Richard Hammond on the growing trend of “champing” – camping in church
Waking up to sunlight filtering kaleidoscopically through stained glass windows is something normally enjoyed only by those who’ve dozed off during an extended sermon. Now, however, you can wallow in the experience a little more fully – and a lot more comfortably – thanks to several churches across the UK that have opened their doors to overnight staying guests.
“Champing” – church camping – began with a pilot scheme in 2014 before launching the following year with a choice of three churches. Run by the Churches Conservation Trust as a way of funding its preservation work – the charity maintains over 350 historic UK churches – the scheme has been such a success that it now operates at 16 locations.
Essentially it’s glamping, with a beautifully timeworn vaulted roof over your head and ancient stone pillars all around. Guests are provided with camp-beds, chairs, tables, basic facilities for making tea and coffee, and exclusive use of your chosen church between 6pm and 10am. If you don’t want to pack a sleeping bag you can pay extra to have the beds made up with duvets, blankets and hot-water bottles before you arrive. While still consecrated, the churches are no longer in regular use, so there’s no donging of church bells or swishing of cassocks on a Sunday morning. The churches also come with a water supply and basic toilets, though heating is rare so the champing season is limited to stays usually between late March and the end of September. Best to leave the iPads at home too; most of the churches don’t have electricity, but they do come with a cosy glow thanks to the provision of battery-operated candles and lanterns – naked flames are out in these fragile buildings.
Each church sleeps between four and 16 guests, and locations range from the chalky Dunstable Downs in Buckinghamshire to the wild heights of Dartmoor, the wide plains of East Anglia, the Ribble Valley in Lancashire (handy for the Forest of Bowland Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) and as far north as St Peter’s Kirk on Orkney. Pair this geographic and spatial variety with being able to sleep surrounded by ancient carvings, beneath intricately carved roof bosses and lulled by the many fascinating stories of local history that churches and churchyards offer up and it’s not hard to see the appeal.
Just as visitors get more from this kind of stay than simply a bed for the night, for the communities in which the churches sit it’s about more than generating income. Fiona Silk of the Churches Conservation Trust explains that, with churches’ roles as community hubs waning, champing offers a way to help reverse that. Not only does it bring people together and inspire them to preserve local churches, but it also benefits the wider community, with local cafés, shops and restaurants receiving increased visitor footfall…
This is an extract from a longer piece which appears in Idler 76, Jan/Feb 2021.
Richard Hammond is executive producer of sustainable travel media company GreenTraveller.com and an expert on low-carbon holidays. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @greentraveller. For more information on champing, or to book a stay, visit champing.co.uk. For details on the British Pilgrimage Trust see britishpilgrimage.org.
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