the pre-Roman times.
To access the church interior you have to ask for the key at a nearby house, the resident of which is the official gatekeeper of this tranquil arrangement of old stone, how quaint. Unfortunately the key was already in the hands of three large, rustly, middle-aged people with loud voices, so I didn’t get to see if was mythic, giant iron thing on a chain I imagined it to be.
It is an odd setting for the village of Escomb seems largely new, consisting entirely of uniform drab council houses, which contrasts oddly with the ancient uniqueness at its centre. Nonetheless both church and village are the site of what was once an important crossing of the River Wear. The smallest of the three rivers – the others being the Tyne and Tees, that rise high in the Pennines. It is funnelled through Weardale, through various pleasant villages, to the flat ground where it wanders its way to Durham itself. Dramatically arcing around cathedral, castle and forming the peninusla of the bailey and it meanders onwards through to Sunderland. Where it meets the sea, at Monkwearmouth, stands another Saxon church, ‘Monkwearmouth – Jarrow’.
The North-East is rather blessed with Saxon-era architecture. The Saxon folk of Northumbria were remarkably tough and hardy – the Vikings didn’t actually bother too much with them after their initial raids, indicating perhaps the garrisons at Lindisfarne and Bamburgh were formidable – yet they were also pious and enterprising. Christianity came early from Iona to Lindisfarne and subsequent Monks imbued with a divine wanderlust brought inspirations of stone building from their dutiful and eye-opening pilgrimages to Rome, applying what they could remember back in the dark, icy north-east in a vernacular fashion. Resulting in some of the only stone buildings remaining from the Dark Ages.
I suppose Escomb’s barn like form is not particularly impressive a first, its imposing nature really comes from its pure age.
Dated at around 675 AD it is 400 years older than the Norman cathedral at Durham down the river and 500 years older than any (still complete) church, or even building (unless you count dolmens) of Cornwall. Incidentally it is hard to really know the oldest church in Cornwall but from what I gather it is probably St. Materiana’s at Tintagel at around 1150, although Rame might be close, still, both are sprightly compared to Escomb.
In another act of reappropriation – upcycling – a great deal of the stone used was pilfered from the ruinous Roman fort at Binchester a few miles down the Wear and many of the blocks still bear roman inscriptions and diamond hatching. I did not take any photos of these blocks and I cannot remember for the life of me why. Hungry perhaps.
It’s quite hard to put my finger on when I started exploring churches. Whenever it was I can’t visit anywhere now without making a beeline for them. They are the cultural and historical epicentres of the community in which you find yourself, for someone who loves to explore England then this is exceedingly useful. The lives, ideas, beliefs, loves and deaths of the people there are literally written in the stones. Each church is a unique little museum to the place in which it stands. Sometimes you get free biscuits.
So Escomb was crossed off. The oldest church I have yet seen. The oldest building I suppose I have seen. It’s a nice thing to be able to cross something off a list.