The Hellfire Caves
Have you ever heard of West Wycombe’s Hellfire Club, ‘the Order of the Friars of St Francis of Wycombe’? Maybe you have, but many locals remain unaware of the fascinating history of the group of one of Britain’s purportedly most haunted locations, the Hellfire Caves in West Wycombe.
The name refers to a handful of clubs comprised of members of the ‘Quality’, gentlemen of substance and learning during 18th century. Arguably the most notorious of these was established by Sir Francis Dashwood in the 1750s, as the Friars of St Francis of Wycombe. Sir Francis, the 15th Baron le Despencer was a well known politician who rose to Chancellor of the Exchequer, with a reputation as something of a prankster, famous for antics all over Europe. Many other members are recognisable names, including William Hogarth and even Benjamin Franklin. Although the name came about later, the Hellfire label is evocative of a certain type of rake, up to certain unsavoury practices’ although in fact many of the club’s interests centred around the arts and literature.
Sir Francis spent his youth on a series of ‘Grand Tours’ throughout Europe, visiting a variety of religious landmarks, and is thought to have developed a serious distaste for the pomp of the European Catholic Church. His thoughts seem to have been to create an ironic institution
Activities seem to have ranged from pagan sacrifices and ritual to social events and rather racy parties, with twice monthly meetings and an annual week long meeting in June or September. Members considered each other ‘brothers’, and there was a loose structure with a regularly changing ‘Abbott’. The club flourished, and Sir Francis looked around for a suitable regular meeting place, eventually settling on the secluded and an rather apt ruins of the old Cistercian Abbey at Medmenham near his home is West Wycombe. The abbey was a ruin, accompanied by an Elizabethan ‘E Shaped’ house in a somewhat run down state. Sir Francis and his colleagues set about restoring the site beyond its former glory. In keeping with their pseudo religious persuasions, a cloister and chapter were added, along with a ‘folly’; a ruined tower. The ceilings were beautifully decorated with frescos by a noted Italian artist.
The caves themselves are set on the site of an old open cast quarry, which Sir Francis expanded as part of his desire to create rural employment in the area, an idea in keeping with many of his public policies. A noble concept and one which was accompanied by a sense of fun or perhaps irony, as Sir Francis also commissioned a long, winding tunnel riddling the hill above with passageways and dark chambers and a banqueting hall, perhaps reminiscent of the ancient Greek mazes still evident during his day on Tour.
Man made caves and follies were very fashionable in larger gentry houses; a fine example can still be seen at Wall Hall in Hertfordshire, but West Wycombe boated probably the largest most impressive of all. The Cave had an arched entrance with stone columns and a vaulted window in front of statue recesses and a large open courtyard.
The club began to wind down in the 1760’s as members aged and scandals emerged. Tradition has it that the disbanded club continued to meet in the caves at West Wycombe, and looking at them today one can certainly imagine this band of educated rakes and scoundrels meeting in such atmospheric surroundings.
The Caves were formally reopened to the public after extensive renovation during 1951, and have attracted much attention due to their fascinating history and spooky reputation. The Caves are said to be haunted by Sukie, a young maid at a local inn said to have been duped into a fake wedding at the caves and accidentally killed by her tormentors. Others suggest they have seen an apparition of Paul Whitehead, Treasurer of the Hellfire Club who later left his heart, in a marble urn to be placed in the Caves. The site has also featured in Most Haunted and Ghost Hunters as a place of much paranormal interest.
Visitors are welcome year round, and the Caves are host to a variety of spooky events. There is also a great little tearoom with atmospheric murals and a traditional tearoom menu.
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