I’m picking my way blindly through a graveyard at 1am, towards what I hope is the medieval church of All Saints, Aldwincle. A large shape looming blackly in front of me must be the belltower, but it takes ages before I find the entrance. As the heavy timber door swings silently inwards I try to channel my favourite 90s TV heroine. What would Buffy the Vampire Slayer do?
It turns out I’m not the only one creeped out by the cold, dark reality of “champing”, aka camping in a church. Huddled in her sleeping bag my friend Marisa tells me how her boyfriend had refused to get out of the car while she’d hunted around the moonlit churchyard for the key. As a lifelong atheist, he feared he’d be the first to be smited. We are all agreed that champing is not an activity you would want to attempt on your own – unless you were a particularly fearless ghosthunter.
In the morning, with the sun streaming through lead-latticed windows, the parish of Aldwincle seems less terrifying. The knock at the door doesn’t presage doom, but a breakfast hamper bursting with pastries, yogurts and bacon and egg rolls. (It’s delivered by Bev, who works on the adjoining land and politely masks any surprise that we’re still in our pyjamas at 9am.)
There are no pews in the church, but there’s a table and chairs where the centre aisle would be, and our (pre-booked) campbeds were already set up when we arrived, not far from a small, defunct electric organ.
The twee portmanteau name aside, champing has become a sellout success since Peter Aiers, of the Churches Conservation Trust, came up with the idea a couple of years ago as a way of putting historic churches back to use. Demand for the scheme quadrupled last year with 650 people trying it out. There are seven churches offering it now, but this is set to rise to 12. One of its aims was to give the churches a purpose in their local community and that’s certainly happened here with All Saints, the first church to trial the idea. All Saints is also at the centre of a renaissance for Northamptonshire’s Nene valley which has begun to fashion its wildlife, water pursuits and foodie offerings into a tourism destination.
Aldwincle itself is a village – a Main Street that Usain Bolt could run in under 10 seconds, a village hall that opens for craft days and afternoon teas, a green on which sheep may safely graze. We follow a footpath through the fields to Wadenhoe, as if wandering through the background of a bucolic landscape painting, and eat fish and chips in the King’s Head. The pub’s lunches are so popular that they’re turning people away before 1pm.
The Lyveden Way winds a 10-mile trail from Fermyn Woods country park, through Rockingham Forest and into farmland that’s as primly kept as Aldwincle’s immaculate gardens (neatness seems endemic in this part of Northants). It also takes you past Lyveden New Bield, built for Sir Thomas Tresham, whose son was one of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators. The Elizabethan moated lodge and gardens have remained incomplete since Tresham’s death in 1605, and are now one of the National Trust’s most enigmatic sites.
All Saints has its own claim to history: the poet John Dryden was born in Aldwincle and his grandfather, Henry Pickering, was the rector. Alongside the useful amenities provided with our stay – a small gas stove and kettle, lanterns and campbeds – is a two-volume bible commentary written by Rev Pickering, which we never quite get round to studying. But by the second evening, we’ve hit our champing stride. I’ve stopped worrying that I’m committing blasphemy every time I stride past the altar rail to go to the loo (the toilet is in the chancel) and we’ve worked out that it’s always warmer outside the building than in.
So we sit in the churchyard as the sun goes down, the stars come up, and bats literally flit around the belfry. A backing track of frog sounds is occasionally joined by the Harry Potter theme as our friend Chris ducks back inside the church to let loose on the echoing acoustic. Perhaps it’s the divine presence, or the beer, but either way I slept soundly. We booked bedding for a small extra cost – you can bring your own, but the provision of a campbed and a thick sleeping bag definitely added to the comfort. (Also, take ear plugs if any of your party snores. The echo made it sound like furniture dragged across the floor.)
On our final morning we head a few miles down the road to the ancient village of Thrapston where we’ve hired a canoe for a couple of hours paddling along the river. (They also hire out boats for multi-day trips, so that you can explore more of the Nene, and camp overnight as you go). The canoes are wonderfully stable, the river is mercifully wide, and we’re heading downstream, so even our inexpert steering and paddling can’t stop us reaching our destination.
The combination of our splashing and our singing does scare a few ducks out of the reeds. But there are still red kites soaring overhead, and across the fields, a view of our very own All Saints, its limestone gleaming in the sun.
Way to go
Champing prices at Aldwincle start from £39 per adult a night (£19 child); breakfast is an extra £9pp and campbeds and bedding can be provided for an extra £25pp (champing.co.uk). Canoe hire from Canoe 2 (canoe2.co.uk, 01604 832 115) begins at £35 per canoe for a two-hour trip