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: 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.

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’ today – the Friends of Friendless Churches has put in new floor and windows in the nave and chancel.

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.

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 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).

The chancel of St Denis' church showing the new floor the FoFC laid in 2018 and the new windows they installed in 2021.  William Butterfield built the chancel in 1874 – being a country church, he toned down his trademark polychromatic tiling on the floor and walls; funds are still needed by the FoFC to complete the restoration work.

The chancel of St Denis’ church showing the new floor the FoFC laid in 2018 and new windows they installed in 2021.

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.

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.

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!

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’.

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.

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 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.

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 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.

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 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.

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 20th July 2021.