More good news about St Denis’ church

A new grant to fix crumbling plaster will allow the church to be opened


Part of the wall in the nave of St Denis' church, East Hatley, Cambridgeshire. The building is owned by the Friends of Friendless Churches and thanks to a second grant from the UK government's Culture Recovery Fund, the FoFC will replaster the wall and complete other restoration work inside the church in 2022 – it can then be opened every day.

By Peter Mann

The Friends of Friendless Churches, which owns St Denis’ in East Hatley, has been given a second government grant to help with repairs to the interior of the building.

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’ – soon to be open every day.

The grant will be spent on replastering the walls in the nave, above – click on the small picture below (and the others) for an enlargement.

What plaster remains is very fragile and crumbly, hence the church is not normally open; the new plaster will be a traditional lime mix which allows the walls to ‘breath’ and thus prevent a build up of damp.

Other remedial work will include repairing the reredos, the tiling around the sanctuary step and the east window surround in the chancel, as well as minor roof repairs to resolve intermittent leaks and localised treatment of timber decay in the roof. Planning permission has been granted for the works.

When finished, in spring 2022, it will mean the church can be open every day (8.30 am to dusk) for anyone to look round, for quiet contemplation and (at some point) for events.

Part of the wall in the nave of St Denis' church, East Hatley, Cambridgeshire. The building is owned by the Friends of Friendless Churches and thanks to a second grant from the UK government's Culture Recovery Fund, the FoFC will replaster the wall and complete other restoration work inside the church in 2022 – it can then be opened every day.

Part of the wall in the nave of St Denis’ church.

Being part of the UK government’s massive Culture Recovery Fund, the grant is a positive outcome of the Covid pandemic: a £1.57 billion package to protect the UK’s culture and heritage sectors from the economic impacts of Covid-19 – including safeguarding the jobs of the highly skilled craftsmen and women without whom there would be no built heritage.

For heritage organisations like the Friends of Friendless Churches, for whom grants had all but disappeared, this lifeline has enabled them to carry out repairs which might otherwise have taken years to fund. St Mary’s in Gamlingay and St Giles’ in Tadlow (which recently came into the care of the FoFC) are other local beneficiaries of the Fund.


It’s a lot of money

The latest grant is similar to one the FoFC won in 2020 (£58,200 in 2020, £56,288 in 2021) for 80% of the cost of the projects, the money being spent in the following year. In reality, it meant the FoFC spent £70,000 in 2021 on St Denis’ and will probably do so again in 2022.

The 2020 grant went on new side windows in the chancel (see the ‘handsome head’ photo below) and consolidation of the tiles and plasterwork in the chancel.

St Denis' – 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’ in 2002 – covered in ivy and in great danger of collapse.

Together with the £90,000 spent in spring 2018 on new windows in the nave and a new floor in the nave and the chancel – and the £180,000 spent between 2002 and 2006 on removing the ivy and restoring the basic fabric, over the last 20 years St Denis’ has cost around £410,000, mostly from the public purse.

How much of that would have been saved if the building had been looked after as soon as its doors were closed for services in 1959, when it was left to rot and whatever vandals do which takes their fancy?

We’ll never know, of course, but it certainly wouldn’t have been the very thick end of half-a-million quid.

And what price can we put on an 800 year old building which for centuries was East Hatley’s only village amenity, built from the very stones found in the fields here about, picked up one by one by the hands of those who lived here, brought to the site by wheelbarrow and cart and – with great skill – made into a watertight and stable structure?


A history of spending

The roof of St Denis' church, East Hatley, Cambridgeshire - the timbers are Baltic pine installed as part of William Butterfield's restoration project in 1874, the original mediaeval timbers were reused to support the floor in the nave. The building is owned by the Friends of Friendless Churches and thanks to a second grant from the UK government's Culture Recovery Fund, the FoFC will replaster the wall and complete other restoration work inside the church in 2022 – it can then be opened every day.

The St Denis’ roof: Baltic pine timbers, part of William Butterfield’s 1874 restoration project; he reused the original mediaeval timbers to support the floor in the nave.

This 21st century spend is not the first large lump to go on the church – in 1874, William Butterfield (the era’s go-to architect) was employed by Downing College to do some restoration work but ended up entirely reroofing it (from which we still benefit), enlarging the chancel, adding a vestry, putting in a new font and windows and, to bring things up-to-date, installing pews for the masses and a heating system.

200 years earlier, Sir George Downing, who owned East Hatley at the time, spent his own cash on adding the porch, blocking the north door (to help eliminate draughts) and much else we don’t know about – other than the marvellous cartouche over the south door, which the FoFC cleaned in 2018.

And 300 years before, there’s a record from 1352: ‘The parish church of East Hatley has been much restored and partly rebuilt’.

Apart from the good fortune St Denis’ is now in the care of the FoFC, we must also be grateful it is a listed building (Grade II*, as is Hatley St George church), for this ‘bureaucratic’ protection is there to prevent the loss of ‘important’ buildings – and there is surely a strong argument for Hatley’s two oldest buildings (by a good 600 years) to be considered ‘important’.


Only the east window still to be done

One more St Denis’ project remains though: a new east window – it’s on the FoFC’s ‘to do’ list, but, of course, requires funding.

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, by Alexander Gibbs, from the old east window is now incorporated in one of the new windows in the chancel of St Denis’.

The proud, handsome head (left) from the old east window so fortuitously saved, given to the FoFC and, in 2021, incorporated in one of the new chancel windows, is a reminder that humble though St Denis’ may have been looked upon by some, others felt a new window (as it was in 1874) deserved the high talent of Alexander Gibbs, a leading mid-Victorian stained glass artist.

But it’s quite possible Butterfield, being that sort of bloke, insisted on Gibbs – they had worked together before; let us complain only of the circumstances which led to the destruction of the east window and remember it was paid for by the parishioners of the day, few of whom were wealthy.

Post created 21st December 2021; grant information corrected 17th January 2022.