My Night Camping In An 18th Century Church In England : Parallels Many old churches in England have gone into disrepair after losing their congregations. Now an organization is raising money for upkeep by letting people camp — "champ" — overnight inside of them.
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My Night Camping In An 18th Century Church In England

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My Night Camping In An 18th Century Church In England

My Night Camping In An 18th Century Church In England

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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.

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