Penny Thomas has always preferred adventure vacations to vacations on the beach. But this year, with UK destinations in high demand during the pandemic, she has found a unique way to avoid the crowds.
Rather than staying at a busy campsite or trying to get a rare vacation home available, Thomas, his partner Pete Matthews and Labradoodle Betty visited a 13th century church. “It was the attraction of doing something a little different… I hate to be disturbed by noise from other people. You don’t understand that when you sleep among the dead, ”she laughs.
The couple, from Warwickshire, are among the record number of British holidaymakers who have gone to ‘champions’ – camping in churches – this year. The Airbnb-style service for redundant churches, which started six years ago to attract new people to empty buildings and help fund their upkeep, is generally very popular with international visitors. But, with coronavirus travel restrictions in place and the huge demand for UK-based stays, Champing, the official name of the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT) initiative, is on track to record its more large number of domestic visitors to date this season, which runs from April to October.
There are 14 participating CCT churches across England including Essex, Norfolk, Lancashire and Somerset. Visitors pay between £ 49 and £ 59 per adult per night to sleep in camp beds surrounded by monuments, tombstones, stained glass windows, an altar and all the usual accessories of a consecrated church in the Church of England. They also come with their own wildlife – some churches have bats.
Regardless of the size of the building, only one group stays at a time and the guests are given the key to the church. “It’s great value for money – even a small country church, when there are two of you it’s a huge space,” says Thomas, 51, who has nibbled twice.
The first time that Thomas and Matthews, both packaging designers, stayed at St Peter’s, a 14th century church in Wolfhampcote, Warwickshire. The second time around, they went to St Cuthbert’s Church in Holme Lacy, Herefordshire.
“We’re both staunch atheists, but I like old buildings; I have a bit of a passion for them, ”says Thomas. “And there is also the atmosphere in any church. I think even as an atheist there is an atmosphere.
Many of his friends have asked if this is scary. The first time they watched a horror movie and “tried to scare each other”, but they enjoyed a “really peaceful” stay the second time around.
Fiona Silk, business development manager for Champing, says so far this year they’ve had around 1,350 champions and 6,500 since they started in 2015.
Prior to the pandemic, it was especially popular with Americans who, she says, “love the historical aspect,” but this year it has drawn mostly British holidaymakers across generations. “People want to come and find a new place, a new perspective near their home, and they find places on their doorstep that they may not have known before.”
Sleeping in churches allows people to experience them in a whole new way than they would at a service, wedding or funeral, she says. “They experience these solid walls, this ancient door, these magnificent stained glass windows around you that have this light that comes in in the morning. And they get that sense of comfort or peace.
“They get something out of it that would be unique to everyone. “
It also appeals to many levels – from intern vicars looking for a place to reflect, to people looking through the prism of social media. “A lot of people just want to come to a unique place because it will look great on their Instagram.
“They may have experienced the teepee or the shepherd’s hut, and now they are trying the church… So it’s not necessarily spiritual at all, and obviously people don’t have to be. religious, ”Silk explains.
Guests are provided with camp chairs, tea and coffee, cots, water, kettle, battery-powered candles, lanterns and string lights, and access to restrooms – but not shower. Guests are allowed to drink in the church and some have parties.
Lynda Dale regularly hosts overnight guests at St Mary the Virgin in Stansted Mountfitchet in Essex, which has been redundant for over 30 years. She says champing is a great way to bring young people to church and helps put building “on the map”. Initially, the local community raised some issues regarding the installation of toilets in the church, but now they have adopted it.
Dale is the keyholder and chairman of the Friends of the Medieval Church Group, parts of which date back to the Norman Conquest. She added, “Few people can have a nearly 1,000-year-old church for their hotel room, among all the monuments and history.”