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 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