It was dark and chilly, and I was lying in a sleeping bag on a narrow camp bed. But I wasn’t in a tent, tipi or yurt – I was in a church. That’s because I wasn’t camping, nor even glamping; I was 'champing'.
OK, it’s a terrible name, but what a brilliant idea!
The Churches Conservation Trust looks after 347 churches in England that are no longer used for regular worship: it repairs and maintains the buildings, and finds new uses for them: circus schools, GP surgeries, artists’ workshops.
Church camping was the bright idea of Peter Aiers, one of the trust’s regional directors. He says that churches embody hundreds of years of British history, and are beautiful buildings to boot, so what better way to appreciate them than spending a night in one? And have it all to yourselves.
St Mary the Virgin in Fordwich, Kent, where I stayed, is certainly historic. (Champing is also offered at medieval All Saints Church in Aldwincle, Northamptonshire, and in the Georgian interior of St Cyriac & St Julitta at Swaffham Prior, Cambridgeshire. The trust is hoping to add more.)
Graves From The 1640s
St Mary’s dates from Norman times. There are 14th Century stained-glass windows, 17th Century wall paintings and 18th Century wooden box pews.
The church’s most famous object, the Fordwich stone, dates from about 1100 and once formed part of a saint’s shrine; perhaps St Augustine of Canterbury’s.
A stroll around the churchyard revealed graves from the 1640s, and even older-looking stones whose inscriptions had weathered away over the centuries.
It was a bit overwhelming, especially when the key was handed over – a suitably huge, heavy, ancient-looking chunk of iron – and my friend and I were left alone.
We couldn’t raid the mini bar, play music or call room service. And, unlike the average hotel, our bedroom was public property: when we neglected to lock the door, a man wandered in with his dog to look around.
The stones were long before Christian times. Britain’s 9 Most Mysterious Stone Circles
Another side of ancient England. We’re All Going To … Newcastle!
We Even Played The Organ – Badly
The door safely locked, we explored the church’s nooks and crannies. We examined the rare bread shelf, where loaves for the poor were once left.
We climbed the 14th Century bell tower (inadvisable: it is pretty rickety). We stood in the pulpit composing a sermon, examined the magnificent Royal Arms over the chancel arch, and played the organ (badly).
With fewer than 300 inhabitants, Fordwich is the smallest town in England.
Its tiny town hall was built during the reign of Henry VIII and is believed to be the oldest still in use.
It contains fascinating objects such as a ducking stool, for use on 'scolds' and 'gossips' in the 15th Century.
Fordwich is a sleepy place today, a town in name only, but it has a bittersweet air of faded grandeur. It was an important port until the Stour silted up; stone from Caen in Normandy, used to rebuild Canterbury cathedral in 1067, was unloaded at Fordwich.
We had dinner at the Fordwich Arms, one of the town’s two pubs. The long-serving landlord regaled us with tales of Fordwich past as we ate potted shrimp and pork belly in the cosy bar.
We would be back for breakfast (the trust had arranged for the pub to open specially to serve us a full English in the panelled dining room).
Then it was time for bed. I had expected it to be spooky – just the two of us, walking through a graveyard in the dead of night to a dark, draughty old church.
Nothing could have been further from the truth; it was simply quiet and peaceful. We lit lots of candles to illuminate our box pew 'bedroom' and piled duvets and pillows on top of our spartan beds.
A Special Place To Spend The Night
Champing isn’t billed as a luxury or romantic experience – the churches are still consecrated spaces, though guests are free to get up to whatever their consciences allow – but it was undeniably a special place to spend the night.
I had packed lots of layers, just in case, and had a great night’s sleep.
We woke to jewel-like light filtering through the stained-glass windows and the morning calls of birds in the tree-shaded churchyard.
It was the first time in years that I’d been in a church on a Sunday morning. With no strict checkout time, we lingered, reluctant to leave our sanctuary. But the lure of a proper toilet in the pub (we just had a camping loo in a tent outside the church’s north door) got us moving.
The trust offers two-day, one-night breaks, with optional activities: storytelling with your own personal storyteller, yoga and guided walks.
Fordwich is on a scenic stretch of the Stour – St Augustine travelled along it in 597 on his way to become the first Archbishop of Canterbury – so we opted for a canoe trip.
A Bargain And A Privilege
The eight-kilometre paddle to Grove Ferry took us through Stodmarsh nature reserve and our guide, Andrew Magnell from Canoe Wild, pointed out herons and marsh harriers, and signs of beavers and woodpeckers.
Paddling a two-person canoe with a less-than-able seaman was something of a lesson in Christian values of forgiveness and so the Grove Pantry Pub & Inn, right on the riverbank, was a welcome sight.
Fordwich is a couple of kilometres from Canterbury and a short drive from the north Kent coast – we went to Whitstable – so there is plenty to do beyond the parish.
At £60 ($A115) a head, it is certainly not as cheap as camping. But considering that you have sole use of a historic building which has witnessed important events in people’s lives for hundreds of years, it is a bargain.
More than that, it is a privilege.
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This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
This article was written by Rachel Dixon from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.