The church was last used for worship in 1959 and, in order to prevent its demolition by the Diocese, ownership was conveyed by the Church Commissioners to South Cambridgeshire District Council in 1985 ‘for use as a nature reserve and for the study of natural history’ – it is now a designated Local Nature Reserve.
The churchyard is a County Wildlife Site and remains open for burials, with regular tidy-ups to keep it in good shape.
By late 2002, high winds and overgrowth of ivy (right) had caused significant damage to the roof and walls, such that some parts of the structure were deemed unsafe.
South Cambridgeshire District Council, owners of the church since 1985, appointed Bowman and Sons to remove the ivy (below) in order to survey the building. This work was completed during the early part of 2003.
Severe damage was found to part of the external walls with the gable ends unstable and in danger of collapse. The roof tiles were insecure, while the removal of the ivy had affected the integrity of both the roof and the walls, leaving many of the tiles loose and much of the flint stone facing in a decayed condition.
The church was placed on the Heritage at risk register for Grade I and II* buildings, maintained by English Heritage, in June 2004 – it has since been removed from the Register.
At a meeting on 9 June 2005, the SCDC Cabinet accepted the recommendation of the Conservation Advisory Group that a tender for £151,000 for the church to be made safe with a clay tile roof be accepted, rather than an alternative tender for £110,000 for it to be repaired with a corrugated iron roof.
The Cabinet authorised the work to be funded by grant support from English Heritage (£61,000), Hatley Parish Council (which offered a contribution of £2,000 conditional on the roof being tiled rather than covered in iron sheets) and SCDC’s Historic Buildings Conservation Fund.
Haymills Conservation was appointed in July 2005 to repair the damaged stonework, undertake repairs to the roof timbers and re-tile the roof. Work began on 1 August 2005 – soon the church was surrounded by scaffolding and the tiles removed (above). By October 2005, the stonework was substantially complete and timber repairs were undertaken. The photo, left, shows progress at early December 2005, with re-tiling of the roof taking place. Haymills finished their work in January 2006.
St Denis is now a ‘safe shell’ with its roof re-tiled and timbers and stonework repaired thanks to a restoration carried out with immaculate care by Haymills Conservation and their expert craftsmen.
Credit for the restoration of St Denis must go to Nick Grimshaw, SCDC’s Conservation Manager at the time, who championed our cause most admirably, and, of course to the Cabinet members of SCDC for reaching what must have been a difficult decision in the financial climate for the Council in 2005.
With the exterior restoration complete, right, the next step was to secure further grant support to complete restoration of the inside of the church with windows and a new floor to enable the building to be utilised for an appropriate community purpose – a scheme was expected to be developed in consultation with the Parish during 2007, but came to nothing.
The building remained a thorn in the side of SCDC; a report in late 2012 showed the Council's thinking – could it be sold?
Thanks to the efforts of David Beven, who followed Nick Grimshaw as SCDC's Conservation Manager, discussions took place with a number of conservation bodies, with the Friends of Friendless Churches showing real interest, not least because of the Butterfield connection, the FoFC not having any examples of his work in its portfolio of (now) 47 churches.
The 'only' stumbling block was money, the FoFC being reluctant to take on the church without a substantial dowry. District Councillor Sebastian Kindersley and East Hatley resident Peter Mann met with Ray Manning, the then Leader of SCDC, on 8th October 2013 to push the point if the building is sold, particularly via auction, the hidden costs to SCDC of fighting any untoward planning applications will be much greater than conveying it to the FoFC with a dowry.
After three years of toing and froing between SCDC, the FoFC and various lawyers, FoFC took possession on 30 November 2016; in June 2017, it applied for planning permission to do the basics: installing a floor and windows in the nave, replacing the door in the north porch and making minor repairs – paid for by a £60,000 dowry from SCDC and funds raised by local residents, Hatley Parish Council and Gamlingay and Hatley Parochial Church Council.
Now the FoFC is its guardian, St Denis' future is looking bright. Hopefully, and not too far down the line, there will be funds to restore the inside to something Butterfield would recognise. Two Taizé services held in 2011 and 2012 revealed the wonderful acoustics of the building.
A bit more
St Denis before its restoration in September 1995 (left) and in 2003 – click on them for a larger images
The pictures below of St Denis in February 2005 show the state of the building before and after the ivy was removed. It was certainly a sorry sight, with the fencing preventing full access to the graveyard. It is now a restored, wind, watertight and handsome shell (sixth photo). Click on each image for an enlargement
- St Denis was used for Taizé services in 2011 and 2012 – click here for a report on the 2011 service.
- The memorials in the church were moved to Hatley St George church many years ago.
Buildings are graded to show their relative architectural or historic interest:
- Grade I buildings are of exceptional interest.
- Grade II* are particularly important buildings of more than special interest.
- Grade II are of special interest, warranting every effort to preserve them.
Listing currently protects 500,000 or so buildings, of which the majority – over 90% – are Grade II. Grade I and II* buildings may be eligible for English Heritage grants for urgent major repairs. This link will take you to 'search results' for English Heritage grants on the SCDC website.
English Heritage has a Heritage at risk register on its website – it no longer includes St Denis.
St Denis – flyer about the church (July 2017).