IT IS nearly midnight. A ring of fat church candles are
flickering around the altar of an exquisite Gothic church in east
Northamptonshire. But I am not on my knees at some late-night
vigil, as might be expected, given my surroundings: I am snuggled
up in a sleeping bag on a surprisingly comfy airbed.
This should prove one of the most peaceful spots on earth to
spend the night - short of lying in my own grave. But, as I lie
here in the nave, I feel a bit like a latter-day Jonah. Above me,
moon-white arches lead my eye to a darkening skein of ancient
wooden beams. The church resembles a vast empty belly; and the
roof, a beast's ribcage. As the rain pounds like ocean waves
outside, I wonder what surprises the night will bring.
I am trying "champing", a new form of camping devised by the
Churches Conservation Trust. The charity looks after more than 300
historic churches throughout England, ranging from tiny abandoned
rural chapels to lofty Gothic Revival sprawls that echo to the
creak of shifting wood rather than hymn-singing or whispered
prayers. The charity exists to ensure that these churches remain
open to the public, and in good repair.
Devised to boost revenue for the charity, champing breaks
include the option to add a range of activities - depending on
location - such as walking, storytelling, meditation, cycling,
canoeing, bat spotting with the Wildlife Trust, and cider-tasting,
ending with dinner (at a choice of locations), and inclusive of
breakfast (fruit, yogurt, and cereal or bacon, sausage, or egg
baps). And, for parish groups, or led retreats, these breaks
arguably offer among the more interesting of venues for a
All Saints' was the first of the Trust's churches to welcome
champers, but other champing destinations now include the remote
hilltop St Michael's, East Peckham, Kent, and St Cyriac and St
Julitta, Swaffham Prior, in Cambridgeshire, which still has a
working kitchen and lavatory.
Guests arrive on champing breaks from 10 a.m., greeted by a
welcome cup of tea and coffee. All Saints', Aldwincle, where I am
staying, is handsome, butter-toned, Doomsday Book-listed, and has a
squat 13th-century font, in which the poet John Dryden was baptised
by his father, the Rector. There are springing corbels in the
chancel arch, and clear glass Perpendicular windows patterning the
aisles. Outside, expressive gargoyles grimace beneath the
When a building is so heavenly, it is only natural to wonder why
it is largely no longer in use. But, when I set out to explore the
village, which has a population of about 350 people, I soon chance
across the answer: there is another church, St Peter's, where sheep
are nibbling the graveyard grass - thriving, it seems, from the
services and events pinned to its noticeboard.
As an extra to our champing break, we are due next to canoe
along the River Nene, the tenth longest river in the UK, but heavy
rainfall intervenes. Instead, we take a road safari through local
villages. And what a surprise this county proves: an unchanged
spread of villages peppered with thatched cottages and
wisteria-draped manor houses, where weeping willows shadow the
There is a beauty to Northamptonshire that recalls the
Cotswolds, but without the trinket shops and tourist buses: a
workaday, honey-stoned loveliness that is highly appealing.
At Barnwell, we admire the Tudor manor set snug beneath a Norman
castle. Then comes Fotheringhay, where Mary, Queen of Scots, was
executed and Richard III was born. Our own Richard, our guide from
Canoe2, points out the inn where the executioner stopped for the
night. Did he sleep well, I wonder. Will I sleep well with the
ghosts of All Saints' to chafe my night ahead?
But, first, there is dinner at Pear Tree farmhouse, next door to
the church, and Beverley, the farmer's wife - an absolute double
for Ma Larkin of The Darling Buds of May - is
waiting with a spread of hot meat pie and bread-and-butter
Our bellies groaning, we walk back to the church. Swallows jink
through the dusk-darkened sky; and, as the church door creaks open,
the plangent sound of harp-playing greets our ears. "Welcome," a
disembodied voice from the chancel steps says.
As our eyes become accustomed to the pearly-grey candlelight,
and our noses prick to the heady smell of incense, we make out the
bearded form of Richard York, master storyteller and musician.
York, with a whispery intonation that recalls the former
Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams, is here to entertain us
while we huddle beneath tartan blankets. He cuts an avuncular
figure, telling stories that range from Boccaccio's
Decameron to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. In
between, there are pretty little tunes played on his miniature
harp, and toe-tapping rhythms when he coaxes a hurdy-gurdy to life.
Better still, the dyspeptic belch of Richard's Northumbrian
bagpipes precedes what he calls a "spooky story to end the
And all the while, the church makes its ancient presence felt.
The damp, the peeling plaster, the guttering candles. Richard
leaves, and we take it in turns to nip to the vestry. A couple of
chemical loos here, with yet another creaking door, then into bed:
six of us scattered throughout the church at our chosen
Am I scared? Not a bit. Do I sleep? Amazingly, yes. I wake at
times to watch the candles and listen to the tapping of rain
against windows and the shift of wind. It matters not a jot the
lack of electricity, the lack of water, save our own drinking
bottles. This night is all about sounds and smells, and the sense
of something benign and lovely keeping watch while we sleep.
Overnight champing breaks in Northamptonshire, Cambridgeshire,
and Kent cost from £60 pppn (minimum of two people sharing),
including breakfast. Book before 1 June to take advantage of
an early-bird rate of £45 pppn. Activities and dinner are also
available for an additional sum. For more details, and to
book, visit the Churches Conservation Trust website.