My Night Camping In An 18th Century Church In England

Mar 4, 2018
Originally published on March 4, 2018 7:11 am

You might have heard of "glamping" — luxury or glam camping. Now, there's "champing," or camping inside churches that are no longer used for services. It's one of the newest camping options in England and, last fall, I decided to take my family champing in an 18th century church outside of Oxford.

Our night at St. Katherine's began with a 90-minute drive from our home outside of London to the Coach and Horses Inn, a pub, where we picked up the front-door key from a bartender named Georgia Rose.

"It's quite a popular destination for people to just come and stay," she said as she handed a heavy key the size of an eyeglasses case across the bar.

"You get families wanting to spook their kids out."

Moments later as rain began to fall, we pulled up to St. Katherine's, a tiny church with ocher-colored walls, blue doors and a clock tower that looked out over a field with horses. On either side of the church, moss-covered gravestones stood at odd angles.

Our daughter, Katie, 16, was not yet sold.

"I thought this would be bigger," she said as we began to carry our sleeping bags and pillows toward the church.

"You wanted a cathedral?" I said.

"I was hoping for a cathedral," she responded.

I had looked at a handful of bigger churches as the champing season wound down last fall, but they were all sold out.

A night at St. Katherine's isn't cheap. The Churches Conservation Trust, a charity that oversees more than 350 empty churches in England, charged more than $200 a night for the four of us. The money helps fund maintenance for these historical properties, which have gone vacant over the decades as English churchgoing has declined.

As we entered St. Katherine's, our son Christopher, 13, who is an avid outdoor camper, quickly made his way up to the balcony where he blew up his air mattress and pitched a tent. He came back down and made his way toward the altar where he found an old Bible at the lectern open to the Book of Job. Across the aisle sat a pump organ that Christopher, who'd never seen such a thing, discovered still worked. Katie cast the beam of her flashlight on a plaque above the organ, listing the members of the family that built the church.

"Sacred to the memory of Charles Peers, son and heir of Sir Charles Peers, who died August 7th, 1781, his remains are deposited in the vault of this holy edifice," Katie read.

One of Peers' descendants, a farmer also named Charles Peers, 80, lives nearby. The Churches Trust gave me his number, so I asked him to come by to tell us about the building's history. Peers traced the church's origins to Sir Charles Peers, a former lord mayor of London, who made a fortune with the British East India Company, and his son, also Charles, who built St. Katherine's in the early 1760s. The family fortune then passed on to descendants who became vicars.

"All they did is spend the money building churches and vicarages and schools in other villages," Peers said, "so that's where the family fortunes went."

St. Katherine's never had a big congregation and became unsustainable in the 1970s.

"With a small parish and all the costs involved in running a church like this, we couldn't see any other way of keeping the church going and preserved other than handing it over," Peers said.

But how could the growing number of historic churches that are now empty on Sundays get some public use and while generating money for repairs?

Peter Aiers, the entrepreneurial chief executive of the Churches Conservation Trust, came up with the idea.

"Why not wake up with this amazing building rising above you?" Aiers said when we chatted in the Trust's offices in London. "Then I simply combined the name camping with churches and came up with champing. Give it a name and suddenly you've got a product."

Champing kicked off in 2015 with one church and is expanding to 26 churches in 2018. The season opens in late March and churches can be booked online.

The Trust markets champing as a unique historical experience and provides water, cots, tea and coffee and a composting toilet where needed, but no showers, which means most people tend to only stay one night. Champers can bring snacks but are expected to clean up afterwards. We had dinner at the Coach and Horses Inn. The Trust provides wine for an extra charge.

Last year, more than 1,600 people went champing in England, the Trust says, which was about triple from the year before. About a quarter of last year's champers came from overseas, including people from the United States, Sweden, Holland and France.

Back at St. Katherine's, it was getting late and my wife, Julie, and Christopher were playing backgammon by the light of a camping lamp and a smartphone. Katie was plucking her ukulele on a cot that sat next to one of the church's wooden, box pews. As the clock struck 11, we climbed into our sleeping bags. After Charles Peers' introduction, St. Katherine's felt familiar — not spooky.

The only thing that kept me up was the sound of the bells, which chime every hour, all night long.

The next morning, as we packed up the car, Katie said her favorite part was meeting Charles Peers and learning about the church's history.

"It was fun," she said, sounding a bit surprised. "I actually enjoyed this."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We know about RV camping, and you may have heard of glamping, glamorous camping. Now we're going to hear about champing. That's camping inside churches no longer in use, and it's big in England. NPR's London correspondent, Frank Langfitt, took his family champing in an 18th-century church outside of Oxford.

(SOUNDBITE OF PUB AMBIENCE)

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Our night at St. Katherine's church begins at the Coach and Horses Inn, a nearby pub.

Hi. Yeah. I'm here to get the key to the church.

GEORGIA ROSE: Yeah.

LANGFITT: The bartender, Georgia Rose, hands me a heavy key the size of an eyeglass case.

ROSE: It goes in upside down.

LANGFITT: It goes in upside down. I would not have guessed that.

ROSE: (Laughter).

LANGFITT: Do you get many people coming to the church?

ROSE: Yeah, we do, actually. It's quite a popular destination for people to just come and stay randomly. Sometimes, you get families wanting to spook their kids out...

LANGFITT: We pull up to St. Katherine’s, a tiny church with ochre-colored walls, blue doors and a clock tower. Daughter Katie, 16, is not sold.

It's a cute, little church.

KATIE: I thought this would be bigger.

LANGFITT: You wanted a cathedral?

KATIE: I was hoping for a cathedral.

LANGFITT: I think a cathedral costs more.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEY OPENING DOOR)

LANGFITT: A night at St. Katherine’s isn't cheap. The Churches Conservation Trust, a charity which oversees more than 350 empty churches, charges over $200 a night for the four of us. The money helps fund maintenance for these historic properties, which have gone vacant over the decades as churchgoing has declined in England.

(SOUNDBITE OF PUMP ORGAN)

LANGFITT: Our son Christopher, who's 13, discovers a pump organ next to the wooden box pews.

CHRISTOPHER: There's, like, four pedals. And the four pedals - you actually pump air. So when you press a key...

(SOUNDBITE OF PUMP ORGAN)

CHRISTOPHER: ...It comes out.

LANGFITT: On the wall above hangs a plaque, listing members of the family that built the church.

KATIE: Sacred to the memory of Charles Peers, son and heir of Sir Charles Peers, who died August 7, 1781. His remains are deposited in the vault of this holy edifice.

LANGFITT: One of the Peers descendants, a farmer also named Charles Peers, lives nearby. Churches Trust gave me his number, so I asked him to come around.

Hi, Mr. Peers. I'm Frank. I'm with NPR. Nice to meet you.

He explains the church's history. Sir Charles Peers, the former lord mayor of London, made a fortune with the British East India Company. And his son, also Charles, built St. Katherine's in the early 1760s. The family fortune passed on to descendants who became vicars.

CHARLES PEERS: And all they did is spent the money building churches and vicarages and schools for other villages. So that's where the family fortunes went.

LANGFITT: St. Katherine's never had a big congregation and became unsustainable in the 1970s.

PEERS: With a small parish and all the costs involved in running a church like this, we couldn't see any other way of keeping the church going and preserved other than hand it over to redundant churches fund.

LANGFITT: But how to make sure that churches like this get some public use and don't just fall apart? Peter Aiers, chief executive of The Churches Conservation Trust, got an idea.

PETER AIERS: Why not wake up with this amazing building rising above you? Then I simply combined the name camping with churches and came up with champing. Give it a name, and suddenly, you've got a product.

LANGFITT: The trust provides water, cots and a composting toilet where needed but no showers.

AIERS: This year, we have had over 1,600 people stay. And we pretty much tripled our figures from last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAYING BACKGAMMON)

LANGFITT: One, two, three.

Back at St. Katherine's, my wife, Julie, and Christopher are playing backgammon on a cot by the light of a camping lamp and a smartphone.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLOCK CHIMING)

LANGFITT: As the clock strikes 11, we climb into our sleeping bags. The church now feels familiar, not spooky. The only thing that keeps me up...

(SOUNDBITE OF CLOCK CHIMING)

LANGFITT: ...The bells which chime every hour.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEPPING ON GRAVEL)

LANGFITT: Next morning, we pack up the car. Katie says her favorite part was meeting Charles Peers and learning about the church's history.

KATIE: This was fun. I actually enjoyed this, except I'm hungry now.

LANGFITT: So off we drive to breakfast and then home.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Oxford, England. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.