The valley of the River Wear around Bishop Auckland in County Durham hides many secrets and, as me and a good friend found out, it often reluctantly shares its treasures.
Our Journey Began
In the early hours of a cold April morning, me and my friend set off from the deserted market place of Bishop Auckland, passing by the open castle gates, and onwards back into the seventh century. Descending a steep hill from the town we followed the road for a while before, stepping off tarmac onto earth, our journey really began.
As we struggled up a steep bank, the River Wear glistened behind us in the early morning sun. The trail was narrow but the difficulties of our journey only made us feel more like early Christian missionaries on a journey to convert the Anglo-Saxon populations of the Kingdom of Northumbria. We were headed for the historic Anglo-Saxon church at Escomb.
Romans at Binchester
But first, let us travel back to the fifth century and two miles further downstream from Escomb when the Roman fort of Vinovia, now known as Binchester, hosted a disintegrating community amongst its crumbling and stone-robbed walls. It was once the largest Roman fort in Northern Britain and housed an auxiliary cavalry unit sourced from central Spain and, for a time, Holland.
By the fourth and fifth centuries, the Roman empire was fast breaking apart ridden by political ills, invasion from Germanic tribes and the inability of the Western emperor (there were two emperors by the fifth century) to hold onto Rome’s hard won territorial conquests.
This led to a rising localism where fort commanders, as at Binchester, became increasingly responsible for retaining order, caring for those under their command and finding food and pay for their troops. As Roman power, and interest, retreated to the centre of its collapsing empire, the city of Rome, so Binchester and its ancient river bend retreated into the shadows of unrecorded history.
An Unfortunate Meeting with a Shire Horse
Fast forward to the seventh century. Me and my good friend continued our journey in the late spring sunshine towards the village of Escomb but first we had to overcome a significant obstacle. After trekking through forest and through fields, we were walking through yet another field, when a large shire horse began closely following us.
Unperturbed, we continued, deep in conversation. However, this horse moved closer and to our great concern, began circling us. Then alarmed by the horse, my good friend ran and jumped headfirst over a nearby fence, the horse in hot pursuit.
My friend may have been alright, but the horse had turned around and was glaring at me. I panicked and ran straight into a hedge immediately getting my foot stuck on barbed wire. In a moment that seemed to last for hours, the horse began to move towards me, my friend was hastily untangling my foot and I was pulling my bag over the fence. Finally, my foot was free and, with my bag, we jumped back from the fence as the horse’s head poked through after us.
Relic of the Past
Having found another route to Escomb, we had arrived, albeit covered in a mixture of mud, twigs, and blood. And there, in the centre of the village, somewhat stranded by a ring of modern council housing, stood Escomb parish church.
A high wall separated this relic of the past from the surroundings of modernity whilst stout trees formed a protective guard of honour around the church and its graveyard.
The significance of the circular churchyard has been much debated by historians. There are suggestions that Escomb was founded on a Romano-British site which had possessed some association with the divine for centuries. The presence of a now-culverted stream makes this suggestion even more likely, as pagan holy sites are often found at watercourses.
However, the church building itself is where most of Escomb’s treasures are buried and it is well worth digging deeper. The actual foundation date of Escomb and what purpose the church building had is still largely lost to history but some sensible conjectures can be made.
The narrow, tall nature of the nave and the treatment of stone like wood suggests the current church is a more permanent replacement of a wooden predecessor constructed by builders who had little expertise of working in stone. This may suggest the original foundation date of Escomb may never been known.
But at least, due to excavations in 1979, we can date the stone church to c. 670-700 from an architectural fragment interred in a large retaining wall identified under the present churchyard wall and apparently contemporary with the stone church.
Thus, so far, we have two forms of evidence which suggest conflicting reasons why a church was built at Escomb. The pattern of replacing a wooden church, likely to have been predated by a preaching cross at which missionaries converted the local population, with a stone church suggests Escomb was an early missionary church.
What is more probable, is that Escomb was a monastic establishment from the beginning, a small offshoot of a regional monastic centre such as Monkwearmouth, Jarrow, or even Whitby. The fragment, with which we have dated the stone church, was found in a retaining wall of a raised tumulus most likely to have provided an islet for the church in the centre of a marsh.
The isolated position of Escomb, which the marsh would have provided, meant the church was more suited for the retreat of godly men from the world rather than the active centre of a (no-less godly) community.
Insights from Bede
It was common for monasteries to be founded in wild and isolated locations where monks (and nuns) could live a life to focus on spiritual affairs isolated from the petty affairs of men.
Bede (672-735), with whom the church is contemporary, refers to a similar monastery at Lastingham which was ‘amid some steep and remote hills’ amongst ‘robbers’ and ‘dens of wild beasts’, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
Bede, like us, has been on a journey of his own. After his death, he was buried in the church at the monastery of Jarrow. However, one night, a monk from Durham successfully stole Bede’s bones. Bede now rests, somewhat jumbled, in a tomb in the Galilee chapel at Durham Cathedral.
Earlier excavations in 1968 whisper of a monastic connection between Jarrow (Bede’s monastery) and Escomb’s west annexe, remains of the annexe roof line providing a shadow of its former presence on the west wall. This was identified along with a north porticus which contained fragments of glass very much like those at Jarrow, or even Monkwearmouth, whilst the architectural fragments found further echoed Jarrow.
Echoes of Rome
Whilst Escomb may have been an isolated dependent monastery before becoming a parish church, the north wall draws us in to explore the identity and ideology that helped to create the church. It is in this wall Binchester and its community have been kept alive for over a thousand years.
The echo of chariots travelling along Dere Street, the nearby Roman road, are seen in a stone which bears the mark of a chariot rut, and Roman faith in unseen deities is powerfully seen in the remains of a Roman altar shaft embedded high in the stone work.
Another stone, bearing the mark of the sixth legion, based at Binchester, reveals that the church of Escomb was built out of the remains of Binchester. Stone craftily carted upstream to serve another purpose after Binchester was abandoned by her makers.
The deep and lasting connection between Escomb and Binchester is further revealed in the chancel arch at Escomb. What may appear inconspicuous at first is, at closer inspection, the archway taken whole from the Roman bathhouse at Binchester! Why the Anglo-Saxons used a Roman archway will never been known. Some suggest it was a direct attempt to emulate the glories of a lost Rome in the context of the church or, it may have been a handy ready-made arch.
As we left Escomb on that April morning, the sun had now fully risen, and was shining brightly across the River Wear to where on a hill Binchester Roman fort watched down upon its holy neighbour, at Escomb and a disgruntled shire horse, in the valley below.
(My thanks to Escomb Parish church for its invaluable website, for the archaeological summaries of excavations from 2013-2015 by Durham University, Stanford University and the Archaeological Society of Durham and Northumberland. I also credit Pevsner’s magisterial work, revised by Williamson, The Buildings of England: County Durham (Yale, 1985), and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Photo credits to Matteo Lai.)