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.

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.

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.

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.  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).

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 Cambridgshire'.

Plan of St Denis’ church – a 1968 drawing.

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 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' 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.

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.

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:

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

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:

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 2018 and 2019 Heritage Open Day weekends. Over 70 people came in 2018 and just over 100 in 2019.

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 53 – 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 and 2019 Heritage Open Days – both 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’

The Friends of Friendless Churches, which owns the building, run a joint membership scheme with the Ancient Monuments Society.  Annual membership currently costs £30.00 (less if you are over 65 or under 25) but is increasing from 1st January 2020 to £42.00, when the senior rate is abolished – it’s their first increase since 2011, hence the ‘hefty’ rise.  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.

The churchyard

St Denis’ churchyard is a quiet open space and still consecrated.  It is also a local nature reserve – please see this page.


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 28th September 2019.