Camping, Bushcraft & Survival

Knocking On Heaven’s Door | We Try Out The “Champing” Craze At An Ancient Church In Kent

What happened when we took our sleeping bags inside a spooky church that dates back to the 11th century?

It’s my birthday, and I’m having a house party. There’s a White Walker from Game of Thrones dancing in the lounge, and bicycle wheels where the lower halves of my legs should be. Everyone’s having a really good time, knocking back Ribena, and… wait… what’s Judi Dench doing here? And, hang on, whose house is this? And, actually, why are there road bike wheels where my shins should be? And…

I awake in the eerie, darkened, silence of St Mary’s Church – Fordwich, Kent. It must be two, maybe three, o’clock in the morning and not for the first time tonight I’ve exited suddenly from a strange dream. I sit up and look around, unable to see beyond the glow of the camping light and into the cold blackness beyond. My girlfriend’s sound asleep on the camping bed next to me, oblivious to the weirdness of my dreams and sudden urge to visit the toilet.

“…the cold silence of the church makes me hesitate.”

Driving into Fordwich 12 hours earlier, I see that the welcome sign for the place is proudly announcing to the world that this is “Britain’s Smallest Town.” It feels cruel to remark at this point that my mind does wander to thoughts of Royston Vasey in ‘The League of Gentleman’, but I can’t lie to you. Despite this first impression, I’m happy to report that tiny Fordwich is far more idyllic and far less sinister than the nightmarish place where Tubbs and Edward tell outsiders: “This is a local shop, for local people.” Usually, right before killing them.

We’ve come to Fordwich to experience a night of ‘champing’. Champing, as you might have already guessed, is a portmanteau that merges together churches and camping in one neat micro-adventuring package. Currently there are 12 historic churches in the UK involved in the Champing Project, churches you can pay to spend the night in between the end of March and the end of September. Run by the Churches Conservation Trust, it might sound like an eerie thing to do but an increasing number of people can’t seem to get enough of it.

The sign that welcomes you into “Britain’s Smallest Town” | Photo: Jack Clayton

“Ah, yeah. There’s people sleeping in there all the time,” says the landlord at the adjacent Fordwich Arms, midway through pulling us a couple of refreshing-looking beers, “Very popular it is, very popular indeed,” he adds, before trailing off in that way every single pub landlord you’ve ever met seems to do.

Located just three miles from Canterbury, the church itself sits on the Way of St Augustine – a 19 mile walk that follows in the footsteps of the man widely considered to be a founder of the Catholic Church in England. The pilgrimage gives anyone who walks along it the chance to lap up the gorgeously green landscapes of the Stour Valley, and explore all of the significant old churches dotted along its route. It’s meant to be extremely nice and, presumably, slightly more peaceful than Margate’s Dreamland – the theme park where I’ve spent my morning queuing for rides behind kids high on a cocktail of summer holiday optimism and sugar.

On the topic of old St Augustine, St Mary’s Church (which dates back to the Norman times) is actually home to a large block of limestone from around the year 1100, which is believed to have once been part of a shrine dedicated to none other than St Augustine himself. History nerds, take note.

“…you’re walking to the toilet in the dead of night and step on the exact spot where someone is buried…”

After drinking four more beers in The Fordwich Arms, playing an epic best-of-three chess match that locals will be talking about for years to come, and engaging in some confusing verbal tennis with the Hot Fuzz landlord, we make the decision to head out for an evening stroll along the River Stour. The sun is just beginning to dip over the horizon, turning the sky a pinky shade of orange that brings to mind the watercolour masterpieces of JMW Turner.

Fordwich, and its surrounding countryside, is a lovely place to simply be in and let time pass. On an end of summer evening like the one I’m experiencing tonight, the River Stour and Westbere Marshes deliver postcard levels of prettiness. This corner of Kent, I imagine, is the kind of uber English place that resides in the mind of a very particular type of American; the one you only ever meet at all-inclusive resorts in Mexico, the one who’s never been to “Ing-er-land” and who thinks our entire country consists of London, a village with some bunting, and three fields.

Pictured: The corner of St Mary’s in Fordwich where we spent the night. Photo: Jack Clayton

Before bedding down for the night, we grab a few more jars and a bite to eat at the town’s only other pub – The George and Dragon. Over dinner, I notice my girlfriend has gone quiet.

“Are you OK?” I ask.

“Yeah, I’m fine” she says, in a way which suggests she’s definitely not fine.

“Is it… the sleeping in a church thing?”

“I just think we should be ready to escape,” she replies, “I think, if we don’t like it, we should be ready to get in the car and drive away as quickly as possible.”

“But… but… we’ve had *starts counting today’s beer tally, before hiccuping loudly and giving up* a lot of beer. We can’t drive anywhere with this much beer in our bodies. And besides, what are you worried about? There’s no such thing as ghosts.”

Church – interior. It’s 3am and I’m busting for a wee. Reluctant to step out into the darkness of the church, but not as reluctant as I am to stay where I am and wet the bed, I make the only decision a sensible adult can make in this situation – I decide to visit the toilet.

The toilet, dubbed a ‘ChampLav’ on the pre-arrival document we were sent, is inside a shed which itself is inside the church’s vestry. The vestry is on the opposite side of the church, not a million miles away by any stretch but the cold silence of the church makes me hesitate.

Pictured: Church of St Mary the Virgin in Fordwich, Kent. Photo: Jack Clayton.
Pictured: Sunset just outside of Fordwich. Photo: Jack Clayton
Pictured: One of the blankets piled on my legs to keep out the cold. Photo: Jack Clayton
Pictured: The eerie darkness of the church at 3am in the morning. Photo: Jack Clayton

Swinging a leg out, I put my foot down on words that say: “Here lyeth the body of…” I stop reading there, as if continuing to do so would somehow raise the corpse beneath my feet from the dead. It’s a stupid thought, completely irrational, and yet I have it anyway. I don’t want to paint champing as some sort of scary, ghoulish, experience because it really isn’t. For the most past, it’s extremely pleasant.

Every so often though, like when you’re walking to the toilet in the dead of night and step on the exact spot where someone is buried, you can’t help but be reminded of those frightening old stories you heard when you were a kid; of those 18 certificate horror films you watched at sleepovers when you were 11. A church after dark, it turns out, makes a lot of unexplained noises. Noises you put down to the wind, or wandering mice, or the creaking of old wooden beams because to think of them differently is to take your imagination down a bad footpath. 

You’ll no doubt be relieved to discover, at this point, that I successfully make it to the toilet without being brutally murdered by any monster living or dead. A moth does fly at my face and make me jump a bit but that’s as dramatic as it gets. The rest of the night passes by in a cascading blur of weird dreams; dreams borne out of the meditative quietness that comes with sleeping in a church.

“…we come across graves from as far back as the 1640s.”

I awake to the sight of sunlight pouring in through old, stained-glass, windows. The soothing sense of calm I feel is the same one I experienced when wild camping amongst the mountains of Snowdonia. No noise, no stress, no reminders of real-life responsibility; it’s perfect.

“Why are you whispering?” my girlfriend asks me, while we’re drinking coffee.

“Because it’s…” I pause, .”…you know… a church.”

After exploring the place a bit more, and then packing up our things, we soak up the silence one final time and leave through St Mary’s big wooden door; remembering, as we do so, to put the ancient-looking church key we’ve briefly been responsible for back in its designated hiding spot.

Pictured: One of the spookier gravestones in St Mary’s graveyard. Photo: Jack Clayton

Walking through the graveyard, we come across graves from as far back as the 1640s. There’s some other, even older looking, stones with inscriptions that have been weathered over the centuries to the point of illegibility. The history of the place is palpable and you can’t help but wonder what 17th century locals would have made of this whole champing phenomenon.  

On the drive back to London, we discuss last night’s experience.

“You were scared,” my girlfriend says, “You were definitely scared.”

“I was not,” I reply; deciding, there and then, not to mention my spooky late night run-in with a moth.

Do It Yourself:

We spent the night at the Church of St Mary the Virgin in Fordwich, Kent. There are 12 churches across the UK, including this one, where you can go champing. For more information on the activity, and the Churches Conservation Trust, visit the official Champing website.

Check out the rest of the Mpora ‘Dark’ issue here

You May Also Like:

Wild Camping in Wales | A Journey Between Fear and Peace on the Mountains of Snowdonia

Mountain Biking in Scotland | Whisky & Wheels

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