NGR: NZ 18929 30139. The well-preserved little church of St John the Evangelist, Escombe, stands on Saxon Green in the middle of the village of Escombe, in Co Durham, and is 2 miles to the west of Bishop Auckland. There has been a church on this site since 670-75 AD and there is still much early Saxon work to be seen inside and outside the present church, in-cluding some Anglo-Saxon crosses, which date from the 7th-10th centuries AD, but St Bede does not mention it. Some Roman inscribed stones built into the outer walls obviously date from several centuries before the actual church. The churchyard is roughly circular so this little church must stand on a sacred site. Much of the stonework of this 7th-century building came from the nearby Roman Fort of Binchester (VINOVIUM), which stood on the bank of the River Wear. St John’s has seen various periods of restoration, particularly in 1875-80, when the roof had to be restored. At the SW side of Bishop Auckland take the B6282 for a couple of miles. Stay on this road S and then W, then take the country road heading N to the village of Escombe – St John’s Church is near the centre of the village on Saxon Green.
Nigel & Mary Kerr (1982) tell us that: “The little church of St John is an excellent example of early Anglo-Saxon work. Standing tall and austere in an almost circular churchyard, its majestic antiquity is unmarred by the tasteless modern houses which sur-round it. This is one of the best-preserved Anglo-Saxon churches in England and, apart from a short break during the last century, worship has probably continued here for 1,300 years. Nothing is known of the foundation of the church, and the dedi-cation is unhelpful. The main fabric is of 7th-century date, and some have claimed that its simplicity shows continuity from Celtic timber buildings. The Venerable Bede makes no mention of the church in his History of the English Church and People which was finished in 731. This has led some to question the early dating, but Bede only mentioned churches germane to his narrative, so the omission is not critical.
“The gables of the nave have been restored; the ‘crow step’ pattern may therefore be later. The walls are over two feet (61 cm) thick and 23 feet (1 metre) high. Huge quoin-stones, some nearly two feet (61 cm) high and three or four feet (1 metre) long, are set on edge and extend along each wall alternately; hence the name ‘side alternate’ quoins. Many of the stones show character-istic Roman diamond tooling and were doubtless taken from the nearby fort at Binchester. A steeply pitched roof line, perhaps of a porch, can be seen on the west wall. The blocked doorway in the north wall of the chancel led into a small chapel, called a porticus, which was excavated in 1968. The present south porch is later. Just to the east of it, high up in the wall, an original sundial may be seen, decorated with a carving of a serpent.
“Internally, the lofty nave is complimented by a tall chancel arch, a further example of re-used Roman work. The small chancel has a simple Saxon carving behind the altar. The four Saxon nave windows, round-headed on the south side and square on the north, are strongly splayed internally to admit more light. They are now glazed, but vertical grooves for wooden shutters show the original arrangement; some window glass was found during the excavation of the north porticus, however. A small section of early cobbled flooring is preserved at the west end of the nave. As Escombe is older than St Lawrence’s at Bradford-on-Avon and Odda’s Chapel at Deerhurst, it is the earliest largely complete Anglo-Saxon church in England, and well worth a visit.”
Arthur Raistrick (1972) says that: “Escomb church stands one and a half miles to the west of Bishop Auckland, on the south bank of the Wear. It is the only parish church of the seventh or eighth century, in this country, still surviving in its entirety. It is small but very high and plain, and achieves a great dignity. The nave is long and high, with a nearly square chancel beyond it, separated by a chancel arch of carefully fitted well-cut long and short work. These very large blocks are probably taken from the Roman fort of Vinovia, Binchester, not far away. The windows are very small and very deeply splayed on the inside, two on the north side with straight heads, and two on the south with round heads. A few later windows have been inserted to light the building.
In the church porch there’s a beautifully carved section of a cross-shaft which is said to date from the late 7th to early 8th century AD, and might have been part of a taller preaching cross that once stood outside the church, while located behind the altar is an incised cross-slab, or was this a grave cover, from the 9th century AD; this may have originally stood outside the church and to have been part of a preaching cross, or the preaching cross itself? There is also a stone with an eagle carved onto it that is dated to the 9th century AD and is also to be found inside the porch. There are other fragments of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon carvings in St John’s. On the gable end of the south porch can be seen a very interesting sundial from the 7th or 8th century AD.
Sources / References & Related Websites:-
Many thanks to Anne T for letting me use her two photos which are copyright © Anne T.
Kerr, Nigel & Mary, A Guide to Anglo-Saxon Sites, Paladin Granada Publishing Limited, St Albans, Herts & London, 1982.
Raistrick, Arthur, The Pennine Dales, Arrow Books Ltd., London, 1972.
Copyright © Ray Spencer, The Journal of Antiquities, 2021.