cell structure with a comparatively small chancel. There is nothing of the“Romanesque” about it and so, unlike its famous neighbours at Jarrow and Monkwearmouth, it too probably had its roots in the Irish Celtic tradition brought to these shores by St Aidan. Jarrow and Monkwearmouth - the so-called “twin monastery” was built by Benedict Biscop who, along with his friend St Wilfred, was an arch proponent of Roman liturgy and architecture and who consciously copied Romanesque architectural styles. The same is true of the Kentish nexus of churches sponsored by St Augustine in the late 6th century. One might then make the case that Escomb is the oldest church we have that is of singularly British design. Moreover, it is more or less unchanged.
With its relative obscurity, Escomb has none of the “Bede’s World” hype that is associated with the twin monastery. There you will find a profusion of story boards and an enormous wealth of historical analysis and archaeological “finds” . At Escomb you collect the key from a nearby house, let yourself in and enjoy the church in splendid solitude! None of this, by the way, is to detract from those other sites which are essential to an understanding of Anglo-Saxon monasticism and spirituality: if you visit Escomb you should surely visit them too.
The church is of enormous and disproportionate height, even by the standards of Anglo-Saxon churches. We don’t know why this was so, but perhaps it was part of the long-established tradition of moving the building nearer to God. The upper courses of stone are noticebly smaller. You might postulate a very simple explanation that smaller stones were easier to lift to such a height. Yet the same is true of the much lower chancel. I have never seen it suggested by anyone else, but I wonder if the walls were raised at some point? The chancel is as shallow as the chancel is tall and just a little narrower.
Much of the stone was recovered from abandoned Roman buildings - and bear in mind that this part of England south of Hadrian’s Wall would have been heavily militarised. This explains the profusion of stones inscribed with decorative patterns and even, in one or two places, with legionary inscriptions. The criss-cross pattern (“diamond broaching”) on many was a Roman device to facilitate easier plastering. These probably came from the nearby cavalry fort at Vinovium (now Binchester). There is even speculation that the church is a remodelled Roman building. The chancel arch itself is also believed to be a reconstructed Roman one and it mortarless, a testimony to the accuracy of the carving. Supporting the chancel arch are two courses of typical Anglo-Saxon “long and short work”. Interestingly, this feature is rather rare in Northumberland Anglo-Saxon architecture and is not even used in the quoins between chancel and nave at Escomb. itself.
Only 5 of the windows are original. The two on the south side have rounded tops carved from massive pieces of stone. They are deeply splayed within. The two on the north side are different: they are rectangular with lintel stones. Why are they different? The two north doors are also rectangular with lintels. High on the west wall is another original window. On the west wall you can also see a roofline where once there was a two-storey extension to the church. There is speculation that this was used to house the clergy and that there night have been a crypt below. It is now believed, however, that an internal gallery at first floor level was a common feature of Anglo-Saxon churches: Deerhurst, Brixworth, Jarrow and Monkwearmouth amongst them. There is no sign of a doorway in the wall, but is it possible that Escomb also had such a gallery with access from the extension? Stone from this part of the building is believed to have been used in the construction of the c13 porch.
Simon Jenkins gives Escomb two stars (as he does to Jarrow). How he ranks it lower than a multitude of gothic churches distinguished mainly by their funerary monuments is a mystery to me! To visit Escomb is to step back in time. Visit it, savour its antiquity, drink in the extraordinary atmosphere of ancient spirituality.