Text and photos: Peter Mann
First thing: while St Denis’ church, the building, is no longer consecrated, the churchyard is: you can still be buried in it.
Second 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 church in Hatley St George) – which is very fortunate, for without that listing it’s unlikely we would still have a building to admire.
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 great danger of collapse.
At the time, it was owned by South Cambs District Council which was minded to let it fall down 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.
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 dowdry from SCDC, plus useful contributions from people in Hatley and from some of those with relatives buried 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, employing William Butterfield (1814-1900), the notable (and very busy) Victorian church architect to do the work.
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.
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.
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 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 an old 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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:
- St Denis open for HOD (13 to 15th September 2019, 10.00 am to noon and 2.00 to 4.00 pm).
- Who was St Denis?
- Just how was St Denis’ saved?
- A little less of St Denis following the devastating fire at Notre Dame Cathedral.
- The man who lived at the Palace – the flamboyant John Perkins who is buried in St Denis’ churchyard.
- 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 over 112 years.
- Taizé service – a quiet moment in St Denis’, September 2011.
- 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.
- Explore churches – a website created by the National Churches Trust listing hundreds (if not thousands) of churches throughout the UK, including all 53 belonging to the Friends of Friendless Churches and, of course, St Denis’ in East Hatley.
There are useful background documents produced between 2001 and 2017 about St Denis’ church, its initial restoration by SCDC and their subsequent decision to give it to the Friends of Friendless Churches:
- Historic building recording, December 2005, by Karin Semmelmann, Archaeological Services and Consultancy Limited, on behalf of SCDC.
- Note on briefing for the Local Management Group, May 2012 by David Bevan, at the time Conservation and Design Manager, South Cambs District Council.
- SCDC Portfolio holder’s meeting report, December 2012 by Jo Mills, SCDC’s Planning and New Communities Director, for Councillor Nick Wright, at the time SCDC’s Planning and Economic Development Portfolio Holder.
- Heritage impact assessment, March 2017, by Sally Humphries and Colin Staff, Purcell Miller Tritton LLP, submitted to SCDC.
- The phase one internal and external repair schedule / specification, March 2917, by Stephanie Norris and Colin Staff, Purcell Miller Tritton LLP, submitted to SCDC.
- The planning application, April 2017 submitted by FoFC to SCDC – it contains drawings and other relevant details (and is a 12.6 MB file).
- 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..
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
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 50 odd 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 will also be open during the 2019 Heritage Open Days – 13 to 15th September, 10.00 am to noon and 2.00 to 4.00 pm.. Hatley St George church will also be open at these times.
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’
The Friends of Friendless Churches, which owns the building, run a joint membership scheme with the Ancient Monuments Society. Annual membership costs £30.00 (less if you are over 65 or under 25) – full details on the FoFC website.
- Also on their website is a page on St Denis‘.
- The FoFC is in the process of acquiring St Giles’ church in Tadlow – it is similar in style to St Denis’ (albeit with a tower), William Butterfield having restored the church in 1860; although complete with fittings and furniture, the building, as English Heritage point out, is in need of repair. It’s also tricky to find.
St Denis’ churchyard is a quiet open space and still consecrated. It is also a local nature reserve – please see this page.
** 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 21 December 2018; updated 21st August 2019. ▲