Although I have lived in County Durham for 25 years, there are still local places of interest I have never been to. Two more visited this week in one little outing.
A few miles from Bishop Auckland is the small village of Escomb - its claim to fame is its Saxon church. Well, it's called "Saxon", but the Saxons were never this far north - it was the Angles who settled in this area.
The date of the original building of the church is unknown, but it must have been after the Romans left in about 410 A.D., as the church is made of second-hand (sorry, re-cycled) Roman stone blocks. Other similar churches in Northumbria can be dated to about 675, and Escomb is thought to be earlier than that.
This is a picture of the outside -
The porch, added in the 12th century, has a 17th century sundial above the door, while on the wall of the church, just above the apex of the porch gable end in the photo, is an Anglo-Saxon sundial; there is a snake decoration above it, and it is thought to be the oldest sundial in the country.
The small windows are original, with larger ones being added in the 13th century and the late 18th/early 19th century. Some of the stones in the walls have Roman inscriptions on them, and high on the North wall is a small raised rosette, which is thought to be a pre-Christian sacrificial stone.
Inside, the walls are mostly whitewashed, though a patch high on one wall shows traces of very old painting. There is also part of a painted design on the underside of the chancel arch, perhaps from the 12th century. The chancel arch itself may well be a complete Roman arch.
Behind the altar is a cross which may be older than the church.
In the wall to one side of the altar is a medieval piscina, and at the west end of the church is a font at least 700 years old, and probably more. Both these stone vessels used to drain into the floor of the church, to prevent the holy water from being stolen and used for witchcraft!
When I arrived, the church was locked, and as I was looking round the circular churchyard - indicative of Celtic Christianity - a lady arrived to sweep and dust (as a notice on the gate tells the visitor, the key can be obtained from her house if the church is locked). She seemed pleased to show off the details of the church, including pointing out where the bats roost in the roof and where the vicar had cemented cobbles into the floor to prevent any more being stolen.
It's a lovely simple little place, and the circular churchyard, full of worn and tilting headstones and tall trees, was peaceful.
As the stones to build the church had come from the Roman fort of Vinovia at Binchester, just a few miles away on the other side of the River Wear, it seemed a good idea to go and have a look round that too.
Approached up a steep and narrow lane, and through the grounds of a boarded up derelict nursing home (which had a long previous history), the site is small and low-key. There's no cafe, but a small car park, a Portaloo, and a bright flowerbed lead you to the hut where a ticket is obtained for a very modest £1 (that's the OAP price - adults pay £2.25).
The baths are supposed to be the best preserved military baths in the country, and are protected from the elements by a large barn . This is a view of the main warm room -
The floor is original Roman concrete, and the lower level, where the hot air circulated, is all original too. The figure in the corner startled me, but he's not original, just a plaster replica.
The layout is easy to see, with warm and hot rooms and cold plunge baths. To one side is another barn set up as a school study area - I did not take advantage of the box of clothes marked "dressing up".
Only a very small part of the fort has been excavated, and as you stand on the boardwalk you can clearly see how the commandant's quarters with the bath-house stood right next to the road -
This is part of the Roman Dere Street, which ran from York to Scotland - on the left is the gutter and on the right are kerb stones. You could almost hear the rattle of cart wheels.
The outline of the ramparts is still visible in the neighbouring field, now the home of some handsome cattle and big fine sheep. Bucolic now, but once a busy army base.
Sic transit gloria mundi.