FFor millennia, pilgrims have taken time out from their epic treks to overnight in churches, mosques, temples and monasteries to eat, sleep, pray and meditate as they recover from one day’s hard slogging and prepare for the next. Christians maintain this practice on pilgrimage routes through Britain and Europe.
Now people of all religions and none are invited to “champ” – church camp – in historic churches across England and Wales. The scheme was launched in 2016 by the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT), the charity that protects Anglican churches that have been made “superfluous” (closed) and deemed high-risk. The project provides unusual accommodations for travelers and funds churches to maintain buildings.
Last year, 1,500 people (and 200 dogs) slept in camping churches, making the CCT a record income. It is now trying to bring in more churches in the UK.
“Champing is still too small to raise significant funds,” said Fiona Silk, who oversees the champing business for the CCT. “But it does provide extra money for maintenance and repair and it is a way to keep a church sustainable.
“It’s also about offering a warm welcome to people who don’t normally attend church – and supporting rural communities as visitors also go out to eat. Champing can also give the local population a kind of mission.”
Priscilla Moxey, from the parish council of St Laurence in Hilmarton, Wiltshire, says: “The idea that people from far and even close by can come and stay at our beautiful Grade I village church and have the key for one or more nights, allows them to enjoying and taking in the history, beauty and architecture is a great concept.
“These beautiful buildings should be used as much as possible; and to see lights burning and hear chatting, singing and dancing is heartwarming. I believe champing breathes new life into the fabric while helping to maintain it for future generations to enjoy.”
The 18 buildings in the Champing portfolio are a mix of active and surplus churches. The former still hold regular services and are classified as partner churches; the latter are still consecrated, but no longer have ministers and churchwardens. One church, St Mary’s in Longsleddale, Cumbria, is a harvest church, only fully opening for the annual festival.
Facilities in surplus churches are generally limited or non-existent. Running water is a rarity and loos are usually of the dry kind. Visitors sleep on camp beds. There are no curtains, but there may be stained glass to soften the blow of early sunrises. Churches tend to be cold in winter, ambient in summer.
The luxury of camping is the originality of the site, the quirkiness of the architecture and the fact that all bookings are exclusive – if you go alone you have the church to yourself. Rates start at £49 per night, with a 25% discount for groups of 8-11 (£36.75) and 30% discount for groups of 12-16 (£34.30).
Natalie Trapmore, who is leading the campaign at St Nicholas, a partner church in Berden, Essex, says the plan has been a lifeline. “It costs £20,000 a year – £55 a day – to keep the doors open and the lights on. Champing has been a huge help.
She says clients are a diverse bunch. “We get a real mix: families, lots of young couples, older people, people who are alone, groups of ladies who come for a weekend. Some come to walk, others to cycle, some just for the unique experience of sleeping in a church. We even had a Dutch couple come because it is close to Stansted.”
Some guests bring bat detectors to better observe Sinterklaas’ dwarf bat. Trapmore would like to develop a walking route linking Saint Nicholas with another up and coming church, St Mary the Virgin at Stansted Mountfitchet.
“But it’s also about using a community resource,” she says. “Our church has always been the heart of our village. My husband, who is a church warden, said that when he entered the church after a camp visit, the atmosphere seemed different, that it felt more like a home than a building.”
With church attendance dwindling and aging, champing can be a way to keep buildings alive and forge links between locals and ‘pilgrims’, whether secular or not.
“Champing can be spiritual the way people want it to be,” says Silk. “Once you’ve closed the big, heavy door, all you’re doing is the walls. There is a lot of peace and quiet. It is extremely disconnecting.”
Five champion churches to try
St Mary, Longsleddale, lake area
This non-CCT church, pictured above, is in a remote location thirteen miles north of Kendal, on a small road through a valley surrounded by hills. It’s an idyllic base for walks in the surrounding hill country, and off the radar of Wainwright baggers at weekends. Longsleddale was the inspiration for Greendale, the fictional home of Postman Pat and his black and white cat.
St Nicholas, Berden, Essex
This early English Gothic church, founded in the 13e century and added to over the years is rich in architectural detail inside and out. It’s at the glamping end of camping, with hot running water, a flush toilet and a microwave. The hosts have decorated the ship with fairy lights and battery powered candles to create a warm atmosphere.
Blessed Virgin Mary, Walkhampton, Dartmoor
On a hill half a mile from the village of Walkhampton, St Mary’s sits at a high elevation (213 metres) in the southwest corner of Dartmoor. The building faces northeast, an alignment that points precisely to an outcrop known as Gypsy Rock: one author has speculated that this could indicate the site’s Saxon origins.
Saint Laurence, Hilmarton, Wiltshire
In this 12th century listed church in a small village, guests have use of a kitchenette with fridge and microwave, and a flushing toilet. They can also have a continental breakfast box delivered to the church door. It is handy for the villages and historic sites of Avebury and Lacock.
St Dona, Llandonna, Anglesey
A church was first built in 610 on this hill overlooking Llanddona beach and Red Wharf Bay. Dating back to 1873, this simply furnished but cozy building is set in farmland about a mile from the village of Llanddona. The historic town of Beaumaris is nearby.
For more information, visit champing.co.uk