Text and photos: Peter Mann
First thing: while St Denis’ church, the building, is now redundant, the churchyard is not: you can still be buried in it.
Second thing: 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.
Third 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.
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’s very likely all we would have now is a fenced-off ruin rather than a mediaeval building to admire.
Go back to 2002 and practically everything on the inside had been ripped out, including most of the floor – there was no glass in the windows and the whole building was covered in ivy (as our photo, above, 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 English Heritage), 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.
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 there being 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 people in Hatley and some of those with relatives in the churchyard.
St Denis’ is now in safe hands and on it’s way to being restored (not for the first time in its long history) into a building with a purpose.
The FoFC spent in the order of £90,000 in spring 2018 to put in a new floor in the nave and the chancel and windows in the nave; a similar amount still needs to be spent to stabilise the internal walls (they are very fragile and crumbly at the moment – hence the church is not normally open).
This still left the chancel much as it had been since the church was closed in 1959, emptied of most of its contents and then vandalised. But thanks to a government grant of £58,200 in October 2020 (as part of its Covid-19 Culture Recovery Fund – see our news story Great news about St Denis’ church), the FoFC was able to repair the steps, 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.
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.
Restoring St Denis’ has always been an ever on-going task – by the early 1870s the church was in a sorry state, the then owners, Downing College, Cambridge, employing William Butterfield (1814-1900), the notable (and very busy) church architect to do the work.
He restored the entire church, including a new roof (reusing the medieval roof timbers as floor supports) and new windows, added a vestry and enlarged and restyled the chancel, where he made use of his trademark polychromatic tiles; the FoFC’s 2021 project was another step towards restoring the chancel and sanctuary to how Butterfield left it in 1874 – all that’s required is funding!
But St Denis’ is not a Victorian church. It dates back to at least 1217, 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.
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 record of a visit by Bishop Lisle to ‘dedicate the new church at East Hatley on the Monday [8th October 1352]’. Palmer adds:
‘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. In its day it 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.
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 in 1684), buying the advowson of St Denis’ church in 1665.
He added the porch and placed a rather smart cartouche of his arms (pictured), impaled with those of Frances Howard, his wife, over the entrance – this link tells you more about the Downing plaque; Butterfield moved it to over the south door in 1874.
St Denis’ is built of field stones 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 most of its monuments. 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 is looking for funding to renew the missing tiles and commission / install 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 is 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 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.
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.
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.
- Cave spiders under St Denis’: a special spider.
- Bat emergence survey – a batty visit to St Denis‘, 17th July 2021
- Bats – report for Friends of Friendless Churches, November 2019 by Applied Ecology.
- Bats – report for Friends of Friendless Churches, October 2017 by Applied Ecology.
- Bats – preliminary roost survey report, September 2014, by Siân Williams, Cambridgeshire Wildlife Trust.
- Nature – The churchyard is also a Local Nature Reserve.
- More! There are many other special things in St Denis’ churchyard.
Other things of interest
At the bottom of the page is a link to our gallery of photographs – and here are some other things which you may find of interest:
- Who was St Denis? – more than just a 3rd-century Christian martyr.
- Just how was St Denis’ saved? – by local determination… and being listed.
- It’s to be saved – the 2005 commitment by South Cambridgeshire District Council to restore not demolish St Denis’ church.
- FoFC’s acquisition – the Friends of Friendless Churches acquire St Denis’ church.
- The next chapter – the Friends of Friendless Churches’ first planning application (in 2017) to kick-start their project of restoring the interior of St Denis’.
- Announcement of a Culture Recovery Fund grant, 8th October 2020.
- St Denis’ church in the news – locally and nationally in 2020.
- Photo gallery – celebrating handing over St Denis’ church keys to the Friends of Friendless Churches by South Cambridgeshire District Council in July 2017 – and other events.
- Notes provided by Rachel Morley, Director Friends of Friendless Churches, for the talk she gave during the St Denis’ open evening, 20th July 2018.
- BBC Radio Cambridgeshire interviews with Rachel Morley, Director Friends of Friendless Churches, and Margot Eagle, chairman at the time of Hatley Parish Council, prior to the St Denis’ open evening, 20th July 2018 and broadcast on 23rd July 2018. This is an ‘MP3’ sound file – the interviews start about 18 seconds in.
- St Denis’ open days in the news – press cuttings from our Heritage Open Days and evenings.
- A little less of St Denis following the devastating fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in 2019.
Recollections and reports
- St Denis’ church visitors’ recollection by Ben Colburn and Mark Ynys-Mon, circa 2004/5.
- A4 flyer on St Denis’ church, July 2017.
- The Say rectors of East Hatley – four rectors who served East Hatley for well over 100 years.
- The man who lived at the Palace – the flamboyant John Perkins who is buried in St Denis’ churchyard.
- Taizé service – a quiet moment in St Denis’, September 2011.
- Heritage Open Days festival 2019 – how it was for St Denis’ church.
- Hatley Parish Council receives regular reports on St Denis’ from the Local nature Reserve Management Group: they can be found in the Parish Council’s ‘Reports’ section of this website.
Of the 50+ Friends of Friendless Churches buildings in its care, these are the most local to Hatley – all worth visiting, of course:
- St John the Baptist, Papworth St Agnes, Cambridgeshire.
- St Andrew, Wood Walton, Cambridgeshire.
- St Mary Magdalene, Caldecote, Hertfordshire.
- Explore churches – a website created by the National Churches Trust listing hundreds (if not thousands) of churches throughout the UK, including, of course, St Denis’ in East Hatley and all the other churches belonging to the Friends of Friendless Churches.
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 ages to appear; if they come up in HTML code with a yellow background, it’s because the SCDC server is on a ‘go slow’… one can but try again (and again)!
- 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.
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:
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), the star architect 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:
St Denis’ future
What next for St Denis’ church? When the Friends of Friendless Churches has completed its restoration work – no date is fixed as it depends entirely on raising funds – East Hatley will have a significant ‘public’ asset.
The FoFC is very keen it should be open, used and enjoyed by as many people as possible (as is the case with the other 57 – and counting – churches in its portfolio).
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 and 2020 Heritage Open Days (HOD) – all thee 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 Kim Wilde, Parish Clerk, and letting her know.
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.”
Annual individual membership is £42.00 / year (‘Household’ £63.00); it includes three, very informative 60+ page newsletters each year about the FoFC’s activities in England and Wales – and much else.
- Friends of Friendless Churches website.
- Join the FoFC – the best way to support its work.
- Follow the FoFC on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Flickr.
St Denis’ churchyard is a quiet open space and still consecrated. It is also a local nature reserve.
- St Denis’ churchyard.
- Flowers, insects and gravestones.
- Our nature reserve.
- Our cave spiders.
- Bat emergence survey.
- A mower blessed.
- A thank you – poem by Ishbel Beatty,
** 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.
Page created 21st December 2018; updated 20th July 2021. ▲