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English Church Architecture -

Durham County (U.A.).


ESCOMB (no dedication)  (NZ 189 302)     (July 2011)

(Bedrock:  Carboniferous Westphalian Series, Pennine Coal Measures Group)

The importance of this building lies in its seventh century origin and its claim to be the most complete Saxon church of its date in England, although if that is accepted, it is due in large part to its very modest initial plan, formed of four small cells, of which the nave and the chancel survive to full height.  To these were once added a small western narthex, later used as a charnel house, and a tiny N.  porticus adjoining the nave/chancel junction and opening into the latter, as revealed by excavation and by the blocked doorway inside the chancel, immediately east of the chancel arch.  A similar porticus also formed part of St. Peter’s-on-the-Wall, Bradwell (Essex) at the time of its construction, c. 660, most probably in conformity with an earlier Roman practice of erecting a "diaconicon" in this position - that is, a room for the clergy and the keeping of sacred vessels, a kind of vestry-cum-sacristy.  It was balanced at Bradwell, as at some North African and Syrian churches but apparently not at Escomb, by a similar-sized S. porticus, known as a "prothesis", which opened into the nave and provided a room for the reception of worshippers' offerings, as discussed by the late Sir Alfred Clapham in Romanesque Architecture: Before the Conquest (pub O.U.P., 1930).  


Today, the nave and chancel at Escomb are only augmented by the low, windowless S. porch - probably a thirteenth or fourteenth century addition, now with a round-arched, seventeenth century(?) outer doorway.  (See the photograph above, showing the church from the south.)   The nave measures 44½' by 15½' (13½ m. by 4¾ m), and the chancel, 10' square (3 m.) (Clapham).  However, their height is approximately 24' and 19' respectively (7¼ m. and 5¾ m.), so the building can still makes an impression, even within its constricted walled churchyard, "in the grim surroundings of well-intentioned but gloomy council housing" (Pevsner), like a wagon train drawn up in a circle in a desperate attempt to ward off marauding Indians. The church has few original external features - the square-headed N. doorway, two small round-headed windows high up in the S. wall of the nave, a similar one in the W. gable, and two square-headed ones to the north - but Clapham drew attention to the contrasting proportions of these late 7th/ early 8th century Northumbrian churches with the exclusively 7th century "Kentish Group" (which includes Bradwell), where the chancels are as wide or nearly as wide as their naves, and which are relatively less tall, and less long in comparison with their widths.  An additional distinction - influenced, no doubt, by the available stone - is to be found in the more megalithic quality of the "long-and-short work" of the northern churches, both in the angles of the buildings and in the jambs of any contemporary arches.  (See the interior view of Escomb church, below left, looking east to the chancel arch.)  The masonry at Escomb otherwise, is squared and irregularly-coursed, save only in the porch, which is largely built of rubble.


This chancel arch is a good piece of work for its date and it has been suggested (not necessarily with justification) that the voussoirs are so accurately cut, it may be a Roman arch re-set (though Clapham thought it was a Saxon copy of a Roman example).  It is entirely unmoulded except from the chamfered under-edges of the abaci.  (The N. jamb and springing are shown in close-up below.)













The crude and indeterminate polygonal font, composed of an irregular octagonal bowl supported on a broached stem, was wisely overlooked by Pevsner, but the more attractive stone cross (illustrated  left), now standing behind the altar, which he ascribed to the tenth century and which the church guide considers to be "ninth century... [or] possibly... much earlier", might equally well be left to anybody's guess, save only that it is Saxon.  Carvings integral to the structure of the building are obviously a rather safer bet to date and include the sundial set in the middle of the nave S. wall (and not, of course, the one above the S. porch outer doorway).  Other scratchings are of very minor significance, and the fragments of stone crosses in the porch are equally underwhelming.  This is a church, therefore, where the plain and venerable masonry must be allowed to speak for itself, without recourse to the aid of grand artistic gestures.