St John’s Church

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The tiny Saxon church in the small settlement of Escomb dates from around AD 675 and was built using stones from the Roman fort at nearby Binchester. Set in a circular graveyard with a tall stone wall, it is a typical Saxon building with very tall and narrow nave and smaller chancel. The windows on the north wall are the original Saxon windows. The other windows are larger and were added later. It has a stone slab roof with crow step gables and a small bell cote at the west end. The south porch was added later.

Whiskered bats live in the roof space and on hot summer days they can be heard shuffling their feet when they get too hot. Fortunately their droppings are odourless.

On the south wall is a C7th sundial which is the oldest sundial in the country still in its original position. Above it is an animal head and it is surrounded by a serpent, which have the appearance of arms. The three lines on the sundial indicate time for prayers rather than the time. Above the south porch is a later C17th sundial. The cross above the south porch is made from Frosterley marble and is older than the church. It may have been part of a preaching cross.

Inside the porch are the remains of two Saxon cross shafts. These have interlaced Celtic designs and one has a bird swallowing another animal.

Steps lead down into the church. With its whitewashed walls and large plain glass windows on the south wall it feels very light. The wooden beam roof dates from 1480-90 and was restored in the C19th. Large modern coronas hang from the roof to provide light.

Many of the stones on the walls have the characteristic cross hatching, ”diamond broaching” which was a distinctive feature of Roman work as it helped plaster to stick to the walls. The north doorway has been blocked off. In Medieval times the north door was linked with superstitions and often referred to as the ‘Devil’s Door’. It was left open during baptisms so evil spirits could escape when the child was baptised.

The large and rather battered font at the back of the nave is thought to be C10 or C11th but may be a lot older. The base is later. In the Middle Ages, this was refilled with water once a year at easter and consecrated. The grooves in the top date from the C13th when fonts had to be covered and locked to prevent Holy Water being stollen for superstitious practices.

On the wall behind the pulpit is is a small incised consecration cross, thought to date from the building of the church.

A tall narrow archway leads into the chancel. The stones are thought to be part of a Roman archway. On the underside of the arch is the remains of C12th or C13th paintings, an abstract design of red wave lines. High on the north wall is another fragment of fresco which just looks like a dirty bit of wall in need of repainting.

The chancel is simply furnished with altar rail and wooden table altar. On the wall behind the altar is a small Saxon cross of unknown date, which may be as early as C9th, and may be part of a preaching cross. On the south wall is a small piscina.

By the early C19th, the church was getting in a very poor condition. A new Victorian church was built in 1863 to replace it and St John’s was demoted to the status of a chapel with a few services in the summer months. By the 1880s the church was beginning to fall down. Fortunately it was saved and restored for use. The historical and architectural value of the church was recognised and it underwent major repair work in 1964 and was officially rededicated for use. The Victorian church was pulled down in 1971 and St John’s became the parish church again.

When we first visited in the mid 70s, we were accompanied by two small boys who wanted to show off their church and were obviously terribly proud of it. It is still well loved and well cared for.

The churchyard and church are kept locked. The keys are hanging on a hook beside the front door of 28 Saxon Court, behind the church. The porch door needs to be pulled towards you when locking and unlocking. There is parking outside the church.

There are more pictures here.

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