It’s no secret that I am quite fond of an old church to mooch about in, and even fonder of a good old graveyard. I love a good graveyard. Imagine how chuffed I would be, then, if I could be the guest of a church for a night. My very own church and my very own church yard to match. Imagine no more. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…
First came Camping, nights under canvas. Then Glamping, nights under canvas plus luxuries. Having done both of those, what next? Champing. Nights spent under the roof of a historic church, wrapped in beauty and history. Church plus Camping equals Champing.
Champing is made possible by the Churches Conservation Trust. Visitors, known as Champers, get to enjoy a unique overnight experience whilst supporting the preservation of ancient spaces . Its a great idea, great fun and a win-win.
We picked St Marys in Buckinghamshire as our Champing base. All the Champing churches look fabulous so we made this choice based on nothing more than driving distance and the fact that it took us to somewhere we hadn’t been before. It’s known as ‘The Church on the Hill’ for good reason, it literally perches on a hilltop, looking over the surrounding countryside with the churchyard tumbling down around it. She’s a beauty.
On arrival, I doubted myself. Was this vast, beautiful building really all ours for the night? Well, yes. Champing currently gets you sole occupancy and the key to the door, so you are free to lock up or lock in. To do this though, you need to find the keys and that’s where the fun begins. I’d read the conformation email and noted- or thought I had- that they key was in a lockbox by the door. I’d even correctly remembered the code.
Two laps of the church later and a few diversions to quirky gravestones that caught my eye ( can’t help myself, can I?) I gave up and consulted the email. Long story short I’d remembered the right code, but the wrong set up. The key was in the box and the box was in the toilet block located in the church yard. A few more laps , couple of diversions and the toilet was found. Yep, the loo is located outside the church. It looks like this:
Here’s the thing with pitching up in an ancient space; the church outdates most modern amenities. Expectations must be managed. The Champ Lav is a dry separating toilet. I wasn’t sure, but it works just fine. Other than that, bathroom facilities basically involve baby wipes and plenty of hand sanitiser.
Once you have the key- and it’s up to you if you want to make a game of finding it. There is the option of reading emails properly- it’s an amazing feeling to open the door, walk into such a beautiful space and know it’s yours. Definite ‘Wow’ moment. I’ve stayed in some nice hotels and quirky places but this one took the biscuit. Never mind room with a view, this is a room with a pew. Loads of them, actually.
There’s something special about Champing and it comes in two forms. First in the history and provenance of the place. We had a walk around, sat in the pews, found some beautiful carvings. Imagine all the people before us who gathered here, wed here, had children baptised here ?
Secondly and less fancifully is the work of the local Champbots. These are the volunteers who make Champing possible, who ready the church for use and make the experience special. You aren’t just allowed to stay over, you are welcomed with everything you need. From beds and camping chairs, to lanterns and fairy lights plus hot drinks and a kettle. Even a corkscrew and wine glasses. There is no issue with Champers having a tipple.
There has been no expense spared, either. All of the equipment is top notch and in great condition. It’s also thoughtfully set up for your party, along with a little welcome card. A nice touch.
So, in and settled, what do you actually do when Champing? Well, that’s up to you. The lovely thing about it all is that although the churches and their contents are precious, nobody is precious about you being there. Champing is about enjoyment, relaxation and discovery.
We sat round chatting, did a bit of public speaking practice from the pulpit. The Little Chap wanted to ‘do a bit of Judge Judy’ and hear a case whilst perched up in the pulpit, so we did a bit of that. I was accused of something terrible and completely untrue and it didn’t go in my favour. No justice.
We also had a go at playing the organ, badly I suspect. Apart from of one of The Teens who smashed out a great version of Coldplay’s Viva La Vida . Then hide and seek. FYI, the pulpit is a top hiding place. Because when you’re the last one hiding, you can pop up triumphantly to seize the win. Yes, I did. I’m a terrible winner.
Then, bedtime. A late night walk to stretch the dogs legs was rewarded with a couple of glimpses of a barn owl swooping about in the church yard. Everybody slept well, tucked up in the camp beds. Except me, but let me tell you why.
I woke up at 01.50 feeling something brushing over me. And heard it. It made me a little nervous. The dog was totally relaxed though, surely he’d bark at anything untoward? It happened again. I switched my torch on and waited. Bats. A pair of bats flying in circles and flitting in and out of a hole in the door frame just by my bed.
So I lay awake for a couple of hours, cuddling the dog and watching the bats doing their thing. Went home a tired but happy Champer. In a strange twist, before we went to bed, I’d pointed out these two carvings that caught my eye. A bat and an owl. Both of whom came to visit. Fancy that.
Luckily it wasn’t until the next morning I discovered this carving, a stern faced mermaid suckling a lion. Because, honestly, I wouldn’t have been quite so charmed to meet her in the middle of the night.
For details on Champing, visit the dedicated website here.