Experiencing Champing in rural Northamptonshire
I sat bolt upright in bed and forgetting for a moment that I’d gone champing, wondered where the hell I was. It was freezing and I could see my breath in the pale moonlight shafts that were penetrating the stained glass windows. Then I heard it again, the disturbing scurrying sounds that had so rudely awoken me from my equally disturbing dreams. Peering bravely out into the gloom I caught a movement and a flash of brilliant white. A shadowy figure gliding over the cold flagstones, and a ghostly silhouette projected beyond all human proportions on the stone pillars that were standing like resolute sentinels guarding their ancient ecclesiastical realm. Stifling a scream worthy of any pathetic heroine in a dodgy movie, I cowered under the duvet and reached over to poke hubbie awake. No way was I going to be scared all by myself!
The bed was empty!
Grabbing my torch and trying to convince myself I didn’t believe in the supernatural, I shone a reassuring yellow beam around the empty church. And there, gloriously illuminated in just his underpants, was hubbie, chasing mice in the dark.
So just what were we doing sleeping all by ourselves in a Grade I Listed Building out in the middle of nowhere in the heart of rural England?
Apparently ‘champing’ is a thing, and I wanted to try it! Champing basically involves camping out overnight in a church which is no longer used for normal worship. The concept has been likened to ‘glamping’, but since I can’t stand that term (we think camping should be done properly, out in the wilds!) I’m not going to draw parallels. It’s just a little bit bonkers, and a great way to keep the heritage of these important sites alive. Being a history nerd known for moments of madness this was right up my street. Hubbie wasn’t so sure but as usual didn’t have a choice in the matter.
The Churches Conservation Trust currently has 4 champing properties throughout England, but with it’s rural setting and Medieval appeal, I only had eyes for one.
Let me introduce you to All Saint’s Church in Aldwincle, Northamptonshire…
If you want to experience ‘real’ English villages, come to this area of Northamptonshire where the chocolate box houses and historical buildings have changed little over the centuries. Just down the road from the famous village of Fotheringhay (where Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded in 1587), Aldwincle is a delightful village nestled on a bend in the River Nene, surrounded by wildflower meadows, wetlands and woods.
Aldwincle was once two parishes, All Saints and St Peter’s. Each had their own church but when the parishes merged in 1879, All Saints Church (which was built between the 13th and 15th centuries) became more or less redundant. Sited on the very edge of the village opposite opposite Dryden House (yes, the poet John Dryden was born here in 1631, and baptized at the church) All Saints feels in a world of it’s own.
And it was all ours for the night!
Parking as instructed by the lych gate, we unloaded our gear (so much just for one night!) and padded through the grave yard, our steps leaving footprints in the wet grass. Finding the hidden ancient key we were soon pushing open the door to our new home, almost tripping over each other in excitement.
So without further ado, lets step inside…
The Medieval interior was sparsely furnished giving it a cavernous ambience, and the absence of pews meant we could spread out and use the space as we wished. Just as well seeing as we appeared to have brought everything but the kitchen sink with us on our little jaunt. There are several camp beds, inflatable mattresses and thick blankets, as well as camp chairs, bean bags and even a little coffee table complete with a complimentary bottle of wine.
What more could a girl need?
Ever since I booked our champing experience I was slightly concerned about the toilet situation, knowing that as well as not having heating or lighting, the church had no plumbing. Sure, we’ve camped out in the Sahara where the desert floor was our bathroom, and whilst wild camping up in mountains we think nothing of crouching behind a rock. Yet visions of creeping out into the graveyard at the witching hour to use a portaloo were really giving me the heebie-jeebies!
I needn’t have worried. Once used to house robes and collection plates, the vestry to the left of the alter is now home to it’s very own composting toilet. No outside midnight excursions for us! Inside the ‘bathroom’ there is plenty of toilet paper, anti-bacterial hand gel (since there is no water), colourful flag bunting and instructions on how to use the toilet. All I can advise is you need to aim true!
One essential out of the way, it was time to check out the others. Cooking isn’t allowed in the church, but there is a gas stove for those all important cups of tea. A kettle, camping mugs, wine glasses and a basket of tea and coffee is provided, although I suggest bringing your own beverages if you are particular about what you drink. There are also hot water bottles (it does get rather chilly!), torches and batteries, and even eye masks since the windows don’t have curtains!
We spent the next hour or so (who am I kidding, it was pretty much the entire afternoon) happily clicking away with the cameras, poking around the little hidey holes, discovering what was behind all the doors, and wondering at the presence of a coffin cart at the bottom of the tower. Apparently they still occasionally hold funerals here!
Of course the most important question was where to set up our bed.
Perhaps in the nave beneath the lofty limestone arches, or maybe tucked away in the 15th Century Chantry Chapel which came complete with it’s own organ and priest’s door.
I was all for sleeping in the latter before hubbie pointed out I’d be right next to the door and would be the first in line to tackle any intruder. It didn’t matter that all the doors locked from the inside and the only nocturnal visitors were unlikely to be the sort who could be kept away by doors.
Surprisingly the organ still worked, sort of! Once we’d dusted off a few spider webs and realised it was operated by a foot pump, I tried out a bit of Bach to see what the acoustics were like. It wasn’t the most melodic rendition, which was only partly due to the state of the instrument, and I admit hubbie probably had more success with his take on Chopsticks than I did with a bit of baroque.
In the end we decided to set up our bedroom in the Chancel, the raised area up in front of the alter, overlooked by a colossal Medieval stained glass window and contained by a Jacobean communion rail.
‘Champers’ are told they are allowed to get up to whatever their consciences allow, and whilst making our bed right on top of the tombstone of one Thomas Ford didn’t feel altogether quite respectful, we decided it would certainly get us into the spirit of the whole experience. As a reminder of acceptable behaviour, a royal hatchment flanked by the Ten Commandments looked down on us from above the Chancel arch. Pity we couldn’t read them from far below!
Up until this moment I hadn’t really considered how we would feel about being in a church, all alone, in the dead of night, but as dusk fell it suddenly sunk in just what we were about to do. I thought longingly of our warm, comfy bed back home, and tried not to think about all the man-eating spiders I’d already spied scuttling across the church flagstones. Never mind about ghosts, what if the arachnids came to investigate whilst we were in bed?
Believing light would banish creepy crawlies as well as unwanted spirits, we decided it was candle time! There are about 20 battery operated candles provided by the Churches Conservation Trust, all set up on the 13th Century font. We soon hand them placed all around the church which was both sexy and ghoulish at the same time. Hubbie surrounded the bed with them which reminded me of a scene from a vampire movie. Great.
After pulling on a few more layers of clothing we hunkered down for a romantic picnic tea in the nave, encircled by lanterns and fairy lights (hubbie had hidden them in our luggage as a surprise, the boy is a romantic at heart!) for ambience and perhaps safety! We enjoyed several glasses of wine to fortify us for the night ahead.
Then it was out with the cameras again, and what we had really come for…
Some while later the owls began their nocturnal calls and reminded us it was probably bed time. Not far away a fox started yowling and we decided it would be safer snuggled under the duvet (and several layers of blankets on top!). Stepping outside to clean our teeth in the graveyard (as you do) we were momentarily mesmerised by the liberal sprinkling of stars across the dark sky, always so much clearer out in the countryside.
I had thought we’d sleep with the candles on, but decided that would actually be more spooky than total darkness, so there we lay, wobbling about on top of two inflatable mattresses for insulation, all our senses alert despite not being able to see a thing.
It was at this point we realised churches are actually quite noisy places.
The old building creaked as the temperature changed. The gusting wind outside somehow made it’s way through the cracks and swirled around the pillars. Then there was an odd almighty crash for which there was no reasonable explanation.
We hadn’t really come expecting a good night’s sleep, but I actually found it far less frightening than I’d anticipated. Perhaps it was because we were protected from evil, being in God’s house. The distant murmur of the A605 was also quietly comforting, reminding us we were still in the present and that other civilisation was not far away. Then it began to rain and the drops pounding the the roof drowned out all the other more creepy goings on inside the church.
Just as we were drifting off, the scampering of tiny rodent feet accompanied by frenzied squeaking had us sitting bolt upright, instinctively pulling in our feet which had been hanging off the edge of the bed. I selfishly was thankful that hubbie was taller than me, as the mice would clearly nibble at his toes before mine! The little terrors were munching on something (we could even hear them chewing!), and some of them took delight in pattering across the Chancel floor right past our bed. Needless to say I was now wide awake and clinging to hubbie in terror.
This is pretty much how we spent the rest of the night, until eventually we fell asleep, and I was woken by hubbie chasing the mice in his pants.
Next morning there was a knock on the door at 8am. Breakfast. The folks at Pear Tree Farm just down the road deliver a hamper to overnight guests, and it was definitely food for the soul. The giant breakfast baps were crammed with pretty much a full English minus the baked beans, and there was local apple juice, yoghurt and a basket fresh fruit. Not a bad start to the day.
We had a lot of fun doing a walk through of the church, to show you what it’s really like inside. I’d like to say this was the first attempt, but due to far too much giggling, tripping over, creaking doors and the music running out before we’d finished, this is actually the FOURTH film we made. Not sure we’ll win any Oscars but it’s certainly organic!!
The whole champing experience was scary but exciting, and sleepless yet romantic, and I’d recommend it to anyone who fancies trying something a little different.
Champing takes place between May and September.
Bear in mind it will be light later in the summer and you’ll need those eye masks! We went in September so we could get the night photographs.
It costs £60 per person at weekends, and £45 during the week. This includes breakfast and you have exclusive use of the church.
Beds and chairs are provided but you need to bring your own bedding. It will be chilly!
Take some extra torches and a few spare batteries for the candles…several didn’t work when we arrived.
Tea and coffee is provided, but if you’re partial to anything in particular it’s best to bring it along. You’ll need to take your own milk. There was no cutlery when we were there, so make sure you take some teaspoons for both drinks and the morning yoghurt.
Bring a plastic box to store your food in overnight, otherwise the mice will get it!
Behind the Scenes
Introducing our new feature which shows what really goes on behind all these trips and photographs…
When we travel abroad, often for weeks at a time, we easily manage to fit everything into a single suitcase each, and a small carry-on bag for the cameras. It only takes a couple of hours to pack, we know precisely what we want to take, and I guess you could say it comes as second nature since we’ve done it once or twice before.
So it stands to reason that packing for a single night away in our own country, just 3 hours drive from home, should be easy, right? Nope. Working out what to take took an entire afternoon, and this was the result:
Yes, we even packed that ladder and a washing line pole, thanks to an overdose of caffeine by hubbie the night before, and his ensuing bright ideas.
Still, apart from the multiple hats, down jackets and sunglasses (yeah, bit optimistic that one!) we did use everything.
Even the pole and ladder…
Hubbie told me afterwards I resembled a fishing gnome. Just the look I was going for!
Next time we go champing I’m going to take my wedding dress as a prop. Now let’s just see what he has to say about that!
I also took it upon myself to try out the acoustics with my flute (my other hobby!). Definitely recommend taking your musical instrument if you have one!