Travel and retreats: There wasn’t a sermon. . .

by
30 January 2015

. . . but we fell asleep anyway. Louise Roddon has her first taste of 'champing'

david joyner

Nightlife: All Saints', Ald­wincle, in Northamptonshire, is trans­­formed for a night of champing

Nightlife: All Saints', Ald­wincle, in Northamptonshire, is trans­­formed for a night of champing

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 contemplative escape.

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 tower.

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 river's backwaters.

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 pudding.

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 night".

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 headrests.

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.


TRAVEL DETAILS

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. www.visitchurches.org.uk/champing

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