Photo: Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images
For millennia, pilgrims have taken time off from their epic treks to spend the night in churches, mosques, temples and monasteries to eat, sleep, pray and meditate, while recovering from a hard day and preparing for the next one. Christians continue this practice on pilgrimage routes in Britain and Europe.
Now people of all faiths are invited to ‘champ’ – a church camp – in historic churches across England and Wales. The scheme was launched in 2016 by the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT), a charity that protects Anglican churches that have been “redundant” (closed) and deemed at risk. The project offers travelers extraordinary accommodation and provides funds for churches to maintain their buildings.
These great buildings must be used; to see the lights on and hear the conversations, singing and dancing, it’s touching
Last year, 1,500 people (and 200 dogs) slept in churches, helping CCT to record revenue this year. Now he is trying to introduce more churches to the UK.
“Champing is still too small to raise significant amounts,” says Fiona Silk, who oversees the CCT business. “But it generates additional funds for maintenance and repair work and is a way to keep the church in balance.
“It’s also about warmly welcoming people who don’t normally go to church – and supporting rural communities as visitors will also be eating out. Champing can also give the local people a kind of mission.”
Priscilla Moxey, from St Laurence Parish Council in Hilmarton, Wiltshire, says: “The idea that people from far and wide could come and stay in our beautiful Grade I country church and have a key for one or more nights, enabling them to enjoying and absorbing history, beauty and architecture is an amazing concept.
“These great buildings must be used as much as possible; and seeing the lights on and listening to the conversations, singing and dancing is something joyful. I believe that champing breathes life into the fabric while helping to preserve it for future generations to enjoy.”
Related: A Spiritual Walk on the South Downs: The Old Way Pilgrims Trail
The 18 buildings in Champing’s portfolio are a mix of active and redundant churches. The former still hold regular services and are classified as partner churches; the latter are still consecrated but no longer have vicars and church wardens. One church, St Mary’s in Longsleddale, Cumbria, is a harvest church, only fully open for the annual festival.
Facilities in redundant churches are usually limited or non-existent. Running water is scarce and toilets are usually dry. Guests sleep on camp beds. There are no curtains, but there may be stained glass windows to soften the blow of early sunrises. Churches tend to be cold in winter, “moody” in summer.
My husband said that after a wonderful visit, the church felt different, more like a house than a building
The luxuries of champing are the originality of the place, the quirkiness of the architecture and the fact that all reservations are exclusive – if you go solo, you have the church to yourself. Prices start at £49 per night with 25% off for groups of 8-11 (£36.75) and 30% off for groups of 12-16 (£34.30).
Natalie Trapmore, who manages champing at St Nicholas, a partner church in Berden, Essex, says the scheme has been a lifeline. “It costs £20,000 a year – £55 a day – just to keep the doors open and the lights on. Champing has been a huge help.”
He says customers are a diverse group. “We get a real mix – families, lots of young couples, elderly people, single people, groups of ladies who come for the weekend. Some come for a walk, some for a bike, some just for the unique experience of sleeping in a church. We even had a Dutch couple who came because it’s close to Stansted.”
Some visitors bring bat detectors to better observe St. Santa. Trapmore is keen to create a walking route linking St Nicholas with Champing’s other church, St Mary the Virgin at Stansted Mountfitchet.
“But it’s also about leveraging community resources,” he says. “Our church has always been the heart of our village. My husband, who is the overseer of the church, said that when he entered the church after a wonderful visit, the atmosphere felt different, that he felt at home and not just in a building.”
With church attendances ever-declining and aging, fighting may be one way to keep buildings alive and create bonds between residents and “pilgrims,” whether lay or not.
“Champing can be spiritual the way people want it to be,” says Silk. “When you close a big heavy door, it’s just you and the walls. There is a lot of peace and quiet. It’s extreme disconnection.”
Five great churches to try
St. Mary, Longsleddale, lake district
This non-CCT church, pictured above, is in a remote location eight miles north of Kendal on a side road through a valley surrounded by hills. It’s an idyllic base for hiking in the surrounding hills, off the radar of weekend Wainwright lovers. Longsleddale was the inspiration for Greendale, the fictional home of Pat the Postman and his black and white cat.
St Nicholas, Berden, Essex
This Early English Gothic church, founded in the 13th centuryp century and expanded over the years, it is rich in architectural details inside and out. Located at the glamping end of Champing, with hot running water, flushing toilet and microwave. The hosts decorated the central nave with lamps and battery-operated candles to create a warm atmosphere.
St. Mary’s, Walkhampton, Dartmoor
On a hill half a mile from the village of Walkhampton, St Mary’s enjoys a high elevation (213 metres) on the south-west corner of Dartmoor. The building faces north-east, which points precisely to an outcrop known as Gypsy Rock: one author has speculated that this may indicate a Saxon origin for the site.
St. Lawrence, Hilmarton, Wiltshire
In this 12th-century historic church in a small village, guests can use a kitchenette with fridge and microwave, and a flush toilet. They can also order a continental breakfast delivered to the door of the church. It is handy for the villages and sights of Avebury and Lacock.
St Dona, Llandonna, Anglesey
The church was first built in 610 on this hillside overlooking Llanddona Beach and Red Wharf Bay. Dating back to 1873, this simple yet cozy house is set in farmland about a mile from the village of Llanddona. The historic town of Beaumaris is nearby.
More information at www.champing.co.uk