A little-known church building, where volunteers were bricked into a cramped stone cell to spend their life in holy contemplation, should reel in the tourists when a County Durham town launches its first heritage trail. Emily Flanagan takes a look round.

AFTER walking through an Alice-in-Wonderland sized oak door into the church annex, I couldn't wait to get out of the claustrophobic stone room and into the main body of the museum. But - curioser and curioser - the other rooms seemed to get smaller and smaller.

It was in just two of these tiny stone rooms that 600 years ago residents of Chester-le-Street would be willingly walled up for the rest of their lives.

But first they were brought to the church altar and laid prostrate on the floor while a funeral service was read before they were led to the stone cells, where a Latin command from the bishop would spur workmen into action - bricking the hermit, or Anchorite, into his or her voluntary prison - never to be seen alive again.

Hang on, did this really happen? Is this another chapter from a Lewis Carroll story - omitted for its gruesome undertones?

To modern ears, the prospect of volunteering to be bricked into what was little more than a broom cupboard to spend the rest of your life in solitary confinement is almost impossible to comprehend.

But one of the Chester-le-Street museum's curators, Mike Rutter, explains that the mentality of your average medieval resident was very different.

"You have to appreciate life was much harsher and shorter and there were constant threats like the plague and wars," he said.

"People were also more religious. The church was very, very powerful in medieval England. It dominated people's lives. So they towed the line. The church had tremendous control over people's lives, but at the same time you got those who genuinely wanted to give their lives up."

The laymen or women had to first prove to the bishop they understood the extent of what they were doing and that family or friends could provide them with food.

This selection process was also necessary because there was no shortage of volunteers. It was seen as an honour to become an Anchorite or Anchoress. A hermit-style existence was believed to bring you closer to God and the community would be protected from pestilence and disease with the prayers of the town's or village's Anchorite earning it heavenly Brownie points.

Once the bishop was happy you were a good candidate, the dramatic induction ceremony could commence.

Mike says; "The service contained part of a funeral service and prayers for the dying because they were leaving this world - were dead to the world - and moving to the spiritual plain.

"He would then be shown through the doorway and the bishop would say a Latin command, which meant 'block up the house.' And workmen would literally block the entrance to show once the Anchorite had gone in, there was no coming back.

"In some places they would just have a heavy door, which would be locked and the key given to the Bishop. But the next time it was opened would be to get the dead body of the Anchorite out. Fairly gruesome."

A folk song exists about a Chester-le-Street Anchorite that describes how, when the wall to the Anker Cell was pulled down to retrieve one Anchorite, he was found in a shallow grave he had dug for himself in the dirt floor of his cell.

In the song, it tells of how this particular Anchorite had been a blacksmith. He volunteered for the job, despite being unable to read or write, when the previous Anchorite died and fear spread about the fate of the community.

But more often than not, the volunteer was an 'anchoress,' as historians have found that more women than men put themselves forward for the role.

Now the Anker House attached to St Mary's and St Cuthbert's Parish Church in Chester-le-Street is a museum. It measures no more than about 15 square feet, a space that would appear virtually palatial to the incarcerated Anchorite or Anchoress, who had half that space to live in.

Several existed in the North-East, including one at Holy Trinity Church in Skipton, North Yorkshire. But the Anker Cell in Chester-le-Street has been described as one of the best examples in Britain. Despite this, it is virtually unknown.

Hopefully all that will change with the town's new Heritage Trail, which should be launched before the end of the year. The Anker House Museum and church will form one of the highlights of the tourist walk, which will wind its way through the town, taking in important landmarks and sites, from Roman to industrial age.

Chester-le-Street was a town of great wealth and power in medieval times and people travelled from across Europe to visit the town and church. The first religious building on the site of St Mary's and St Cuthbert's was built in 883, when Bishop Eardulph and his monks from Lindisfarne took refuge with St Cuthbert's body. The saint's body was kept there for 100 years before being taken to Durham. The church was also the place where the Lindisfarne Gospels were translated into English, the first English version of the Bible.

The last Anchorite left their cell in the mid-16th century, when the Reformation put an end to the tradition. Two extra rooms and some windows were added and it was used as an almshouse for widows and their children. Despite the still cramped conditions, it must have been seen as a somewhat desirable abode, as in the early 1600s curate Roger Willis turfed out a widow and her children so he could live there before church wardens employed some 'heavies' to kick him out.

Walking around the museum, it is difficult to image the oppressive stone cells being so appealing during medieval times, without windows, heating or many other home comforts.

Their days would be spent in prayer, perhaps transcribing holy texts, reading a bible or listening to townspeople, who would use their town's own holy hermit as a kind of confessional. Food was passed through a hatch in the wall, which had a curtain so no-one could see them.

In fact the Anchorite's only view outside the cell was through a crack in the wall, created by setting one of the heavy stones in the wall at an angle. Called a 'squint stone' it only allowed the Anchorite a view of a cross in the corner of the church.

But as Mike Rutter points out, solitary reflection is not entirely foreign to today's society.

We are quite comfortable with the idea of monks, some of whom led - and still lead - solitary, austere lives. Modern day meditation retreats are also increasingly common.

There are probably also days when any of us, bombarded with a steady stream of muzak, telephone holding systems, computer break-downs and commuting nightmares, would like to crawl into a dark room and lock ourselves in. But how many would throw away the key as well?