Text and photos: Peter Mann

St Denis' church East Hatley, Cambridgeshire from the south west. The Friends of Friendless Churches has completed two phases of restoration work since taking ownership of the building in 2016 – including (in 2018) new windows in the mediaeval nave and (in 2021) new windows in the chancel William Butterfield built in 1874.

St Denis’ church East Hatley, Cambridgeshire – owned by the Friends of Friendless Churches; repairs completed in spring 2022 allow it to be open every day.

First thing: St Denis’ is open every day from around 8.30 am to dusk to look round or for quiet contemplation.

Second thing: The building, but not the churchyard, is owned by the Friends of Friendless Churches.

Third thing: Although redundant, St Denis’ is still consecrated for worship but is no longer a parish church.*

Fourth thing: The building dates back to at least 1217 and is constructed of field stones.

Fifth thing: The churchyard is consecrated: you can still be buried in it – please contact the Revd. Hilary Young, priest in charge for our diocese, for further information.

Sixth thing: Saint Denis, the man, was a 3rd-century Italian Christian who was sent to convert Gaul, became Bishop of Paris, built a church were Notre Dame Cathedral now stands and, for his troubles, was beheaded around 250 AD – sadly, a little bit of him has been lost.

It nearly became a fenced-off ruin

Our St Denis, the building, is Grade II* listed (as is the parish church in Hatley St George) – which is very fortunate, for without that listing it is very likely all we would have now is a fenced-off ruin rather than a mediaeval building to admire.

St Denis' – in 2002 before the ivy was removed. Practically everything on the inside had been ripped out – there was no glass in the windows and the whole building was in great danger of collapse.

A very sad looking St Denis’ in 2002 – covered in ivy and in great danger of collapse.

This video charts some of its history and our flyer adds more detail.

Go back to 2002 and practically everything on the inside had been ripped out, including most of the floor – vandalism meant there was no glass in the windows and the whole building was covered in ivy (as our photo shows – click on it, and the others on this page, for a larger version); it was in grave danger of collapse.

At the time, St Denis’ was owned by South Cambridgeshire District Council (having been acquired from the Church Commissioners in October 1985) – it was minded to let it fall down or make it into a ‘safe ruin’ until reminded of its statutory duty to protect listed buildings. To the Council’s credit, it then took saving St Denis’ very seriously.

Having spent £30,000 in 2002 / 2003 on having the ivy removed and the building surveyed, a further £151,000 was spent in 2005 / 2006 to save the building, albeit as a safe shell without a floor or windows – largely through grants from the main Heritage Lottery Funds (via Historic England), with additional funding from Hatley Parish Council, Gamlingay and Hatley Parochial Church Council (which is responsible for the graveyard) and SCDC’s Historic Buildings Conservation Fund.

St Denis' church East Hatley, Cambridgeshire – symbolic key given to the Friends of Friendless Churches at the handover ceremony of the church to FoFC by South Cambridgeshire District Council, the previous owners of the church on 11th July 2017.

The symbolic key given to the FoFC at the handover ceremony of the church by SCDC on 11th July 2017.

Fast forward to November 2016 and the ownership of the building (but not the graveyard) passed to the Friends of Friendless Churches (their enthusiasm fuelled by a William Butterfield connection, of which more anon), together with a £60,000 dowry from SCDC.

Hatley Parish Council also donated £500 and there were generous contributions from Hatley residents and relatives of some of those buried in the churchyard.

St Denis’ is now in safe hands and, not for the first time in its long history, restored into a building with a future.

So far the FoFC has spent in the order of £250,000 in three phases of restoration work – in spring 2018 using the SCDC dowry and its own reserves, it put in a new floor in the nave and the chancel and new windows in the nave; and 2021 the first of two government grants on internal work and new windows in the chancel.

A second government grant was invested in further restoration work in spring 2022 – this latest spend saw the almost complete replastering of the walls in the nave and restoration of the reredos.

In spring 2022, the Friends of Friendless Churches removed the very crumbly 150 year old plaster in the nave , replastered it with the correct lime putty mix, then lime washed it with a half tone blend of the pigments from the original 'cream' and 'conch' colours.  St Denis' is now every day from 8.30 am to dusk.  Photo: Peter Mann / Buzz Associates.

The nave of St Denis’ church with the new plasterwork and (at the far end) the reredos restored. The work was completed in spring 2022.

Those two grants came from the government’s massive Culture Recovery Fund, a positive outcome of the Covid pandemic through a £1.57 billion package to protect the UK’s culture and heritage sectors from the economic impacts of Covid-19 – including safeguarding the jobs of the highly skilled craftsmen and women without whom there would be no built heritage.

For heritage organisations like the FoFC, for whom grants had all but disappeared, this lifeline has enabled them to carry out repairs which might otherwise have taken years to fund. St Mary’s in Gamlingay and St Giles’ in Tadlow (which recently came into the care of the FoFC) are also beneficiaries of the Fund.

Of those two grants, the first enabled the FoFC to repair the steps in the chancel, consolidate the tiles and plasterwork (to prevent further deterioration) and put in new side windows. The work was completed in April 2021.

The ‘gem’ in this was being able to incorporate into one of the new windows fragments of stained glass, believed to be by Alexander Gibbs (a favourite of Butterfield, with whom he worked at All Saints’, Margaret Street, London), which ‘a local man’ found in the churchyard in 1985 and kept safe for 33 years before giving them to the FoFC – as featured in Cambridgeshire Live (with a mention of ‘David’, rather than William, Butterfield).

This handsome head is now incorporated in one of the new windows in the chancel of St Denis’, East Hatley. It was made by glazier David Sear on behalf the Friends of Friendless Churches in 2021 – he made all the other windows in the church during the FoFC’s initial (2018) restoration work. The head and other fragments were part of the stained glass rescued from the old east window after it was smashed by vandals following the church's redundancy in 1959.

This handsome head is now incorporated in one of the new windows in the chancel of St Denis’.

Thankfully, this included the proud, handsome head pictured left, which glazier David Sear has made the centrepiece of one of the new windows, along with an angel’s wing and some brightly coloured arcs.

David has been responsible for all the new windows in St Denis’, using 4 mm clear cylinder glass and taking the diamond pattern from the windows in St James the Great in Waresley, which William Butterfield designed anew in 1857. There are more photos of the new windows in the St Denis’ photo gallery.

And because there are no pews or other furniture, St Denis is in many ways as it was before around 1600 rather than after it was closed in 1959.

Downing and Butterfield

The roof of St Denis' church, East Hatley, Cambridgeshire - the timbers are Baltic pine installed as part of William Butterfield's restoration project in 1874, the original mediaeval timbers were reused to support the floor in the nave. The building is owned by the Friends of Friendless Churches and thanks to a second grant from the UK government's Culture Recovery Fund, the FoFC will replaster the wall and complete other restoration work inside the church in 2022 – it can then be opened every day.

The St Denis’ roof: Baltic pine timbers, part of William Butterfield’s 1874 restoration project; he reused the original mediaeval timbers to support the floor in the nave.

Restoring St Denis’ has always been an ever on-going task.

By the early 1870s the church was in such a sorry state, the then owners, Downing College, Cambridge, employed William Butterfield (1814-1900), the notable (and very busy) church architect to do the restoration work. There is more on Butterfield below.

He restored the entire church, including a new roof (reusing the medieval roof timbers in the nave as floor supports) and new windows, put in a new font, took out the box pews (because they were for the exclusive use of the gentry) and replaced them with what we now consider to be conventional pews so everyone could see what was going on and be part of the service. He also installed a heating system.

In addition, Butterfield added a vestry and enlarged and restyled the chancel, where he made restrained use of his trademark polychromatic tiles; the FoFC’s 2021 and 2022 projects are another step towards restoring the chancel and sanctuary to how he left it in 1874.

St Denis’ is a mediaeval – not Victorian – church

Revd William Cole's sketch of St Denis' church, East Hatley. It is dated 18th August 1748 – William Butterfield rebuilt (rather than added) the porch and chancel but would appear to have added the bellcote on the west end – and moved the Downing plaque from outside to inside the porch.

Rev’d William Cole’s 1748 sketch of St Denis’.

It dates back to at least 1217 (two years after the signing of Magna Carta), for it is included in the taxatio records (published in 1291) made at the time when all ecclesiastical properties were accessed for tax – and as East Hatley is mentioned in the Domesday Book (1086), it’s very likely there was a church (or ‘village amenity’) here well before then, possibly on the current site (and probably with a thatched roof).

As with Hatley St George, East Hatley almost certainly benefited from the huge revival in ecclesiastical building started by Henry II, perhaps atoning for the murder of Thomas à Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170.

One other early date we have is 1352 when, according to W M Palmer in his 1933 paper A history of Clopton (page 35), there is a record of a visit by Bishop Lisle to ‘dedicate the new church at East Hatley on the Monday [8th October 1352]’. Palmer adds:

Plan of St Denis' church, East Hatley, Cambridgeshire - this 1968 drawing is from 'An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in the County of Cambridgeshire, Volume 1, West Cambridgeshire'.

Plan of St Denis’ church – a 1968 drawing.

‘That was a year of great activity in church building in this part of the country… and a good record for thirteen days’ work [dedicating nine churches], hardly to be surpassed in any age, especially as only a short time before the Black Death had thinned the population.

‘The parish church of East Hatley has been much restored and partly rebuilt, but the style is that of the fourteenth century, and probably Clopton church was like it in form and style.’

Clopton is one of Britain’s lost villages and now a deserted village site immediately on the right at the bottom of Croydon Hill, opposite the turning to Croydon – a footpath from the road will take you there.

In its day, Clopton was pretty substantial and thriving, but an unscrupulous lawyer, who bought the Clopton estate in the late 1400s, evicted the tenant farmers and turned the land from arable to pasture for sheep, a profitable venture at the time. Richard Muir’s 1982 book The Lost Villages of Britain (ISBN 0 7181 2036 1) uses Clopton as the classic example of this business model. East Hatley is given a mini-mention!

St Denis' church, East Hatley, Cambridgeshire – the newly cleaned Downing plaque, 13th April 2018. It's in the porch, above the door. Above the date is a cartouche of the arms of Sir George Downing, then owner of the estate of East Hatley.

The Downing plaque in St Denis’ church.

Moving on 200 years, St Denis’ was owned and restored in 1673 by the lord of the manor Sir George Downing (1623-1684), after whom Downing Street in London is named. He had acquired the village of East Hatley in 1661 (and occupied the manor house until his death), buying the advowson of St Denis’ church in 1665.

He added the porch and blocked the north door (to help eliminate draughts) and much else we don’t know about. He also placed a rather smart plaque (also called a cartouche) of his arms (pictured), impaled with those of Lady Frances Howard, his wife, over the entrance – this link tells you more about the Downing plaque; Butterfield moved it from outside the porch to over the south door in 1874; the FoFC cleaned the plaque in 2018.

A million stones

St Denis’ is built of field stones (perhaps not a million, but certainly an awful lot!) with clunch and freestone dressings; the roof is tiled.** Unlike the church in Hatley St George, there is no tower – just a small bell-cote, its bell now in Hatley St George church, as are the monuments which lined the walls. There is still a font and the stone part of the pulpit, all from Butterfield’s restoration work.

Much of Butterfield’s polychromatic tiling remains in the sanctuary and chancel, which he almost entirely rebuilt and lengthened. The FoFC’s second grant under the government’s Culture Recovery Fund will enable it to repair and replaster the nave walls, and repair the reredos, sanctuary step and east window surround; the work will take place in early 2022. That only leaves the commissioning and installation of a new east window.

Butterfield believed churches should be inclusive – and in the country, at least, fairly simply decorated. He replaced the box pews, which separated the upper / middle classes from ‘others’ with what we now consider to be conventional bench pews so everyone had the same view of the altar and could participate more easily in services. He also switched the pulpit from the south to the north side of the nave.

St Denis’ was last used for worship in 1959, replaced in 1961 by a prefabricated building (or ‘Mission Church‘) where 29 and 31 East Hatley now stand. Much of its contents were transferred to the new building, before it too was declared redundant and demolished in 1986, the memorials being put in the church in Hatley St George.

The ‘real’ St Denis’ church was de-consecrated in 1985 and ownership transferred to South Cambridgeshire District Council – by which time it was already in a pretty poor state, with the Council ‘minded’ to allow it to become a ruin. Fortunately, through a combination of being a listed building and local pressure, the building was saved and restored, as we recount in this article, Just how was St Denis’ saved?.

So what have we now and what have we lost?

A handsome building, for sure, set in a pleasing churchyard. As you step into the porch, notice the new York stone edging and, above the door, the Downing plaque, which the FoFC cleaned during its 2018 restoration work.

The south wall in the nave and chancel of St Denis' church, East Hatley. In 2022 the walls in the nave were replastered. St Denis' is now every day from 8.30 am to dusk. Photo: Peter Mann / Buzz Associates.

The restored nave floor with an almost uncluttered view towards the chancel.

The impression on the inside is of a large, uncluttered space – because there are no pillars or furniture to obstruct one’s view.

Running through the nave is a ‘spine’ of tiles (some salvaged, but mostly new), flanked with new wooden tongue and groove floorboards.

Set in the boards are six inspection hatches, put there by the FoFC to reveal the joists underneath – they are the medieval timbers from the roof which Butterfield replaced as part of his restoration project, but obviously decided they were in good enough condition to reuse. His Baltic pine roof timbers are still there, now backed by insulation panels as part of the 2006 restoration work.

New glazing was installed in the nave windows in 2018, protected by black, powder coated metal guards on the outside. Look closely at the design of the windows and you’ll see each is different but are mirrored in the opposite wall.

St Denis' church East Hatley, Cambridgeshire – top of the Charles Portway ‘Tortoise’ stove with its ‘Slow but Sure Combustion’ motto. It was installed as part of Butterfield's 1874 restoration project.

The top of the Charles Portway ‘Tortoise’ stove with its ‘Slow but Sure Combustion’ motto.

The feature in the nave which catches the eye is the Charles Portway cast iron ‘Tortoise’ stove, so called because it burned very slowly to ‘extract the maximum amount of heat from the fuel’ (presumably coal); their motto ‘Slow but Sure Combustion’ is displayed on the top, along with their tortoise logo in a fine example of British cast iron work.

One wonders how it could have heated such a large space, although the parson would have enjoyed its warmth. There never was (and still isn’t) any electricity or gas (or running water), so attending services, even after the stove was installed, must have been a pretty bleak experience in winter.

Butterfield added a small vestry on the north side – the FoFC has given it a beautiful oak door as part of its spring 2018 refurbishment programme; it includes a vertical slot for bats to fly into and out of the building.


St Denis’ is open every day from around 8.30 am to dusk for anyone to look round, for quiet contemplation and (at some point) for concerts and other events. It will also be open for HOD 2022 (9th to 11th September) for guided tours.

More about St Denis’ church

At the bottom of the page is a link to our gallery of photographs – here are some other things which you may find of interest:

Recollections and reports

Friends of Friendless Churches – the owners of St Denis’

“We are,” they say, “a very small charity which saves redundant historic churches.

“We now own nearly 60 former places of worship, half in England, half in Wales, which we preserve as peaceful spaces for visitors and the local community to enjoy. Most are medieval, and all of them are listed.”

To become a ‘Friend’, the annual individual membership is £30.00 and ‘Household’ £50.00; life membership is £1,000. Membership includes two, very informative 60+ page magazines each year about the FoFC’s activities in England and Wales – and much else.

Other Friends of Friendless churches

Of the 50+ Friends of Friendless Churches buildings in its care, these are the most local to Hatley – all worth visiting, of course: 

Bats, nature and a special spider

Yes, Bats!  While the church is currently only open on request (contact Peter Mann), it is home to cave spiders in the undercroft and bats in the roof.

Background documents

As the previous owners of St Denis’ church (the building, not the graveyard), SCDC has numerous documents and reports – available via its website, but as of January 2020, searching for ‘St Denis’ church East Hatley’ no longer produces any relevant results.

Fortunately, we had already copied the links to he main documents listed below – they go directly to the SCDC website but can take a little while to appear.

  • 2002 to 2012  SCDC’s records on St Denis’ church – details, history, decisions and meetings from 2002 to 2012.
  • 2003  SCDC results of architect’s investigation – 28th May 2003.
  • 2004  Minutes of the SCDC Scrutiny Committee meeting, 11th March 2004 (see item four on page three).
  • 2004  SCDC report to arrest deterioration – 15th September 2004.
  • 2005  SCDC report to arrest deterioration – 9th March 2005.
  • 2005  SCDC Appendix / tender – 7th June 2005.
  • 2005  SCDC report on the tenders – 8th June 2005.
  • 2005  SCDC Appendix / tender approval – 9th June 2005.
  • 2005  Historic building recording – December 2005 [4 MB file].
  • 2012  Briefing for Local Management Group – 11th May 2012.
  • 2012  The future of St Denis’: the relevant pages of SCDC’s Portfolio Holder’s meeting report – 18th December 2012 (start on page four).
  • 2014  SCDC agree to give St Denis’ church to the Friends of Friendless Churches – 20th March 2014.
  • 2017  Heritage impact assessment, March 2017, by Sally Humphries and Colin Staff, Purcell Miller Tritton LLP, submitted to SCDC.
  • 2017  The phase one internal and external repair schedule / specification, March 2017, by Stephanie Norris and Colin Staff, Purcell Miller Tritton LLP, submitted to SCDC.
  • 2017  The planning application, April 2017 submitted by FoFC to SCDC – it contains drawings and other relevant details (and is a 12.6 MB file).
  • 2017  Historic England comments, June 2017 – letter from Sheila Stones, Inspector of Historic Buildings and Areas, Historic England’s East of England Office, to Rebecca Whitney, South Cambridgeshire District Council.
  • 2020 Two planning applications for the reinstatement of three leaded light windows to the chancel north and south elevations, and localised masonry repairs to window surrounds. They were submitted on 9th November 2020 and approved on 8th January 2021 – SCDC was put under pressure to approve the applications as quickly as possible because the grant funding was conditional on the work being completed by 31st March 2021, with the FoFC unable to commit to the work until the planning approval (which was not contentious as it followed similar work in the nave in 2018), but was subject to listed building constraints. Applications 20/04598/FUL and 20/04599/LBC.
  • 2021 A planning application (21/03880/LBC) for the repair and replastering of the nave walls and repairing the reredos, sanctuary step and east window surround; plus minor roof repairs to resolve intermittent leaks and localised treatment of timber decay to roof. It was submitted in anticipation of the FOFC receiving a grant from Round 2 of the government’s Culture Recovery Fund (which is administered by Historic England) and approved by SCDC on 19th October 2021… by which time it looked as though the grant would not be forthcoming. However, the FoFC was invited to resubmit some rejected Round 2 projects, with St Denis’ being successful. Work will commence in early 2022 – when completed, the church will be open every day (from 8.30 am to dusk) rather than being kept locked (because of the crumbly walls in the nave) and only opened on request or special occassions, as at present.

Butterfield – the star architect… and All Saints, Margaret Street, London

There can be no question William Butterfield (1814-1900) was, along with Augustus Pugin (1812-1852), Sir George Gilbert Scott RA (1811-1878) and Sir Charles Barry FRS RA (1795-1860), one of the star architects of his day.

Between 1843 and 1899 he designed some 120 buildings – mostly religious, but also the odd house, hotel and hospital. Most of his work was in England, but there are Butterfield buildings in Scotland, Ireland, Wales and… Australia. Some were relatively small restoration projects (e.g. St Denis’, East Hatley), others were huge – Keble College, Oxford, Exeter Grammar School and St. Peter’s Cathedral, Adelaide.

His most famous church is arguably All Saints, Margaret Street, London, for it was this building which purposely incorporated the ideals of the Cambridge Camden Society (now the Ecclesiological Society) and the Oxford Movement in a design which was very bold and set the tone for a style of architecture which remains controversial to this day.

But what of the man? There are few books on him – so we are very grateful to Geoffrey Tyack, Emeritus Fellow, Kellogg College, Oxford, for kindly allowing us to include the text of the lecture he gave in September 2019 on William Butterfield and the Victorian Gothic Revival:

Butterfield’s drawings

Copies of Butterfield’s beautiful, coloured drawings for St Denis’ are archived in the Getty Research Institute’s inventory of Butterfield architectural and design drawings, 1838–1892:

St Denis’ future

St Denis' church East Hatley, Cambridgeshire – open for Heritage Open Day weekend, 13th September 2018. Over 70 people came to look round.

St Denis’ was open for the Heritage Open Day (HOD) weekends each year from 2018, when over 70 people came. Just over 100 came in 2019 but numbers fell in 2020 and 2021, probably thanks to Covid-19.

What next for St Denis’ church? In spring 2022, the Friends of Friendless Churches completed its major restoration work (see St Denis’ re-skinned), leaving ‘only’ a new east window, for which it still requires funding.

In keeping with The FoFC’s desire for its churches to be open, used and enjoyed by as many people as possible, St Denis’ is open every day from around 8.30 am to dusk for anyone to look round, for quiet contemplation and (at some point) for concerts and events. It will also be open for HOD 2022 (9th to 11th September) for guided tours.

For events there are some practicalities to consider: the lack of parking, vehicle access, heating, electricity, gas, water, toilets and seating – as well as respect for a ‘live’ churchyard.

But for a day-time summer event, these are not insurmountable issues – and St Denis’ acoustics will lend themselves very well to concerts.  And being a large, empty space, it could work well for Yoga sessions and the like – or another Taizé Service, similar to the one held in 2011.

The church was open during the 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021 Heritage Open Days (HOD) – all four occasions blessed by exceptionally fine, warm weather.  Here’s a report on the 2019 event.

If you have ideas, please do say by e-mailing Peter Mann (he’s a local key holder), and letting him know.

The churchyard

St Denis’ churchyard is a quiet open space and still consecrated.  It is also a local nature reserve.

* Although redundant, St Denis’ is still consecrated for worship but is no longer a parish church, no longer licenced for weddings and parishioners do not have the legal rights which they enjoy with regard to their parish church. Consecration is a legal status – buildings built for the glory of God are, as a matter of law, set aside for His purposes forever.

** According to An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in the County of Cambridgeshire, Volume 1, West Cambridgeshire; it also contains the plan of St Denis’ church reproduced on this page.

Click here for our St Denis’ church photo gallery

Page created 21st December 2018; updated 15th June 2022.