Text and photos: Peter Mann

St Denis' church East Hatley, Cambridgeshire – 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’ church in 2002 – covered in ivy and in great danger of collapse.

First thing [1]: St Denis’ church is currently undergoing much-needed restoration work to the chancel and is therefore closed to all visitors.  The work is expected to be completed by mid-April 2021.

First thing [2]: 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 unlikely we would still have a building to admire.

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’.

Go back to 2002 and practically everything on the inside had been ripped out – 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, it was owned by South Cambridgeshire District Council which 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, with additional funding from Hatley Parish Council, Gamlingay Parochial Church Council 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, 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.

The building is now in safe hands and on it’s way to being restored once more.

The FoFC spent in the order of £90,000 in spring 2018 to put in a new floor 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).

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.

St Denis' church East Hatley, Cambridgeshire from the south west on 14th July 2018, six months after the Friends of Friendless Churches had finished its first phase restoration work, including new windows in the nave.

St Denis’ church after the FoFC had finished its first phase of restoration work, including new windows in the nave.

He reused the medieval roof timbers as floor supports, added a vestry and restyled the chancel using polychromatic tiles.

The FoFC is working towards restoring the chancel and sanctuary to how it would have been in 1874 when Butterfield had finished his restoration of the entire church – likely to happen in 2021 following the announcement of a Culture Recovery Fund grant: see our news story Great news about St Denis’ church.

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 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.

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.

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' 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.

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 placed a rather smart cartouche of his arms (pictured left), impaled with those of Frances Howard, his wife, over the south doorway when he added the porch as part of his restoration work – this link tells you more about the Downing plaque.

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 to renew the missing tiles and also put in a stained glass window in the east window as well as plain windows to match the new ones in the nave.  They are also trying to hunt down a small, stained glass dove which is thought to have been in the church.

St Denis' church East Hatley, Cambridgeshire – a favourite flint (it's on the outside of the-porch).

A favourite flint – it’s on the outside of the-porch.

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.

St Denis' church East Hatley, Cambridgeshire – the restored nave floor, looking towards the chancel – 23-7-18.

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 has been installed in the nave windows, 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.

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.

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:

Recollections and reports

Other churches

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

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 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)!

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:

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

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 2018 and 2019 Heritage Open Day weekends. Over 70 people came in 2018, just over 100 in 2019 but only 86 in 2020 (probably thanks to Covid-19).

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 55 – 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 over 50 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.

The churchyard

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


NB  Until FoFC has completed the restoration of St Denis’, the church is locked and only open on special occasions – keep an eye on our events page – or by request: contact Peter Mann.


** 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 10th March 2021.