Alexa Copeland experiences a chill on her first Champing experience... but it wasn't from any ghouls or ghosts

MOVE over boutique hotels and coastal cottage boltholes, there’s a new mini-break venue along the North Yorkshire coast boasting possibly the best views over Robin Hood’s Bay – as long as you don’t mind the gravestones.

And although I say ‘new’, I really mean ‘ancient’, as the destination throwing open its doors to overnight guests is Old St Stephen’s Church in Fylingdales.

Loading article content

The redundant church, which hasn’t changed since a rebuild in 1822, is the latest historic place of worship to offer its pews to paying guests as part of The Church Conservation Trust’s ‘champing’ initiative.

Much like ‘glamping’ is a luxurious upgrade on traditional camping, ‘champing’ is taking the concept of no-fills mini-breaks in a new direction. ‘Champers’ can book one of a dozen churches across the country for overnight stays - with Old St Stephen’s being the newest addition for this year. It is an intriguing concept that both helps fund the upkeep of these historic buildings and opens them up to a whole new audience.

So putting aside my reservations of horror story-esque spooky old churches, I packed my sleeping bag and collie dogs and headed to Old St Stephen’s.

Finding the key was a straightforward affair following the instructions provided and there was something rather thrilling about having a centuries-old church to call home for the weekend. Swinging open the thick wooden door to inspect our lodgings for the night, the first thing that struck us - at the risk of stating the obvious – is that it was cold inside, very, very cold.

We arrived slightly early so tables and chairs had not been laid out and it was a rather peculiar thing to be standing by the altar looking across rows of empty pews with the Ten Commandments adorning the walls and knowing this was where we would be resting our heads for the night.

Perhaps it was my teenage fascination with ghosts and ghouls, or maybe it was the cold knowing silence of the building, but a chill started to creep up and I was glad to leave our bags by the altar and exit into the bright, warm sunshine. I’ll admit, we were unsure about whether we wanted to return for the night, but if there was ever an antidote to Exorcist-inspired jitters, a walk round the delightful Robin Hood’s Bay in the sunshine is certainly it.

Old St Stephen’s is perfectly perched on a hill above the charming fishing village and you could walk to its beach within 20 minutes, or, as we did, take a countryside trail to the shoreline to stretch your legs and enjoy the scenery.

Although the daylight was waning by the time we returned to the church, it actually felt more welcoming that it had done earlier. Maybe it was the lovely day we’d had in Robin Hood’s Bay, or maybe it was because the so-called ‘Champbot’ volunteers had been in and laid out hot drinks and a gas stove, but the sturdy old building definitely seemed almost cosy in the half-light.

And sitting outside the door in a deckchair enjoying a hot chocolate as the sun set over the North Sea, with nothing but the gravestones for company, was a pleasantly peaceful experience.

Unfortunately, ‘pleasant’ is not the word I would use to describe the night’s sleep. To be fair to The Conservation Trust, they make it very clear in their literature to be prepared for the cold, but although we thought we were, as dusk turned to night we realised that our sleeping bags were woefully inadequate. The camp beds were comfy, but it was a struggle to stay warm, resulting in early hours rummaging in our luggage for extra layers.

The Trust is relaxed about alcohol being consumed in the churches, so I suppose there is always the option of warming up with a tot of brandy or a bottle of wine. I think I’ll do that next time.

Another important thing to note is that the church does not have electricity. Nor is there running water, but a large water tank is provided along with the hot drinks and the gas stove for preparing them. The toilet is a solar-powered eco-affair in the vestry which was simple to use.

In the morning we awoke early as the sun streamed through the church windows and the dawn chorus was in full swing in the graveyard. We finished off our mini-break with a visit to nearby Whitby and it just happened to be a Goth weekend.

As I watched the parades of dark characters in their macabre garb, I thought how much they might enjoy spending a night in an ancient church replete with crucifixes and a truly authentic gothic atmosphere. The full-length leather coats would come in handy too!

Champing is not for everybody, with its lack of home comforts and its neighbours resting in peace, but it is certainly a unique, tranquil experience and one that I’m glad I dared to brave.

For full details of champing and to book a church, visit www.champing.co.uk