Unusual places to stay in Kent: 7 unique staycations
PUBLISHED: 13:45 10 July 2017 | UPDATED: 13:53 10 July 2017
It's the new staycation craze that allows overnight guests to camp inside some of our country's ancient disused churches. We grabbed our sleeping bags and bravely tried out 'champing' in Fordwich, then added six more unusual places to spend the night in Kent this summer
When we told friends we were sleeping overnight in a disused church, the reactions varied from amusement to horror.
Among the many questions flung at us was how our little girl, recently turned seven, would be able to sleep surrounded by graves, ancient walls and creepy things. They needn’t have worried. As with most families, it’s the adults who do all the worrying and the children who just get on with it.
We were going ‘champing’ - camping in one of 12 churches under the care of the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT) that have been offering overnight stays for the last couple of years.
With 350 redundant churches in the CCT’s care across the country, it was a very bright spark indeed who came up with the idea of offering basic camping inside a few of them. The funds raised help to pay for the conservation of these important buildings.
The only one offering champing in Kent is the Church of St Mary the Virgin in Fordwich, near Canterbury. If you set out to be scared you probably will be. With much of the church dating from the Norman era but still displaying some of its older Saxon origins, it’s by far the oldest building we have slept in and of course it is indeed set in a churchyard surrounded by ancient graves.
For us though, led by our brave little daughter, this all seemed like an excellent adventure. In an ideal world we would have all arrived together but due to work commitments, my daughter and I arrived some hours before my husband and had to settle in on our own.
‘Settling in’ to an abandoned church, it seems, includes hunting for the key, wondering if you are in the right place, reading the old English on tombs dating back to the 1600s, panicking about the apparent lack of a toilet, carrying bedding back and forth from the car and finally sitting down to read the instructions.
Without plumbing in the church, the CCT has cleverly fitted a camping loo in the vestry - built inside an indoor shed and topped with a gargoyle, naturally.
There were three camping chairs set out for us with cushions and blankets, as well as a water cooler, a kettle, tea, coffee and a breakfast hamper stuffed with local goodies. Although it’s hard to shake the unsettling thought that a congregation might walk in at any moment and start singing hymns, the church was ours for the night and has been disused since 1995.
The 12 champing churches across the country (11 in England and one in Orkney) range in size from a small, limewashed kirk right up to the huge St Michael the Archangel in Booton, Norfolk, with St Mary the Virgin towards the smaller end of the scale.
A handy guide leaflet points out interesting things to look out for in the church, which provided us with a kind of historical treasure hunt. Five points to the first person to spot the original glass in the two 14th-century windows on the south side; five points to the one who finds the 12th-century font.
Best of all is the rather mysterious ‘Fordwich stone’, a long piece of carved limestone that dates from around 1100 and is thought to have been part of the shrine of St Augustine.
As cooking isn’t allowed in the church, we ventured off in search of dinner in Fordwich, famous for being the smallest town in Britain. Picture-postcard pretty and set along the banks of the beautiful River Stour, Fordwich is less than three miles from Canterbury but we decided to stay closer to home.
There are not one but two excellent pub restaurants within a few steps of the church; The Fordwich Arms and The George and Dragon. At the latter we were met by my husband, fresh from a day at work and slightly confused about the location of our beds for the night.
He didn’t get to see the church until we walked back later in the dark, shining a torch through the churchyard. The fact that some of the headstones by the entrance are decorated in the ‘momento mori’ style didn’t go unnoticed - carvings of skulls and bones surrounded us as we fumbled for the keys.
Inside the church at night, however, was not what we had expected at all. Far from cold, scary or uninviting, we found it comfortable and very peaceful.
The champing season runs from the beginning of April to the end of September so guests don’t end up here in the coldest months. That said, we had been warned to bring blankets, sleeping bags and duvets. The camping beds provided were sturdy and comfortable, set in their own enclosed nooks between the pews.
Having handled the somewhat tricky process of cleaning her teeth without a sink, my daughter took herself to bed with a wind-up lantern and a book to read. Far from being terrified of the dark and the ancient tombs, she was a natural at champing and didn’t give her surroundings a second thought.
In fact we all slept soundly - unmolested by ghosts or zombies - and woke feeling refreshed the next morning to the sound of birds outside.
The CCT’s champing website is deliberately light-hearted and keen to show the fun side of camping inside a church. One of its FAQs asks if you have to be a Christian to stay here; the answer is no.
Another asks if you can drink alcohol; the answer is yes and in fact you can order wine from them. Up to two well-behaved dogs are even welcome.
Our stay in the Church of St Mary the Virgin was a short but unforgettable one and I’ll admit to having already looked on the website at some of the other tempting churches you can stay in across the country.
6 other unusual places to stay
1. A horsebox
It doesn’t get much more unusual, but the Strawberry Roan horsebox at Waypost Farm is also very beautiful. Set in rural marshland near Tenterden, this vintage Bedford TK horse lorry has been lovingly transformed into a quirky, romantic place to stay. Although it may have once carried horses and straw, there’s no roughing it here now thanks to a king-size bed, wood burner and private toilet just outside. Visit www.waypostfarmglamping.co.uk
2. A folly
Prospect Tower is a tiny flint garden folly in the grounds of Belmont Park near Faversham. One of several fashionable garden buildings built for the estate’s owner in 1808, he used it as a private den. A cricket pitch was built beneath it in 1870 and it served for many years as a cricket pavilion. There are only two real rooms, both circular in shape, but the views from the top floor are stunning. Visit www.landmarktrust.org.uk
3. A big cat sanctuary
Smarden’s Big Cat Sanctuary isn’t a zoo, so visitors can’t just turn up at the gates. Limited to a handful of open days a year and offering photographic workshops, keeper experiences and weddings, the centre also has a number of safari-style lodges.
Surrounded by the enclosures of 50 big cats, included is afternoon tea, a tour of the sanctuary, dinner, an overnight stay and, after breakfast, you may be allowed to hand feed some of the feline residents. Visit www.thebigcatsanctuary.org
4. A lighthouse cottage
While you can’t actually sleep in the North Foreland Lighthouse, as it’s still in use, you can sleep in either of the two whitewashed cottages at its foot. Khina and Lodesman Cottage in Broadstairs both sleep up to four people and share a one-acre garden, well away from the clifftop.
As you would expect, these cottages boast sea views, are family friendly and, set so close to some of Kent’s best beaches, they’re very popular in the summer. And don’t worry, North Foreland is just a lighthouse and doesn’t have a fog signal to wake you up at night. Visit www.ruralretreats.co.uk
5. An apple shed
A modest rustic building thoughtfully converted into cosy accommodation, The Old Apple Shed in Bethersden is exactly what it claims to be. Used to store apples when this was a working orchard in the 1960s, it sat abandoned in the meadow for many years until the current owners converted it.
Furnished in a vintage style and with a toilet and hot shower, a little shed has never looked so inviting. In the colder months it is warm and cosy thanks to a log burner, and the deck and barbecue are perfect in the summer. Visit www.theoldappleshed.co.uk
6. A gypsy wagon
Glamping is big business and these days there are all sorts of tents, wagons, pods and huts you can choose to stay in, but this is as faithful a replica of an old Romany showman’s wagon as you’re likely to find. Built by a local Romany for Nethergong Camping near Canterbury, it is set in its own glade beside the river.
In the spirit of the simple life, the wagon is fitted with a super king-size bed which converts into a table and bench and a nearby kitchen hut houses all the cooking equipment. Visit www.nethergongcamping.co.uk
Share your story
Have you stayed somewhere weird and wonderful in Kent and would like to share the experience with other Kent Life readers? The email firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll publish the best in next month’s edition.