Photos and text by Peter Mann

While the church of St Denis, East Hatley is no longer in use, the churchyard remains consecrated ground, open for burials.

Happy volunteers at the St Denis' church East Hatley, Cambridgeshire, churchyard tidy-up on 4th August 2019.

Happy volunteers at the St Denis’ churchyard tidy-up, 4th August 2019.

It has also been designated a Local Nature Reserve (LNR) and a County Wildlife Site, managed by a small group of local volunteers who check all is well with the building and churchyard and organise – weather permitting – regular churchyard tidy-ups, adhering as far as possible to the site’s management plan (see below).

Currently, the local volunteers of the St Denis’ LNR management group are Nicola Jenkins (representing Hatley Parish Council), Sebastian Kindersley, Peter Mann and the Rev’d Hilary Young (representing Gamlingay Parochial Church Council).

When it comes to tidying up the churchyard, we are very fortunate more than a few people from East Hatley turn out to help – typical members of our merry band are photographed above: click the picture for their names.

New volunteers are always very welcome – just bring your gardening gloves and a grass rake and have a good workout for an hour or so.

In 2013, we were fortunate to obtain a scythe / scissor mower to help to make the late summer ‘big’ cut of the very long grass around the church and the gravestones a relatively efficient activity.  Nicola, who organises the tidy-ups, is looking for someone to operate it this year.  We even had the mower blessed!

Grass grows

But, why the bother and why allow the grass to get so long?

Well, as the churchyard is a Local Nature Reserve, you can expect to find plenty of wild flowers in the spring and early summer.

St Denis' church East Hatley, Cambridgeshire - a Star of Bethlehem growing in the grave of Martha Perkins, 19 May 2014. Photo: Nicola Jenkins.

A Star of Bethlehem growing in the grave of Martha Perkins, May 2014; it spread within the churchyard to four large clumps in 2020. Photo / Nicola Jenkins.

There are also lots of insects and butterflies hopping and fluttering around and quite a few small mammals all enjoying (one assumes) the undisturbed meadow that is the churchyard.

Unfortunately, the grass will grow… and grow – if not cut back it forms patches of thick tussles, which are a pain to deal with, and choke out the cowslips that are such a feature of the Hatley countryside; oxlips have already suffered this fate, although they may have been victim of marauding deer and muntjacs which have a particular liking for them.

Likewise, hawthorns and other bushes / trees will also either self-seed or have seeds ‘planted’ by passing squirrels and jays and if left would, within five or six years, present a formidable problem.  Mole hills and ant hills are more obstacles to a neat and tidy graveyard, the latter, which produce a sticky clay, being particularly difficult to deal with.

On top of this, of course, it is a ‘living’, consecrated graveyard, where any of us can be buried; several of the graves are still attended by relatives of those interred there. The most recent burials were in November 2018 of John Lanchberry, a much-missed willing helper during our tidy-up sessions, and in June 2019 of Patricia Brown.

Management plan

With the help of Rob Mungovan, when he was the Ecology Officer at South Cambridgeshire District Council, the churchyard management committee, formed some 25 years ago, agreed a management plan in 2010 for the ideal grass cutting times throughout the year: the south side of the churchyard to be cut in March, again in April or May and the whole churchyard to be cut in July and September.


Strimming around the church and the graves and cutting back excessive growth in the hedges around the edge of the churchyard is part of each session.

Kind weather always helps of course – 2012 was particularly difficult weather-wise (which is when the idea of a scythe / scissor type mower was first considered) whereas in 2018 it was dry enough to be cut and collected by one volunteer using his a ride-on mower.

Special things about St Denis’ churchyard

There are only 20 or so marked graves in the churchyard – they are listed in Grave inscriptions 1987, its cover having a sketch, dated 1748, of St Denis’ by Rev William Cole.

St Denis' churchyard East Hatley, Cambridgeshire – Elizabeth Thorpe's corpse style grave – she died on 31st July 1838, aged 37.

Elizabeth Thorpe’s corpse style grave – she died on 31st July 1838, aged 37.

A ‘feature’ of graveyards in the Bedfordshire area are ‘corpse’ style graves – there’s one in St Denis’ graveyard, although whether the solid lump of stone (probably granite) belongs to the headstone of Elizabeth Thorpe, who died on 31st July 1838, aged 37, is a moot point.

She was, as her headstone declares, the wife of Charles Thorpe the rector of St Denis, which probably explains its position next to the main entrance to the church.

Possibly the best known grave is of John Perkins a friend of W G Grace, the cricketer, a keen huntsman and much more – you can read about him in ‘The man who lived at the Palace‘.

As you’d expect of a Local Nature Reserve and a County Wildlife Site, the churchyard is quite rich in flora, fauna and insects – not forgetting the cave spiders in the undercroft.  This page on the flowers, insects and graves, will tell you more (as will our ‘nature‘ page).

Other links of interest are:

They compliment these pages which help to celebrate a small corner of England:

Based on material on the original Hatley website; updated 16th March 2021.