Champing in the UK: How to Stay Overnight in a Church in England or Scotland

champing uk fordwich kent

The inside of St. Mary’s Church in Fordwich.

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.

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.

The practice is only growing as well. When I “champed”, the Churches available for the experience were only in South-East England. Now there are churches all over the country open to the experience – and even one on Orkney in Scotland. Now that would be truly fun/frightening.

Picking the right Church

champing uk fordwich kent

This way, please!

champing uk fordwich kent

Entry to the church.

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.

Related: What NOT to Do When Visiting the United Kingdom

champing uk fordwich kent

The oldest part of the church.

champing uk fordwich kent

Love a bit of stained glass.

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!)

champing uk fordwich kent

Fordwich is quiet and pretty.

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.

champing uk fordwich kent

What a sweet, little claim to fame.

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

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.

champing uk fordwich kent

The church seemed as intact as it would have been when services were still performed here.

champing uk fordwich kent

Necessary for the nighttime.

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.

Related: Things to do in Dorset: The Prettiest County in the United Kingdom

champing uk fordwich kent

Perfect set up for wine and chats.

champing uk fordwich kent

Love the thought put into the footstools.

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.

champing uk fordwich kent

What was in here, I wonder?

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.

champing uk fordwich kent

Pimms at the pub.

champing uk fordwich kent

A perfect summer’s afternoon.

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.

champing uk fordwich kent

Pardon my worn out pyjamas.

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.

champing uk fordwich kent

My doona really matches the decor of the church.

champing uk fordwich kent

The battery operated candles were cute.

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.

Related: The Great Debate, UK Edition: Should You Visit Cambridge or Oxford?

champing uk fordwich kent

Am not fake sleeping or anything, for the purpose of this photo.

champing uk fordwich kent

Zzzzzzzz.

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 next morning

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.

champing uk fordwich kent

The morning after.

champing uk fordwich kent

Not creeped out by this at all.

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.

champing uk fordwich kent

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.

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Posted by LC
August 16, 2016
LC

LC can often be found nursing a cup of green tea, with her head in a book. She is a writer, video editor and professional cheese eater. Her life's aspiration is to one day live on a farm in Tasmania with 11 dogs, a Shetland pony and several pygmy goats.

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LC’s Most Memorable Travel Moments Of The Year | My Site - December 27, 2016

[…] experience that I’ll always look back on with great fondness is camping overnight in a church in the United […]

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Cali - January 30, 2017

At first I was like, “champing” why don’t I know this word! But how cool!! Loved reading about such a unique experience.

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Josie - January 30, 2017

Love it! The only time I’ve heard about staying in a church they have been completely renovated to no longer look like a church, so this idea is brilliant.

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    LC - February 4, 2017

    It is, I agree!

    Reply
neha - January 30, 2017

It’s great you managed to sleep on those camp beds without foam mattresses. But other then, that we can expect from a 900 year old church that is ready to shelter us 🙂 The church architecture looks beautiful

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Meg - January 30, 2017

I lived in Cambridge for a summer and my dorm was older than America! It was totally mind blowing. This church experience looks amazing and totally unique. Love all of the detail in the old buildings

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    LC - February 4, 2017

    Haha most of England is older than buildings in Australia, so I know the feeling. I go into buildings and think “HOW HAS THIS EXISTED SINCE THE 1200s?! HOW?!”

    Reply
Erica - The Manini Experience - January 30, 2017

Looks like such a great adventure! That architecture and design is gorgeous. Thanks for sharing this little place with us!

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    LC - February 4, 2017

    Thanks for commenting Erica. 🙂

    Reply
Claire Summers - January 30, 2017

This is so cool! I’ve never heard of this until now. What a great use of disused churches. Looks like you had great weather there too!

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    LC - February 4, 2017

    There was lots of reclining in the afternoon sun at the pub! A truly beautiful English summer’s day. 🙂

    Reply
Lisa - February 1, 2017

That’s pretty cool, champing is a new one for me. What lovely architecture, so quaint. Just a great and unique experience for you!

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danielle hambuckers - February 1, 2017

Haha, tbh, this post at first didn’t really appeal to me, because I’m not a big history or church fan (I am a christian though, so I have been in quite a few churches). But I actually enjoyed the way you write and the pictures and enjoyed getting to know this concept of renting a church ’cause I had never heard of it before.

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    LC - February 4, 2017

    Thanks Danielle. I like the fact that it’s helping to fund the restoration of the buildings, for future generations to enjoy.

    Reply
Sandy N Vyjay - February 4, 2017

At first glance, I thought that there has been a mistake, “Champing”, what is that? But glad to know about it and the noble cause for which it is done! Quite an experience, though, sleeping on the beds with no mattresses!

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    LC - February 4, 2017

    I was a bit stiff the next day!

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Sarah - February 5, 2017

What a unique experience! I have never heard of champing but it is certainly intriguing! i totally would’ve forced someone to come to the bathroom with me!

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    LC - February 5, 2017

    It was kinda terrifying!

    Reply
Cathy - February 12, 2017

Very interesting to stay at a church, I’d never heard of this! I love hearing about lesser known and unique places to stay. Thanks for sharing.

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Alex - May 12, 2017

Wow, I had no idea this was a thing people could do. I’ve always been fascinated by all the beautiful old churches in Europe, especially England, and I would love to do this one day!!

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    LC - May 12, 2017

    I highly recommend it – it was loads of fun and one my fondest memories of living there.

    Reply
Cheryl - March 8, 2018

I love unique locations to stay and visit and this definitely fits the bill. Now I have to add champing in Scotland to my endless bucket list lol. Thanks for the inspiration.

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    LC - March 9, 2018

    Haha I know what you mean!

    Reply
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