This post is part of the series Unusual Places to Stay in the UK
Other posts in this series:
- Wye Valley Glamping – Enchanted by Wriggles Brook
- Recharge your batteries on a Welsh Wilderness Retreat
- A Heavenly Intro to Champing in Surrey (Current)
I have stayed in some pretty unusual accommodation over the years, but this weekend I experienced a rather heavenly stay in quite extraordinary surroundings with my first ever experience of champing in Surrey…
Now I will admit to being a little apprehensive about staying the night in an ancient church. This is a place which could no doubt tell a few secrets, and you cannot escape the fact that there are dead people buried here. But with a self-imposed ban on any talk of ghosts and spirits, I headed to the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty to give it a try.
What is Champing?
Champing, or church camping, is the latest craze in comfortable camping and has been growing in popularity since it was launched in 2015.
Pioneered in the UK by the Churches Conservation Trust, champing is a simple idea for making use of our historic churches, at the same time as generating extra revenue to protect and restore them. It is a unique opportunity to stay somewhere quite extraordinary, with just nine ancient churches to choose from in England so far.
Champing in Surrey
Mentioned in the Domesday book almost a thousand years ago, the Old Church of St Peter and St Paul is located deep in the Duke of Northumberland’s 150 acres of private parkland known as Albury Park on the banks of the River Tilling in Surrey.
The church itself remains a consecrated space, although it is no longer used for regular services. It is open to the public and well visited thanks to its many unique features, but champers get exclusive access between 6.00 pm and 10.00 am at night.
The church is full of history with a Medieval Porch, a Saxon Nave, a Norman Tower, and a stunning Pugin-designed Victorian Mortuary Chapel, complete with colourful stained glass windows and opulent tiling.
It was also the setting for the third wedding in Four Weddings and a Funeral, where Carrie married Hamish and broke poor Charles’ heart.
A tour of the church
As we entered the church through the medieval porch the heavy door gave a tired but appropriately loud creek and we found ourselves standing in the Saxon nave, with it’s high beamed ceilings and lime-washed walls.
Inside, the base of a Roman font sits alongside a stunning arrangement of flowers, while a brass figure commemorates the burial of John Weston Knight who died in 1440.
A 15th century wall painting depicts St Christopher carrying the child of Christ and there is a 13th century piscina cut into the wall, where the priest would have washed his hands before giving Mass.
Moving through a giant arch to explore further, we passed under a large shield of arms and into the base of the Norman tower, which contains a single church bell fixed high above our heads.
There were camping chairs and blankets set out ready for our arrival, as well as a welcome tray of tea, coffee and hot chocolate, a bean bag, camp beds, candles and torches.
The only section of the church that is not accessible is the Victorian Mortuary Chapel, with it’s fragile decorations. This is perhaps the most fascinating and unexpected feature, which showcases the work of Augustus Welby Pugin, one of the great English architects and designers.
The small chapel can be viewed through the carved oak screens that protect it, and features three magnificent stained glass windows.
On the floor below there are a series of memorial brasses and colourful tiles, while the walls are littered with artistic decoration featuring eagles, crests and Latin mottoes. The ceiling is tiled in extravagant blue and gold.
The final area of the church is the Chancel, which was missing it’s roof for a hundred years before being restored in 1988. The alter sits below a large window which allows light to flood in to the space below. It was here that I decided to make up the camp bed, surrounded by a thousand years of history.
Sounds of the night
After an evening at the local pub, we returned to the church around 10.00 pm. The Drummond at Albury is less than a mile away and involves a gentle 15-minute walk back through Albury Park, past the dark shadows of grazing sheep and ancient trees.
It took just a minute to light up the candles and lanterns that had been provided for the hours of darkness, and any concerns about sleeping in a church were settled by a feeling of real peace and tranquility both within the building and the wider parkland.
In the soft light I looked around in awe of the surroundings. Where else can you snuggle down for the night in a truly ancient space that has probably not changed much for hundreds of years? This was certainly an atmospheric place to stay, but more romantic than spooky.
Settling down to sleep I was aware of the sounds of the night. A distant owl hooted and the gate to the church yard creaked in the wind. I focused on the babble of the river as it washed gently by and was asleep within minutes.
I was woken just three times in the night, once by the sound of something in the bell tower (most likely bats), once by a cheeky ewe and two lambs who had taken shelter from the rain by standing in the porch, and finally by the chorus of birds at dawn.
This is one of the most unique places I have stayed in the UK, and a fascinating building in it’s own right.
The genius of champing is that it is making use of an ancient structure that is already there, allowing for a low input holiday. Better still, by staying in a champing church you are helping to generate precious funds for the conservation of an historic building.
Champing has a really low carbon footprint, with most of the churches having no access to gas, electricity or running water, so there is also very little for you to waste. There were no seperate recycling facilities, so we took ours home with us.
Drinking water is provided by AquAid, a bottled water company with a strong focus on protecting the environment as well as a long-standing relationship with charities Christian Aid and Pump Aid to provide fresh water to communities in the developing world.
The compost toilet at Albury has been purpose built in it’s own wooden cabin complete with a tiny gargoyle on the gable. It has solar PV panels on the roof to power a light which comes on automatically when you open the door to enter and works on a timer to ensure none of that renewable energy is wasted.
Tips for a comfortable stay
Churches are generally large drafty spaces, without any heating, so bring extra bedding and pillows for a really comfortable stay. As light will flood in through the church windows early in the morning, an eye mask is also advisable (unless you are a particularly early riser)!
A torch is an essential item, especially if you need to find your way through the church yard to the compost toilet at night.
Bring whatever you want to drink (and yes alcohol is fine) as well as any snacks to keep you going. Cooking is not allowed in the church but there is a kettle and gas stove to boil it.
Champing in Surrey Fact File
During your stay you will have exclusive use of the church between 6.00 pm and 10.00 am, and a sign is provided for the door to explain that you are champing.
Your stay will cost £55 per adult and £20 per child aged 15 and under. Group discounts are available and the price includes a good breakfast at the local pub.
Dogs and children are welcome.
There is no power in the Old Church, so this is a valuable opportunity to disconnect and unwind completely.
I was hosted by the Churches Conservation Trust Champing Team during my visit, but as always my review is open and honest, and all opinions are entirely my own.