Travel: Camp­ing in churches

Champ­ing, or camp­ing-in-a-church, is an imag­i­na­tive way to use these an­cient build­ings in a mod­ern age. Patrick Barkham tried it out

The Oldie - - RES PUBLICA - Patrick Barkham

The Church of Eng­land’s Vic­to­rian vi­cars fell into three cat­e­gories: those who had gone out of their minds, those who were about to go out of their minds and those who had no minds to go out of.

One West Country rec­tor did not en­ter his church for 53 years and ken­nelled the lo­cal fox­hounds in his vicarage. An­other re­placed his con­gre­ga­tion with wooden sil­hou­ettes and swad­dled his home in barbed wire.

Whitwell El­win was more sen­si­ble. A de­scen­dant of Poc­a­hon­tas, he lived in the depths of ru­ral Nor­folk and edited the Quar­terly Re­view, an in­flu­en­tial Tory jour­nal. El­win had no ar­chi­tec­tural train­ing but de­cided to build a new church for his par­ish of Booton.

Like a mag­pie, El­win picked fea­tures he liked from places he ad­mired – Glas­ton­bury Abbey, Skel­ton church near

York, Trunch church in Nor­folk – and threw them to­gether in a glo­ri­ously ec­cen­tric Gothic cre­ation, with two tow­ers and mad minarets. Booton church took 25 years to build and was com­pleted in the year of his death, 1900. It was in use for barely eighty years and, like so many other fine ru­ral churches, now stands empty; still con­se­crated but strug­gling to find a role in mod­ern times.

Two years ago, Peter Aiers, a re­gional di­rec­tor of the Churches Con­ser­va­tion Trust, which tends to 350 Angli­can churches no longer in reg­u­lar use, came up with an idea as ec­cen­tric as Whitwell El­win: champ­ing, or camp­ing-in-achurch. The char­ity put camp-beds inside four churches in 2015, eight in 2016 and this year is open­ing twelve, in­clud­ing churches in Som­er­set, Shrop­shire, Cum­bria and even Orkney.

This was why I found my­self push­ing on Booton’s heavy oak door at dusk, an owl hoot­ing nearby, for a champ­ing mini­break.

Inside was a recog­nis­able church, smelling of slightly damp stone. There was an al­tar and cross, an or­gan and par­ish mag­a­zines by the door. In the cav­ernous nave, the chairs had been stacked to one side and re­placed with nine camp-beds. There was a rug and camp­ing chairs in a cir­cle, in front of a ta­ble dec­o­rated with elec­tric can­dles and fairy lights. It was sur­real but didn’t feel sac­ri­le­gious.

I hadn’t stepped inside Booton church since I was a child. For the first nine years of my life, this was my par­ish church, then a place of reg­u­lar wor­ship. I lis­tened to my dad singing loudly in the choir here, and saw my mum cry at a funeral. At Christ­mas one year, I was a mute shep­herd dur­ing the carol

Camp-beds and other crea­ture com­forts at St Mary’s, Longsled­dale, Cum­bria

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