COVID-19 related restrictions have forced many Britons to vacation closer to home, often making hotel rooms more expensive and harder to find. But a charity called the Churches Conservation Trust is helping while helping to raise funds in the process.
The trust maintains and restores a portfolio of over 350 beautiful old and redundant churches. For several years, the trust has rented a place for visitors to camp – or “field” – among the benches of a dozen of these buildings. The program has proven to be extremely popular during the pandemic.
On Halloween weekend, Marketplace checked out the gnawing experience at St. Mary the Virgin Church in the small village of Edlesborough, about 40 miles northwest of London.
Our guide was Wyn Johns, one of the local volunteers who run the 13th century church, who hasn’t held regular church services for decades. Champers can now pay around $ 80 per person in bed in the choir for the night.
âIt’s so atmospheric,â Johns said. âThere are so many features to see and enjoy. “
These features include stained glass windows, ornate wood carvings, medieval baptismal font, and a 14th-century pulpit.
âWe encourage people to go up these steps to the pulpit. We have a notice up there that says, “Go up there and read aloud!” âJohns said doing just that.
âI could just read a verse from the Bible: ‘Love is patient. Love is kind. It doesn’t make you want to. He doesn’t brag, âhe sang from the podium.
Even though it is still a consecrated church, Johns and the conservation charity are relaxed about the champers delivering more secular texts and on the pulpit provided a transcript of Winston’s most famous war speech Churchill, “We will fight on the beaches”.
They are even happy that the champers are having a party in this place of worship.
âThey are allowed to drink in the building. They have the right to have music. We just have to rely on their common sense not to misbehave, âJohns said.
And the building did not suffer from the gnawing? âNo, it isn’t,â he said. âThe only minor problem we had was when someone played the organ and left one of the keys pressed. Now we ask visitors not to touch it. But the building benefited the champers because of the money.
No more than eight champions can stay at Sainte-Marie-la-Vierge each night, and they must all belong to the same group or family. Camp beds are provided and hot water bottles are also essential at this time of year, as there is no heating and it can get quite cold in the church.
And pretty scary too, especially around Halloween.
âYes, and especially since we have bats here,â Johns said with a laugh. It’s all part of the experience! “
At this point in our tour, a pair of champers arrived for the thrills and thrills of a night in the church.
âIt’s an interesting weekend,â said Gareth Bannister, IT project manager. âAn escape from London if you will, to the countryside. Nice pub nearby. Lots of things to interest us for an evening.
Neither he nor his fellow champion Lisa Ejarque, an accountant by profession, were disturbed at the prospect of a strange experience. In fact, quite the opposite.
âThat’s the intention,â Ejarque said. “We have brought horror movies to watch on my tablet.”
We didn’t tell him about the bats, but said we will be back the next morning to find out how they spent the night in a cold, empty, “atmospheric” church.
The Churches Conservation Trust says it has had its busiest season in its history: the trust has welcomed more than 1,500 visitors across the UK.
âInterest in the concept has been extremely high this year for a number of different reasons,â said trust chief executive Guy Foreman. âOne of the reasons is the pandemic. “
Not just because of the increase in staycations; Foreman said that having only one small, discreet group of people – or bubble – able to congregate in each church has been an ideal arrangement in an age of social distancing. He believes another reason for the growing popularity of champing is the growing demand for richer, more experience-based vacations.
âNowhere else can you spend the night in a building steeped in history, somewhere where you can make a unique building your own for the evening,â he said.
Meanwhile, the morning after our visit to St. Mary the Virgin, we returned to see Lisa Ejarque and Gareth Bannister. So how did it go?
âYes, very good,â they said in unison. âWith a lot of layers of clothing, in our sleeping bags and with our hot water bottles, we were very warm and comfortable,â said Ejarque.
They didn’t meet any bats, and they didn’t half-terrify themselves with their horror movies. In fact, they found the atmosphere in the middle of the night barely overwhelming.
âI heard a few little noises. I didn’t know if it could be church mice, but I heard a few things. Some crackles, âBannister said.
âBut it was absolutely fine,â Ejarque said. âWe had a great time. We will definitely do it again.