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Saved ( the oldest church in England.

Environment Editor Tony Henderson finds a church which takes the visitor back 1,300 years.

A concerted push is under way to win world heritage site status for the 7th Century churches of St Paul at Jarrow and St Peter at Monkwearmouth, and rightly so.

But at the centre of a tiny County Durham village is another late 7th Century church with fascinating tales to tell.

It is claimed that Escomb Church is the oldest complete church in England still in use and one of the oldest complete Anglo-Saxon churches in the country.

Enter Escomb Church and you stand in a space which has been used for worship for 1,300 years.

It is a building of many messages, from the sun-dial with its apparent pagan overtones to the Roman stones used in the construction of the church, with its Irish Celtic influences.

The roughly circular shape of the churchyard suggests that the church was built on an earlier sacred, or at least important, site near the River Wear.

Stones from the nearby Roman fort of Binchester have been used in the building, including the chancel arch. The arch is believed to have been taken down en bloc from the fort and re-erected in the church.

Other stones show Roman-style diamond-broaching patterns. On the exterior of the North wall is a stone bearing the words LEG VI ( a reference to the Roman 6th Legion and which has been used upside down.

This has given rise to various theories. Were the builders cocking a snook at what had been the splendour of Rome, or did the 6th Legion mean nothing to the builders of the late 7th Century?

In 1969 a commendably observant schoolboy noticed an inscription on a Roman stone near a small window.

It reads: 'Bono rei publicae nato', which means 'to the man born for the good of the state' and could have come from the base of a statue.

Also used in the building is a rosette stone thought to have been part of a Mithraic altar.

At Escomb, antiquity is everywhere. In the porch are portions of two Saxon crosses.

Behind the altar is a stone cross, thought to date from the 9th Century.

Carved into the walls are consecration crosses from the original dedication of the church.

There are traces of 12th Century fresco work. Much of what was depicted was destroyed during the Victorian period when the church was in decline and parts of the roof were open.

The font is believed to be of 10th-11th Century origin and allowed the total immersion of infants. On its edges are holes for locks from the 13th Century, when it was ordered that fonts should be covered and secured to prevent the taking of holy water for use for superstitious purposes.

Gravestones in the churchyard date from 1628, while a sundial above the porch ( one of two on the church ( is early 17th Century.

The porch also hosts a display of finds from excavations, including an Anglo-Saxon bead, tweezers and pottery, William III and George III coins and a miner's lodge medal from the local George pit.

It all speaks of long and continuous use, and Escomb Church is certainly a survivor.

It has seen the pledging of the surrounding land in the 10th Century to Danish earls, the upheavals of medieval times, and 19th Century developments such as the pioneering Stockton and Darlington railway with its terminus at nearby Witton Park, and the neighbouring coal mines and iron works. For part of the 19th Century, services were held once a month and Holy Communion every three months, with the clergyman travelling on horseback from Bishop Auckland.

Baptisms were saved up for his attendance and were sometimes held with a funeral.

The closest call for the church came in 1863, when a new parish church was built in the village. The Anglo-Saxon building was reduced in status to a chapel, and fell into a state of neglect.

But in the 1870s two local clergymen, the Rev Hooppell and the Rev Lord, began to raise funds for repairs and in 1880 the church was re-opened by Bishop Lightfoot, who said that "Escomb Church existed when England was not yet England, when Saxons had recently settled on the island and Danes were beginning to harry the coasts and Normans were still undreaded".

A note written after the church's re-opening says: "At the time of the restorations, the skeleton of a very tall man was found in the chancel floor." How uncertain times had been for the church was revealed when the Bishop told the British Archaeological Association that "the other day I stumbled on a report made by a Rural Dean to my predecessor in which he states that it (the Saxon Church) is in a sad state of decay, and would be better removed."

But the church remained and the tide turned. An 1881 guide said: "A rough population dwelt hereabouts who respected neither Church nor parson. Happily things are now changed, high and low, rich and poor, love their old church.

"They talk and think about these ancient Saxon stones which have such a wondrous attraction, and such mighty stories to tell.

"The restoration has caused the thoughtless to think and driven idle loungers, who were wont to make its God's acre a playground, elsewhere."

In 1970 the building once again became a parish church, while a year later the Victorian church was demolished.

Escomb is three miles west of Bishop Auckland in County Durham.

Guides are on duty at weekends and most afternoons during the summer.

At other times, a notice at the church entrance gives the address of a nearby house from which the church key can be collected.

For details call (01388) 458358.
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Jul 24, 2006
Words:960
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