With what feels like a real Smörgåsbord of travel and botanical treats in the last few weeks, it’s difficult to know where to go for my next blog! Maybe a little about our sixth day on the Weardale way? We walked just a short stretch from Whitton Park to Hunwick this time, on a beautiful sunny day in May – not a stretch of the river which either Gill or I know well. Our first stop was Escomb, just a mile or so across the fields, where we visited the beautiful Saxon church, following the instructions to collect the key from the hook outside No. 28 so we could take a look inside.
Escomb is one of the oldest Saxon churches in Britain, dating from around 675 AD, and is still in regular use as the parish church. Much of the stone of which it is built was taken from the nearby Binchester Roman fort, including the Roman-style chancel arch which seems to have been dismantled and rebuilt here in its entirety.
There are Roman chisel marks on many of the stones; one carved with the mark of the Sixth Legion, and an entire mounting block, are incorporated into the exterior wall! The church’s interior is whitewashed now though there are still glimpses of the medieval paint which would once have covered it. A lovely, embroidered hanging, produced in the year 2000, gives a taste of life in the parish at the time. The booklet with it explains the symbolism behind each panel, designed and produced by various community groups. The Anglo-Saxon cross behind the altar gets pride of place, of course. Only in NE England, or perhaps Wales, would it a fat leek grown for competition feature alongside panels representing the school, the WI, the local football team and the area’s railway heritage!
Despite the addition of some extra windows in the 13th Century and a porch in the 14th, the church today is still very much as it was built, nearly 1300 years ago. It’s lovely to see the building still in use as both parish church and a place of pilgrimage – part of the Small Pilgrim Places Network. Cards spread around provide just the right level of information about its various architectural features including the intriguing ‘Devil’s door’. In Medieval times, this was believed to allow the Devil, driven out of a child at baptism, to leave the building. As we head out to lock up the building we meet a local resident very keen to talk about the church, its history and her current role in the congregation – so keen, that we eventually need to make our excuses and carry on our walk!
The walk from here to Bishop Auckland mostly follows the river closely, through meadows full of buttercups and clover and patches of woodland, though at one point we loop up towards the Weardale railway line where there must be some issue with rights of way. As usual, this leads to a bit of scratching our heads over the route – signposts seem to be thin on the ground along this stretch of the walk.
After a picnic lunch near the Rugby Club, overlooking the river, we think we can be clever and carry on along the river to Newton Cap Bridge. By the time we reach the bridge however, along an increasingly rough and overgrown path, it’s clear we are on an animal track which doesn’t actually join the bridge. The wall is too high to climb, at least for two middle-aged women, and we are forced to retrace our steps and walk the proper way to the bridge, along the road.
We decide against a diversion into Bishop Auckland for coffee and cross the bridge to the path on the west side of the river, which cuts off a large loop around Flatts farm. At first we are puzzled by the fenced off compound alongside the path, before we realise this is the storage area and car parking for Kynren, the ‘live action theatre show’ which retells the history of England on a huge outdoor stage here each summer. It’s all part of Jonathan Ruffer’s Auckland Project, which aims to help regenerate this part of County Durham which has suffered such unemployment and deprivation since the closure of the last of the coal mines in the 1980s. With my work hat on, our Durham students are involved in another part of the project, looking at the special lowland acid grassland flora in the park around Auckland Castle, which has been maintained by traditional grazing practices for hundreds of years.
We follow the river for a mile or so, before cutting off another of its lazy loops and heading up the hill towards Hunwick where we’ve left Gill’s car. Just a short walk today but a glorious day to be out. The next stretch of our walk should get us nearly back home!