Forget camping, forget glamping: if you’re looking for a getaway where you can immerse yourself in history, ‘Champing‘ is the answer. As you might have guessed, Champing is simply camping in a church, and it’s become increasingly popular since the Churches Conservation Trust launched the scheme in 2015.
All the venues offered in the scheme are ‘redundant churches’, meaning they’re not used for worship and can happily accommodate small groups for overnight stays. But although they’re not active, these churches are still full of original features and ancient relics, creating a fascinating place to camp out in. The beds are even provided for you.
Here are 10 historical churches you can spend the night in.
1. All Saints’ Church, Langport, Somerset
There’s a lot to love about this characterful church. Built mainly in the 15th and 16th centuries (some parts date back to the 1100s), it overlooks the remains of a Benedictine abbey and is Grade I-listed. Look up at the west tower when you visit and you might just be able to spot several bizarre-looking stone creatures hanging from the walls. While you might be tempted to call them gargoyles, they are, in fact, ‘hunky punks’, a colloquial term in Somerset for grotesque carvings on the side of a building (hunky punks are purely decorative and distinct from gargoyles, which serve the important function of draining rainwater away from stone walls).
Don’t spend too long gawping at the hunky punks, though, as you’ll miss the enchanting stained-glass windows inside the church, which contain one of the largest collections of medieval stained glass in Somerset.
2. St James’ Church, Cooling, Kent
Sleep in a little corner of literary history at this 13th-century church, which inspired the setting for the first chapter of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, where the protagonist, Pip, meets Magwitch, an escaped convict, in a churchyard. Dickens lived in a nearby village, Higham.
Inside, the church is just as impressive. It’s a cavernous space with gorgeous stained-glass windows and a 500-year-old timber door that still swings on its hinges. Also of note is the 19th-century vestry, the walls of which are covered in hundreds of cockle shells. These represent the scallop shell, the emblem of St James (the church’s patron saint) found all along the famous Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route, which ends at the tomb of St James at Santiago de Compostela Cathedral in Spain.
3. Church of St Mary the Virgin, Edlesborough, Buckinghamshire
Set on a chalk mound in a remote rural spot, St Mary’s offers fantastic views of the surrounding countryside. It’s also become something of a local landmark thanks to its protruding, 14-century limestone tower, visible from afar. It’s a huge building (it can comfortably accommodate up to 8 people overnight) and is full of items and oddities to investigate during a stay.
In particular, look out for medieval woodwork, colourful Victorian wall paintings and intricately carved misericords – small, decorated ledges on the underside of folding church seats, providing support for people to lean on while praying or attending long services.
4. Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Emborough, Somerset
Perched high up on a ridge in the Mendip Hills, this rather dazzling church is thought to date all the way back to Saxon times, although the vast majority of the current building stems from an extensive 18th-century rebuild (the base of the huge central tower is 13th century). Inside, it’s a long, narrow and cosy affair, with an unusually shaped ‘nave ceiling’ and a plaster frieze to gaze up at from your camp bed as you drift off for the night.
5. Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Stansted Mountfitchet, Essex
Parts of this medieval church date all the way back to the 12th century, with additions and renovations taking place across the 13th, 17th and 19th centuries, including the distinctive brick tower in the 1690s.
There are lots of nooks and crannies to nose through inside the building, as well as two highly detailed tomb monument figures. One is Hester Salusbury, who was killed by a stag while out hunting in nearby Stansted Park, the other is her father, Sir Thomas Middleton, formerly Lord of the Manor of Stansted Hall (the church is positioned next to its grounds).
6. St Peter’s Church, Wolfhampcote, Warwickshire
Gloriously undisturbed peace and quiet await those staying in this 14th-century church, set in a long-deserted village. In modern times, it was initially thought the abandonment (probably in the late 14th century) arose when the plague began killing most of the village population, but there’s little evidence to support this. It’s now thought that villagers simply moved on to areas with better trading and more fertile land.
The church is the only complete building remaining from Wolfhampcote. Inside the vast space (which sleeps 10 people) you’ll find various historic artifacts to admire, including a delicately carved 14th-century wooden screen, a painted depiction of the Royal Coat of Arms of Queen Anne (from 1711) and the same oak pews that have stood obediently in the church for over 600 years – some estimates even date them back to the 11th century.
7. All Saints Church, Aldwincle, Northamptonshire
This handsome church was the inspiration for the Champing project and it’s not difficult to see why. It was originally built in the 13th century, but additions were made in the 14th and 15th centuries, including the soaring, carved tower. Inside, it’s spacious and atmospheric, with beautiful limestone pillars and arches. All that space means there’s plenty of room for exploring and for multiple camp beds.
If you’re in need of some artistic inspiration during your stay, John Dryden, England’s first Poet Laureate, was born nearby and christened in the church.
8. St. Andrew’s Church, Wroxeter, Shropshire
The history lesson begins before you even set foot in this ancient church, as it occupies a site once part of Viroconium, the fourth largest city in Roman Britain. Now a visitable archaeological site referred to as Wroxeter Roman City, Viroconium has also left its mark on St Andrew’s, which is peppered with Roman building materials and architecture; the stone gatepost columns announce this grandly when entering the churchyard, and the church walls contain stones used to build Roman-era housing.
Parts of the church date back to before the Domesday Book of 1086, perhaps even to the 9th century according to some (such as Roger White, one of the excavators at Wroxeter). Most of the building’s interior can be traced to the 17th and 18th centuries. Some of the many interesting features inside the church include a painted royal coat of arms (from 1765) and three decorative tombs, complete with life-size effigies of those buried in them. This includes a former Lord Chief Justice, Sir Thomas Bromley.
9. Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Fordwich, Kent
There’s an appealingly rugged, untouched look to this church, located in Fordwich, which claims to be Britain’s smallest town – or more specifically, “the smallest community in Britain with a town council.” It’s thought that the oldest parts of the church date back to the 11th century, while other parts were added over the following centuries.
One of its many appealing quirks is a subtle lean, resulting from damage caused by the nearby River Stour flooding in the 15th or 16th century. The church also holds a mysterious feature inside in the form of the Fordwich Stone, a large limestone block (measuring around 1.7 metres in length) carved into a tomb-like shape, dating back to approximately 1100. Its exact origins and purpose are still unknown, but it could signal the tomb (and therefore the remains) of St Augustine, a former Bishop of Canterbury.
10. St Peter’s Kirk, Orkney, Scotland
The only Champing church not in England is found in Orkney, a group of islands at the far north of Scotland. St Peter’s occupies a remote spot in the small parish of Sandwick, and was built between 1836 and 1837, replacing other churches that stood on the site (the previous church was believed to have been built around 1670). Its exterior is simple and clean-cut – even sparse – and inside the pulpit and pews are still very much intact, a reminder of the 540-plus people that would cram inside the space to worship.
After falling into disrepair in the late 20th century, St. Peter’s was acquired by the Scottish Redundant Churches Trust (now renamed Historic Churches Scotland), who raised funds and undertook extensive repairs. It’s a good thing they did, because it’s now a genuinely unique venue to stay in, made even better by sweeping blue ocean views over the Bay of Skaill and across to Skara Brae, an exquisitely preserved Neolithic settlement.