On a freezing but sunny Sunday afternoon, while we were passing by High Wycombe, in the Chilterns, we jumped on the opportunity to have a walk and have a look at some local landmarks.We set West Wycombe as the destination on the GPS so we could have a look at the “touristic” attractions mostly grouped in that area. Once in the village, we make our way under the Church Loft through a very narrow street leading us to a crossroad: on the left the entry to the Hellfire Caves, on the right the winding road to the hilltop with its parking, pub, church and mausoleum.
The Church Loft accentuates the middles-ages impression of West Wycombe’s small High-street, this tiny village is after all part of the National Trust. The old building dates back to the fifteenth century and was where the pilgrims visiting the church could originally stay. Since then it has served as the village’s jail, stocks, and in more recent years, as a venue for events. Part of the building is an arcade overhanging Church lane, as we found out, a very narrow passage to undertake with a car. From the High-street we can see the bell turret as well as a clock, dated 1668, and still fully functional nowadays after its restoration in 2003.
This hill has an interesting history spanning many centuries: Iron Age camp, pagan temple similar to that of Stonehenge during the Bronze Age, then Roman settlement probably including a temple too. Later, it was the turn of the Saxons to settle there and build their church, followed by a watchtower erected by the Normans, before being almost abandoned after the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century.
In the eighteenth century, Sir Francis Dashwood undertook mining the local chalk cave which had been in the village since prehistoric times, converting it into a quarry, and killed three birds with one stone: he created an elaborate network of tunnels and passages mostly inspired by his Grand Tour of Italy, Greece and the Ottoman Empire; he built a three-mile straight road between West Wycombe and High Wycombe, then a prominent trade route; and gave work to local villagers, impoverished after a series of harvest failures.
Dashwood commissioned what we see today as the centre section of St Lawrence’s church, joining the old Norman watchtower and the Saxon church. The new church was named Saint Lawrence’s, as it was common for churches built on Pagan sites to have this name. Based on the design of the Constantine Arch in Rome he also had the Mausoleum erected. Both constructions were built using chalk and flint from the caves.
During this time, Dashwood together with other high-powered politicians and society members formed a club then known as The Knights of St. Francis, later rechristened by the press as “the Hellfire Club”. The caves were used for the club’s meeting, which became notorious in its day for orgies and black magic. It was disbanded by 1763 and the caves fell into disuse and disrepair.
The whole village was sold by the Dashwood family to the state in 1929 following the Wall Street Crash. After extensive repairs, the property was handed over to the National Trust in 1934. The caves where opened to the public, following years of restauration, in 1951, and are to this day a successful touristic attraction.
Given Jazz is with us, we decide to make our way to the hilltop where we can park and then walk down to the mausoleum.
The Dashwood Mausoleum, is an impressive building that looks out of time and oddly out of place. Very aesthetic, it contains the Dashwood family’s ashes and was used as background for a few films and series. Legend says that in the eighteenth century, Paul Whitehead, one of our dear Francis’ best friends, offered him his heart after his death. It was kept in a marble urn inside the mausoleum and was part of the touristic guided tours… until the day it was stolen in 1829, never to be found again. It is alleged the ghost of Paul Whitehead still haunts the village and has been seen in various places, including within the caves, where the original urn is kept nowadays.
The foremost (and unique?) reason for this mausoleum was apparently the last wish of George Bubb Dodington, a friend of Sir Francis, that seemed to be equally megalomaniac. He purportedly left £500 in his will “to build an arch, temple, column or additional room to such of his seats where it is likely to remain the longest”. Three years later, in 1765, the construction began based on the plans approved by Sir Francis Dashwood: an open hexagonal building, with a vast arch flanked by Tuscan columns on each side, and numerous arched and rectangular recesses designed to hold memorial slabs, busts or urns. The names of individuals who would have been part of the Hellfire club as well as Sir Dashwood’s wife can be found there. Many busts where also originally present, including one of the first Francis Dashwood, but have mostly been removed or stolen. The edifice still looks impressive today, following various repairs carried out during the nineteenth century, and then again in 1950.
Following a walk around the mausoleum that gives a good overview of its interior (you can’t actually get inside its walls) and a stop to admire the view towards the city and park below, we continue down the steep muddy path leading to the Hellfire caves. Most people we cross laugh or complain about the tough descent. A couple of more mature ladies of an uncertain age even decide to slide down the muddy slope on their behinds rather than risk to lose their footing!We reach the front of the impressive entry to the caves. Made with flint, a local stone abundantly used for building in the Chilterns, the Gothic Church look sets the ambiance (in case the name wasn’t enough). These caves were excavated by hand and form an elaborate network of tunnels and chambers. A bit strange for a quarry, isn’t it? Our dear Sir obtained state benefits in order to carry out his pompous raving project based on Greco-Roman mythology, and perhaps out of defiance to the Church. One can find the Styx, 100 metres below the surface of the Church, but also more than 1500 ft of galleries nowadays dedicated to the Dashwoods and to various people linked to the construction of the site. It seems that the real plan was somehow more entertaining. Keep in mind that the dilettantes of the time liked to showcase their wealth and power through contests of worldliness, amongst which architecture and borrowed exoticism had starring roles. The fashion of the time didn’t only relish exuberant and hidden edifices, but also anti-Catholic, more or less secret fraternities like the Divan Club. All the elements were present to create a hell of club! For the sake of secrecy, the group would regularly change names: Order of the Knights of St Francis in 1746, Brotherhood of St. Francis of Wycombe, Order of Knights of West Wycombe, The Order of the Friars of St Francis of Wycombe, and the Monks or Friars of Medmenham in 1752. Initially it wasn’t meant to exceed 12 members, but quite a few participants appear to have been regulars; some claim that Benjamin Franklin himself was part of the Hellfire Club, others argue he was just spying.
The club’s motto was “Fay ce que tu voudras” (Do what thou wilt). During the meetings, the idea was to have some quality time, laugh, play, sing, pun and as might be expected relish in some carnal activities. They would practice pagan rites in the name of Venus or Bacchus, which more bluntly meant there was heavy drinking and wenching with young “nymphs”, given each member had the right to invite a young lady “of cheerful lively disposition“ to the party. These meetings occurred twice a month, and an annual general meeting lasting a week or more was also organised. The members addressed each other as “Brothers” and dressed in white; the leader, elected every year in a mock religious ceremony in St Lawrence Church, was addressed as “Abbot” and wore red. Legends of Black Masses and Satan or demon worship have become attached to the club since the nineteenth century. Well known by that time, Medmenham was finished by 1766 sealing the fate of the secret society.
The caves seem to be amongst these places where knowing a bit about the history is better than just showing up expecting a surprising discovery, as one can easily end up deceived: as you’d have guessed by now they’re in no way natural caves with stalactites and stalagmites, but just carved galleries with the whole décor deliberately staged. I’d suggest you make up your own mind based on the mixed reviews on TripAdvisor before taking the decision to buy the tickets.
Dogs are not allowed into the caves. So, after a short pause marvelling at the main entrance, we walk back up the hill, completing our autumnal walk with a visit at the cemetery around the Church of St Lawrence.
On a sunny November afternoon, the cemetery around it is a beautiful place, complete with unexpectedly artistic graves; lit by the rays of the setting sun the ambience feels mystical.
The original watchtower dating back to the fourteenth century was modified in 1752 by our henceforth illustrious Sir Francis Dashwood: raised and caped with a golden ball inspired by the Punta della Dogana (custom house) of Venice. All with the aim to compete for originality with his peers, but also to embellish his garden and make it an eye-catcher from the neighbouring town of High Wycombe, 3 miles down the road.
In Camberley, 21 miles to the south of this Church, there is a tower decorated in a similar fashion with a golden ball, erected by John Norris, a friend of Sir Francis, member of the parliament and naturally of the Hellfire club. The legend has it that Norris and Dashwood would use their respective golden balls to send each other heliographic signals.
Sir Francis had the nave rebuilt for £6000 about ten years later. Its design is derived from the Temple of the Sun, built in the third century in Palmyra, and alas recently destroyed by Islamic State. At the time of its completion, the Church was considered one of the finest in the whole of England.
Following this small tour of the hill, we return to the warmth of the car and try to leave the rugged parking. More like negotiating craters! No wonder there are only 4X4s parked around. With the greatest possible care, we manage to cross what’s akin to an obstacle course for cars and take the way back home for a hot chocolate while enjoying the magnificent clear views.