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I’m lying on the floor wedged between two pews, swathed in blankets. Above me is a beautiful vaulted, wooden beamed ceiling, and to my side are stained-glass lancet windows with pointed arches. Below me is a cold floor of red-squared clay tiles. Apparently, this is a popular way to sleep. I’m no stranger to the inside of a church. Raised a Catholic, I spent most Sunday mornings during my youth in religious services, either sitting on pews or on bended knees in front of them. But I’ve never spent the whole night in a church until now, that is, when my friend and I find ourselves at a gothic parish church in a tiny Essex village.
Sleeping in churches like this is about to become a lot more popular. According to the Churches Conservation Trust charity (CTC), there has been a doubling of enquiries from British churches wanting to offer camping in churches, or ‘champing’, as they call it.
The charity protects historic churches at risk of closure and has operated its champing scheme in both active and redundant churches since 2016, all the way from the Orkney Islands to Somerset.
So far it has 18 partner churches on its books, and 2021-22 was the scheme’s best year yet, generating £86,000 of income from 573 bookings. No surprise, then, that more churches want to jump on the money-making trend. But what’s it really like?
I’ve been invited to stay at the beautiful St Nicholas Church, in the Essex village of Berden, a Grade I listed Anglican parish church some 40 miles northeast of London. Rates here vary from £49 to £59 per adult per night, with discounts available for children – who can often go for a single pound each – and group bookings.
Despite my familiarity with gothic spaces, I don’t intend to go it alone, especially as I’m champing out of season on a freezing January night. So I’ve lured my friend Donna with the promise of wine and a pub dinner.
Churchwarden Mark Trapmore and his wife Natalie, who organise the champing, live next door and hand us steaming cups of tea as we arrive at 7pm on a Friday evening. Fortunately they’ve already tried out their rather unusual accommodation in advance.
“It’s a special and calm place with lovely wildlife,” Mark says. “During the spring’s dawn chorus, the sun rises through the east window.”
The church’s vicar, the Reverend Margaret Davis, and its 21-strong congregation fully support the venture. They understand St Nicholas’ huge bills cannot be raised through fetes and harvest suppers alone. To cover the energy bills, insurance and salaries costs up to £20,000 a year – that’s £55 a day.
“In addition, we are responsible for all the repairs and maintenance of the church,” Mark adds. “We need £45,000 to restore the 14th century tower.” An extra £2,200 is required for plastering.
Last year, champing generated £1,700 for St Nicholas through 18 bookings and 46 guests, including one family from the Netherlands who stayed three nights.
“It’s making a contribution,” Mark says. In recent years, churches and cathedrals have attracted controversy for introducing increasingly wacky non-secular activities to raise funds.
Norwich Cathedral’s decision to install a helter-skelter in its nave in 2019 met with widespread derision as did Rochester Cathedral’s decision to construct an indoor golf course.
However, Mark believes champing enables churches “to give out as well as bring in” by creating community cohesion and boosting funds for local businesses and tourism.
“These buildings need to be used,” he explains. “They’re not museum pieces, they’re designed to be living places. There is a change in the atmosphere when people stay. It’s also part of the church’s mission of hospitality: we’re here to cater to people.
“We provide a break from life and a sense of peace and calmness – a budget hotel cannot offer that.”
Viewed in daylight, St Nicholas is an archetypal country parish church. With its gothic flintstone tower, red-tiled arches and verdant graveyard, it’s picturesque enough to feature in a Richard Curtis film.
The Norman windows in the nave, where the congregation sits, form the oldest part of the church, followed by the chancel, the area around the altar, built in 1270.
The outer flint walls are believed to have been dressed with stone carried from a quarry some 37 miles away. A chunky medieval key, the length of my hand, unlocks the heavy oak entrance door.
It opens with a clunk. On a guest feedback form for other champers, someone has written: “It’s something out of an ancient magical world!”
I know what they mean: it feels like stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia. Our camp beds have been set up in the chancel but Natalie suggests I try bedding down between the two pews first, which is how I’ve ended up on the floor.
Once I’m settled down, I don’t want to get up. It’s soothing to admire the church’s lofty beauty from a cocoon-like space.
Recently featured in the BBC black comedy series Inside No. 9, champing has a novelty factor that attracts a wide range of people. So far, St Nicholas has welcomed families, singletons, young couples, cyclists, tourists and all-female groups.
Some come for the architecture, while others bring bat detectors to spy the rare pipistrelle bats that roost in the rafters and flit about at night.
“We had a 50-year-old guy from London with Down’s syndrome who wanted to spend his birthday at a church with his carer,” says Mark.
“He dressed up in a Dracula costume and had the time of his life. It was his best birthday ever.”
With photographs shot and all the arrangements in order, it’s now time for us to enjoy the space alone before dinner.
Champers normally bring their own pillows, duvets and blankets but the church can supply bedding for an extra charge.
We prepare our beds and wander around. Save for our voices, there is reverend silence. A faint smell of incense hangs in the air. Natalie has created a cosy atmosphere with battery-operated candles and fairy lights.
I’m intrigued by the church’s Tudor hand-carved organ which is reputed to have belonged to the brother of John Wesley, the English cleric who founded Methodism.
Glass doors separate us from the north transept which lies across the church’s nave in a cruciform shape. On one side are family board games and a teepee tent for children.
On the other is a small kitchen with a kettle, fridge, microwave, hot water tap and an adjoining toilet.
Natalie says St Nicholas is positioned at the “glamping end of champing”. Facilities do vary, but all participating churches offer tea-making facilities as a minimum. Nonetheless, we decide to head out for dinner at a local restaurant.
On our return, we bed down straight away as the temperature has already dropped to freezing. Typically, the champing season starts on April 1 when the weather warms up.
Lying down, with a glass of red wine each, we admire the vaulted ceiling above us. Mark had explained earlier that drinking alcohol is perfectly acceptable.
“We consume wine every Sunday [during the service] and there’s nothing in the Bible to say that you can’t consume it,” he says.
“We’re trying to be inclusive, not exclusive, and if we start to say, ‘You can’t do this or that’ then we’re going to have a limited pool of people willing to come.”
Toasty and snug in our sleeping bags with hot water bottles, we’re happy to drift off to sleep. The only drama is when one of the camp beds tips backwards, sending Donna’s wine flying everywhere. But our organisers have thought of everything: they’ve sprayed the blankets with a fabric protector.
Happily, we sleep soundly through the night, waking shortly before 7.30am. No bats are spotted as, apparently, they are hibernating until spring.
In the morning, Mark and Natalie come in to check on us, anxious to know whether we’ve slept well.
Over a last cup of tea, I ask a few final questions. I’m keen to know whether they think champing can help save churches in the face of dwindling parishioners and funds.
“If it takes off, it’ll provide some form of income stream to churches,” answers Mark.
“Will it save churches? That’s a much bigger question than champing is going to answer.”
International tourism, particularly from Britloving Americans, could be one answer. St Nicholas’ has already been featured on a US boutique travel website. Some might consider the prices a little steep but Mark defends them.
“As a church, we’re facing a cost of living crisis with electricity prices and the energy required,” he says.
“We’re not suggesting staying here for five days. We’re giving you an adventure, an experience, an option to make your holiday that little bit different.”
Dogs aren’t permitted, however.
Mark and Natalie made that decision after one couple let theirs run around off the lead. And what about parties? Might some excitable groups, hen or stag parties for example, potentially cause accidental damage?
“It is a concern but you cannot book somewhere anonymously, so if any damage does occur then we’ve got a paper trail going back to the booking,” Mark says.
Nor is he unduly worried about theft. As he points out, the church is normally unlocked every day, so why would guests stay the night in order to steal things?
Overall, Mark and Natalie are the kindest and most welcoming of hosts.
If every champing experience is as original as this, then the accommodation scheme is surely heaven-sent.
- For more information, visit champing.co.uk
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