Champing in the UK: Spending the Night in a 900 Year Old Church

Champing at the Church of St. Mary’s in Fordwich, Kent in the United Kingdom // Birdgehls from Laura Celine Haughey on Vimeo.

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As someone who has always been a fan of the macabre, I leapt at the chance to spend a night camping in a 900-year-old church, out near the Kentish coast.

“Champing”, as it is known, was started by the Churches Conservation Trust in 2015. Church attendance is obviously not what it used to be a couple of centuries ago. So while many churches around England remain consecrated and open to the public, services have not been performed in some for almost 50 years.

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These beautiful, historic buildings are rotting in their foundations and visitor donations aren’t enough to keep them going. So, some pure genius at the CCT stumbled upon the mother of all ideas – rent the churches out to any overnight guest who is crazy enough to want to spend the night in the same place where people who died from the plague are buried.

Turns out, we were two people who fit that particular bill.

Picking the right Church

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At the time of writing, there are seven churches to pick from, when planning your champing experience. I went with St Mary’s in Fordwich, a small town in Kent. In fact, Fordwich holds the title of being the tiniest town in Britain, due to the presence of a council within its minuscule community.

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Fordwich is not too far away from the town of Canterbury – still considered the religious capital of England. (Ah! The Archbishop of Canterbury. I get it now!)

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The Church of St. Mary’s suited my purpose for several reasons.

It was accessible from London. Important, as we needed to be there and back in less than a day.

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It was available on the date I wanted to champ. This was obviously necessary too.

Plus, it was so gosh darn cute and sat right next to a pub.

I was sold.

Getting out there

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Although I’ve trained it to Kent before, I decided that a car would be the easiest means of transportation. We were taking a doona (duvet, for those of you playing in the UK), sleeping bag and pillows along with our backpacks, which would have been a mission to travel with via public transport.

After driving for an hour and a half, we arrived at St Mary’s. I found the key, unlocked the door and walked into the church that we’d be calling home for the night.

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As was the theme of the town itself, the church was small, with box pews – something I’d never seen before. There was one in the far left corner where the choir would once sing was now fitted with a couple of camp beds, where we’d been laying our heads for the night.

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Towards the left of the church near the vestibule, a small table had been set up, with a trio of camping chairs. A food hamper that would serve as our breakfast was placed to the side. A water purify and kettle had been set up for our convenience. 

St Mary’s doesn’t have its own toilet, so a very cool looking compost loo had been set up within the vestibule.
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It was a sunny afternoon and we were super hungry, so we tottered off to the pub to eat sub-par food, drink beer and Pimms and bask in the remainder of the sunlight.

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Spending the night in a 900 year old Church

We returned to the church at around ten o’clock at night, sufficiently fed and watered. As the sun had set, the building had gone from being charming, to a little bit spooky.

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We dealt with it by turning on all the lights, sitting up drinking wine and trading stories. As midnight came and went, we both started to get tired and decided to give sleep a chance.

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There was one disappointing factor with the camp beds – they didn’t come with any foam mattresses. I spread a blanket and the sleeping bag across them, throwing the doona on top. We climbed into bed and cuddled up underneath the covers. It wasn’t as cold as I had been expecting, but the temperature was still loads lower than it ever was in our flat at this time of the year.

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I didn’t fall asleep straight away, realising about 40 mins later that I needed to visit the loo. I dealt with this fact calmly and maturely by waking my boyfriend up from his slumber and demanding he accompany me.

Eventually, I drifted off. Sunlight began streaming through the church windows at around 4am, but I avoided this disturbance by wearing an eye-mask. I did get woken up a few times by several “bumps in the night” – expected of all buildings, but spooky considering the circumstances!

The aftermath

I woke up the next day, a bit stiff from the camp bed, but elated all the same.

Unfortunately, we were working to a tight schedule, which meant we had to be packed up and leaving by ten am. I am not good in the mornings and require at least two cups of tea to get going. As a result, we were scrambling by ten to ten.

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I popped into the vestibule to get changed, which was a good idea. A minute later we were interrupted by two visitors entering the church, intent on having a poke around.

“Um, the church isn’t open until ten am,” I said rather sheepishly, going on to explain that we’d hired it out for the night. They graciously decided to wait outside, until we were on our way out.

We did a final sweep of the church and I re-deposited the key. Then we hopped into our hire car and drove back to London.

Was it worth it?

Absolutely. It felt good knowing that the money we were spending was to be reinvested in the maintenance of this incomprehensibly old building.

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St Augustine was buried in nearby Canterbury and this is reputed to be part of his original tomb

 
My one complaint was that the camp beds didn’t have any kind of mattress to speak of. I’d recommend bringing something to lie on, if you’re in want of a comfortable night’s sleep (and who isn’t?).

There are all sorts of weird and whacky places to stay all over the UK, filled to the brim with history and heritage – our experience champing was only scratching the surface.

Shout outs are in order – I first read about this intriguing concept on Amanda’s Wanderlust, an invaluable resource for sustainable travel in the UK and beyond. Thank you Amanda, for introducing me to the wonderful world of champing!

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As someone who has always been a fan of the macabre, I leapt at the chance to spend a night champing in a 900-year-old church, in Fordwich.

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