By Peter Mann

The Church of St Denis, East Hatley is a Grade II* listed building.  It was probably built in 1217 – the majority of the surviving fabric is from the 13th century.

In 1874 William Butterfield, the notable nineteenth century architect, carried out substantial restoration work, renewing the roof and floor, replacing box pews with a more inclusive arrangement for all worshippers, moving the pulpit, installing heating, redesigning the chancel and adding a vestry.

He used the original roof timbers as the supports for the floor – they are still there, albeit now under the new floor laid in 2018, but visible when any of the six inspection hatches are lifted.

The church was last used for worship in 1959 and, in order to prevent its demolition by the Diocese, ownership was conveyed by the Church Commissioners to South Cambridgeshire District Council in 1985 ‘for use as a nature reserve and for the study of natural history’ – it is now a designated Local Nature Reserve.

The churchyard is a County Wildlife Site and remains open for burials, with regular tidy-ups to keep it in good shape.

In a terrible state

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.

St Denis’ church in 2002 when the whole building was in great danger of collapse.

By 2002, high winds and overgrowth of ivy had caused significant damage to the roof and walls of the church, such that some parts of the structure were deemed unsafe.  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.

In early 2003, SCDC appointed E Bowman and Sons to remove the ivy in order to survey the building.  This enabled the Council to commission the Architects Purcell Miller Tritton to inspect the building.  Their report, received in November 2003, did not paint a happy picture.

At this point, the Council was ‘minded’ to let the building fall into complete disrepair.  It was referred to SCDC’s Scrutiny Committee and on 11th March 2004 I was able to put the case for saving St Denis’ on the very straightforward basis it was a listed building – and as the local authority with powers to ensure owners of listed buildings keep them in good repair, SCDC was hardly setting a good example.  Item four in the Scrutiny Committee’s minutes summarises my discussion.

At risk

St Denis' church East Hatley, Cambridgeshire – in February 2003 after all the ivy had been removed and showing what a terrible state it was in.

St Denis’, February 2003 after the ivy had been removed showing what a terrible state it was in.

Severe damage was found to part of the external walls with the gable ends unstable and in danger of collapse.  The roof tiles were insecure, while the removal of the ivy had affected the integrity of both the roof and the walls, leaving many of the tiles loose and much of the flint stone facing in a decayed condition.

In June 2004 the church was placed on the Heritage at risk register for Grade I and II* buildings, maintained by English Heritage – it has since been removed from the Register.

At a meeting on 9 June 2005, the SCDC Cabinet accepted the recommendation of its Conservation Advisory Group that a tender of £151,000 for the church to be made safe with a clay tile roof be accepted, rather than an alternative tender for £110,000 for it to be repaired with a corrugated iron roof – which Hatley Parish Council, encouraged by a public meeting, was wholly against.

The Cabinet authorised the work to be funded by grant support from English Heritage (£61,000), Hatley Parish Council (£2,000 conditional on the roof being tiled rather than covered in iron sheets) and SCDC’s Historic Buildings Conservation Fund.

Much scaffolding

St Denis' church East Hatley, Cambridgeshire – in February 2003 after all the ivy had been removed and showing what a terrible state it was in.

Fortunately, St Denis’ was only this bad.

Haymills Conservation was appointed in July 2005 to repair the damaged stonework, undertake repairs to the roof timbers and re-tile the roof.  Work began on 1 August 2005 – soon the church was surrounded by scaffolding and the tiles removed.

By October 2005, the stonework was substantially complete and timber repairs were undertaken.  Haymills finished its work in January 2006, leaving St Denis’ as a ‘safe shell’ with its roof re-tiled and timbers and stonework repaired thanks to the care, hard work and professionalism of Haymills’ expert craftsmen.

Credit for getting the restoration of the building to happen must go to Nick Grimshaw, SCDC’s Conservation Manager at the time, who championed our cause most admirably, and, of course to the Cabinet members of SCDC for reaching what must have been a difficult decision in the financial climate for the Council in 2005.

St Denis' church East Hatley, Cambridgeshire - the west end - 2nd October 2011. The church, which dates from 1217, is owned by The Friends of Friendless Churches. It was substantially restored in 1874 by William Butterfield, the noted 19th century architect, and last used for worship in 1959. It was deconsecrated in 1985, although the churchyard is still consecrated (and owned by the diocese).

St Denis’ looking good – 2nd October 2011.

With the exterior restoration complete, left, the next step was to secure further grant support to complete restoration of the inside of the church with windows and a new floor to enable the building to be utilised for an appropriate community purpose – a scheme was expected to be developed in consultation with the Parish during 2007, but came to nothing.

The building remained in SCDC’s possession – and a thorn in its side, as a report in late 2012 showed: could it be sold?

Friends of Friendless Churches – thank you!

Thanks to the efforts of David Bevan, who followed Nick Grimshaw as SCDC’s Conservation Manager, discussions took place with a number of conservation bodies, with the Friends of Friendless Churches showing real interest, not least because of the Butterfield connection, the FoFC not then having any examples of his work in its portfolio of 47 churches (it now has well over 50, including St Giles in Tadlow, another Butterfield restored church).

The ‘only’ stumbling block was money, the FoFC being reluctant to take on the church without a substantial dowry.

Sebastian Kindersley (then our District Councillor) and myself met with Ray Manning, at the time Leader of SCDC, on 8th October 2013 to push the point if the building were sold, particularly via auction, the hidden costs to SCDC of fighting any untoward planning applications will be much greater than conveying it to the FoFC with a dowry.

A very bright future

After three years of toing and froing between SCDC, the FoFC and various lawyers, FoFC took possession on 30 November 2016; in June 2017, it applied for planning permission to do the basics: installing a floor and windows in the nave, replacing the door in the north porch and making minor repairs – paid for by a £60,000 dowry from SCDC and funds raised by local residents, Hatley Parish Council and Gamlingay and Hatley Parochial Church Council.

Now the FoFC is its guardian, St Denis’ future is looking very bright.

Hopefully, and not too far down the line, there will be funds to finish restoring the inside to something Butterfield would recognise and the community can decide how best to use what will be a wonderful space.  Two Taizé services held in 2011 and 2012 revealed the wonderful acoustics of the building.


Further information

As the previous owners of St Denis’, SCDC has numerous documents and reports, many being available via their website – go to their site and search via ‘Your council / Search documents’ then search for St Denis. This link to ‘Search results / St Denis‘ will do the job for you (it still worked on 19 April 2019).  The main documents are below.  NB  Links directly to the SCDC website can take ages to appear.

These pages are to be added to this website:

  • Our original piece – St Denis East Hatley: on the way to being saved.
  • St Denis appeal – Friends of Friendless Churches say ‘yes’, but appeal continues.
  • St Denis – the next chapter.
  • East Hatley vested with Friends – FoFC news item, 14 December 2017.

Listed buildings

Buildings are graded to show their relative architectural or historic interest:

  • Grade I buildings are of exceptional interest.
  • Grade II* are particularly important buildings of more than special interest.
  • Grade II are of special interest, warranting every effort to preserve them.

Listing currently protects 500,000 or so buildings, of which the majority – over 90% – are Grade II. Grade I and II* buildings may be eligible for English Heritage grants for urgent major repairs.  English Heritage has a National Heritage List for England on its website.


Friends of Friendless Churches

The Friends of Friendless Churches 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.


First published on the original Hatley website – with changes / additions for this website on 19 January 2019.