It’s close to midnight when the familiar urgency awakes me. I attempt to ignore it because I am dreading what lies ahead but nature calls.
Hoping not to wake my travel companion, I quietly unzip my sleeping bag while the moonlight shines through the large windows. The camping bed squeaks as I get up and grab the candle. Clad in socks and pyjamas, I tiptoe down the aisle, push the heavy wooden door open … and sprint across an eerie graveyard.
A few hours earlier, I had picked up a heavy set of keys to All Saints’ Church in Billesley, Warwickshire, Britain, to start my inaugural Champing adventure. Combining churches and camping, Champing invites travellers to sleep in ancient hallowed buildings, which might be something normally frowned upon. Launched in 2015 with only four churches in an effort to raise funds and preserve 353 redundant Anglican landmark structures, the pastime is becoming increasingly popular.
Peter Aiers, chief executive for the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT) comments: “We are really excited to be presenting 21 champtastic venues. This is an unique opportunity to sleep somewhere truly extraordinary, an experience like no other.”
Among the Champing venues are St Peter’s Church – the sole survivor of the lost village of Wolfhampcote (abandoned in the 14th century), St James’ Church in Cooling, thought to be the inspiration for Charles Dickens’s opening chapter of Great Expectations and the Church of St Mary the Virgin in Fordwich, where champers may slumber in original, 18th-century box pews (though the church itself dates back to the Norman era).
I had chosen the small All Saints’ Church because of its proximity to London, about 2 hours away. Set up for only two champers, it was perfect for a girls’ weekend away.
Champers are invited to bring their own equipment. However, for a small fee, my friend Silke and I hired a champ bed each with sleeping bags, duvets and blankets which were set up between a 100-year-old wooden altarpiece and two stone carvings dating back to around 1140. Camping chairs, a gas cooker plus kettle, several lanterns and a small table with cups, condiments, tea and, dare I say, wine glasses completed the ensemble.
Although it was initially hard to shake off the thought that tourists or a congregation might walk in any second, we quickly settled in, knowing that champers have the exclusive use of “their churches” between 6 pm and 10 am. “It’s a bit spooky to think of all the people who have been in this church over the centuries before us,” Silke whispered over a bottle of bubbly. According to folklore, William Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway in All Saints’ Church in 1582, though no records have survived to corroborate this and we didn’t dare to dwell on ghosts and superstitions, given our sparsely candle-lit spiritual abode.
We soon discovered that staying overnight in a refurbished ancient building came with a lack of certain luxuries. For starters, there was no electricity, which immediately excluded a fridge to chill our tipple and no lighting apart from the camping lanterns, which we charged at length thus providing hours of off-grid fun for the next champers.
Cooking was not permitted, apart from boiling a kettle for tea-making (we’re in England after all), so we bought cold snacks and salad for dinner and stored our breakfast away safely, as church mice are only really appreciated in whimsical poetry.
The comfort we missed most was the toilet, though we were lucky with our accommodation. While compost loos have been installed at most Champing churches, we could use the restrooms at nearby Billesley Manor Hotel. Instead of creeping out to a wooden cabin at night, we had light, soap and modern plumbing, albeit at a distance and with ancient graves between us.
Falling asleep was easier than I thought: I felt at peace and warm, and it was heavenly quiet until the sheep started bleating at 6 am. Rising early, I explored the church inside-out. It seemed a bit naughty to walk around the altar and peek behind hidden corners knowing there was no priest in sight and I revelled in this behind the scenes opportunity.
Shortly after sunrise, we packed our bags and pulled the ancient wooden door shut one last time. Despite the Spartan setup, our first Champing trip was a night to be fondly remembered. With close to 2,000 champers in 2017 and churches expressing interest in the concept from across Europe and as far as Canada, the next spiritual slumber party might just be around the pew.
If you go
For more information on Champing visit: champing.co.uk. Prices start at CAD$85 for one champer and the season runs from Easter to end of September. For more information on Billesley, Warwickshire and surroundings visit: shakespeares-england.co.uk
The writer received a discounted rate on her accommodations. Champing and the Churches Conservation Trust did not review or approve this article.