As far as “shires” go, Shropshire in the West Midlands is one of those places in the UK which, generally speaking, wouldn’t manage to generate the tiniest blip on the country’s touristic radar. Over the last eight years or so, however, the sleepy village of Wroxeter within the shire has been drumming up some serious buzz. All thanks to the Church of St Andrew’s, which sits at its very centre.
Imbued with ancient Roman myth and legend, this church is said to have been first built in the 12th century (with many subsequent rebuilds over the years) on the old Roman ruins of Viroconium. At the site of the ancient town’s Roman baths, to be more precise. So, no great surprise then that it is fashioned more on the lines of a fortress than a church. With magnificent buttresses and menacing gargoyles pat in place.
But while St Andrew’s may no longer be a working church—having been deconsecrated in 1980—it is now enjoying a new lease of life. One as a “champing” destination, with its comfortable pews and wooden balcony, perfect for a cosy night’s sleep for up to eight “champers”.
Champing, which combines two highly incongruous words, “church” and “camping”, is one of the most interesting travel trends to emerge in a while. Camping out at a historic church isn’t an act of wanton desecration and trespass any more. This totally legitimate activity has been initiated by The Churches Conservation Trust (www.champing.co.uk), the national charity protecting historic churches at risk, in an attempt to preserve churches from the ravages of time and apathy.
Since 2015, the trust has been opening up dozens of abandoned or unused churches and chapels across the UK for visitors to stay at for a fee that starts from as little as £50 (around ₹5,000) per person, per night. You and your party get not just the whole church to yourselves, with its pews and rectories converted into makeshift sleeping areas, but you are also free to bring your own bedding (you can also hire bedding packs while booking), food, drinks, children, even pets. All the locations have electricity and come equipped with restrooms, shower facilities, kitchens or, at the very least, small pantries. Book in advance online on their website.
The number of churches that are part of the programme varies, with new ones being added and others taken off the list for reasons ranging from demolition to sale as private residences. At present, 18 churches are available.
It all started apparently when a group of young scouts asked to camp overnight in one of the churches cared for by The Churches Conservation Trust. Since then, the programme has gained popularity, owing to the novelty and relatively reasonable pricing compared to hotels or Airbnb.
Most of the churches in the programme, like St Katherine in Chiselhampton, Oxfordshire—a mere six miles south-east of the UK’s educational super hub of Oxford—have interesting stories to tell. Built between 1762-63, St Katherine isn’t just the beautiful sum of its box pews, creaky wooden floor boards and its charming clock faced belfry parts, but one that finds itself in the verses of poetry. For it is also the very same St Katherine that features in poet laureate John Betjeman’s Verses Turned, which he wrote in 1952. Ironically, in aid of a call towards a public subscription for the restoration and maintenance of this church.
Sitting above the town of Delp, the Georgian-style St Thomas in Friarmere, part of Greater Manchester, channels the dark, sombre quality of the Saddleworth Moor it is located close to. In fact, it was this very brooding quality that got it featured in the 2016 dark fantasy drama film A Monster Calls—it was filmed in part at the church. Boasting of soaring stained- glass ceilings, it also overlooks an eerie graveyard that adds to its spooky appeal.
The almost cathedral-like large All Saints Church in Langport, Somerset, with its massive bell tower, is a village landmark. Its stunning arched stained-glass windows and large floor plan make it the perfect venue for an adults version of a slumber party. And why not? It can comfortably accommodate a dozen or so people.
And if you have a predilection for sleeping in, don’t worry. Your reverie certainly won’t be rudely interrupted by any early morning Gregorian chants.
Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer.