Pa­trick Barkham ex­plores the un­usual phe­nom­e­non of ‘champ­ing’ – camp­ing in a church – and dis­cov­ers a new-found ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the beau­ti­ful re­li­gious build­ings that dot our coun­try­side

Country Living (UK) - - Travel -

TWO STONE TOW­ERS RISE OUT OF THE MIST and an owl hoots in the val­ley be­low. A heavy oak door swings slowly open to re­veal a vast vaulted nave where a bat flits among mag­nif­i­cent an­gels carved from wood. A dis­used church is pos­si­bly the strangest place to seek out a good night’s sleep but I’ve brought my fam­ily along in­ter­minable coun­try lanes to Booton Church, in the heart of ru­ral Nor­folk, for a night of ‘champ­ing’.

‘Champ­ing’ might sound like the sort of party where mon­eyrich stu­dents quaff sparkling wine, but camp­ing-in-a-church is ac­tu­ally the brain­wave of The Churches Con­ser­va­tion Trust, cus­to­dian of 350 English churches still con­se­crated but no longer used for reg­u­lar ser­vices. This year, it is open­ing up more of them to the pub­lic than ever – 12 in to­tal – to give peo­ple the op­por­tu­nity to spend a night in a beau­ti­ful an­cient build­ing any­where from Som­er­set to Shrop­shire, up to Cum­bria and even Orkney.

Nor­folk is famed for its abun­dance of me­dieval churches, a legacy of its wealthy sheep farm­ers in the 14th and 15th cen­turies, but Booton is par­tic­u­larly strik­ing. It was built much later, at the end of the 19th cen­tury, by Whitwell El­win, an ec­cen­tric vicar and de­scen­dant of Poc­a­hon­tas, who had no ar­chi­tec­tural train­ing what­so­ever. He cre­ated an el­e­gantly pro­por­tioned Gothic con­struc­tion that looks a bit like a minia­ture cathe­dral and

A whole church to our­selves! It’s re­ally rather ex­cit­ing and a lit­tle strange

yet sits in the mid­dle of nowhere, with only an old rec­tory nearby for com­pany. I didn’t no­tice its strange­ness as a child, when it was sim­ply my lo­cal church: I spent the first nine years of my life in Booton, a ham­let best known as the boy­hood home of Stephen Fry. I re­mem­ber the Christ­mas carol ser­vice here, and play­ing in the grave­yard. Booton is still con­se­crated, and the lo­cals con­tinue to flock to the carol ser­vice each Christ­mas, but for much of the year it stands empty, ad­mired by a trickle of vis­i­tors in­ter­ested in Gothic cu­rios.

We ar­rive at the church at twi­light and I ex­pect it to feel spooky but it just seems peace­ful. My three young chil­dren run in­side, thrilled and dumb­struck by the size of the nave. On each side are campbeds – Booton sleeps ten, and so we’ve come with an­other fam­ily for the night – and in the mid­dle is a cir­cu­lar mat with camp­ing chairs and cush­ions ar­ranged in a cir­cle. They face a lit­tle table, on which sit pretty fairy lights and elec­tric can­dles.

The ‘champ­ing’ fa­cil­i­ties dif­fer at each church but the ba­sic prin­ci­ples are the same: beds are pro­vided, along­side a ket­tle, water, tea, cof­fee and hot choco­late. Cham­pers must bring their own bed­ding (lots of it) and snacks. In a large un­heated stone build­ing, there’s an ob­vi­ous de­sire for a fire but no naked flames are al­lowed.

A whole church to our­selves! It’s re­ally rather ex­cit­ing and a lit­tle strange. The chil­dren scam­per off to play hide-and­seek, their voices echo­ing with de­light as they find a se­cret door. Booton is still recog­nis­ably a church, with a cross on its al­tar and prayer books by the door. There is also a dusty old or­gan, which the chil­dren ap­proach with glee. “Is there a ghost in­side?” won­ders one.

Even­tu­ally, we find an­other se­cret door in the chan­cel that leads out­side to a smart lit­tle hut, which is the com­post­ing toi­let. Booton has a water cooler, but no run­ning water or show­ers, so camp­ing is an aus­tere ex­pe­ri­ence. ‘Champ­ing’ is not bar­gain­base­ment camp­ing (£39-£59 per adult per night) but it is such a unique ex­pe­ri­ence, the money goes to a great cause (pre­serv­ing

the churches) and the price also de­ters peo­ple who might not treat the build­ings with the rev­er­ence they de­serve.

We head out to a coun­try pub for an even­ing meal and the church looks even more mag­i­cal in the moon­light on our re­turn. When the chil­dren’s ex­cite­ment fi­nally dis­si­pates into sleep, we sit round the fairy lights and have a drink (al­co­hol is per­mit­ted; as the ‘champ­ing’ or­gan­is­ers say, it has al­ways been part of the rit­ual of church ser­vices). We plan to stay up play­ing games but there’s some­thing so sooth­ing about this vast, tran­quil space that we’re all tucked up by 10.30pm.

I lie on my camp bed, gaze at the vaulted ceil­ing and mar­vel at the in­tri­cacy of its wooden seraphim. I’ve never slept in such a large space be­fore. The or­nate carv­ings and the spec­tac­u­lar stained-glass win­dows were prob­a­bly quite ‘bling’ in their day but this is a truly in­spir­ing space. I’m not a re­li­gious per­son but be­fore I fall asleep I pon­der the faith that drove Whitwell El­win to build such an in­cred­i­ble build­ing. His com­mit­ment and slightly mad am­bi­tion is a source of won­der. Late at night, this deeply rest­ful place feels like one man’s vi­sion of heaven, or at least a house of pro­found peace that is on its way there. If my three-year-old hadn’t wo­ken in the night re­quir­ing some warm milk to ward off home­sick­ness, I would have slept bet­ter than I had for weeks. Morn­ing comes grad­u­ally and the sun rises to give bril­liant colour to the stained-glass win­dows. There isn’t a sound from the coun­try­side around and the world feels mel­lower some­how.

It is a wrench to re­turn to the busy, sec­u­lar world of ev­ery­day things, and to pack up our beds, be­fore driv­ing a mile to The Dial House in the pretty mar­ket town of Reep­ham. In my child­hood, this was a grotty place to stay but it is now an ex­tremely good bou­tique ho­tel and restau­rant, and the sun streams in as we eat an Aga-cooked hot break­fast in a se­cret room, be­hind a re­volv­ing book­case.

I feel we are gen­uinely priv­i­leged to be able to stay in places like Booton Church. That such a vivid ex­pe­ri­ence is avail­able to any­one is a great credit to The Churches Con­ser­va­tion Trust. It is also a tes­ta­ment to the peo­ple of faith who left us such a grand legacy of beau­ti­ful and in­spir­ing pub­lic build­ings across our land.

‘Champ­ing’ costs from £39-£59 per adult and £19 per child per night. For more in­for­ma­tion, call 020 7841 0436, email champ­ing@thecct.org.uk or visit champ­ing.co.uk. The Dial House (01603 879900; the­di­al­house.org.uk).

Churches such as Booton are new and quirky places to stay for fam­i­lies (be­low)

‘Champ­ing’ first started at All Saints Church in Ald­win­cle, Northamp­ton­shire

Old St Stephen’s looks out across Robin Hood’s Bay in North York­shire

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