A while back, in conversation with a dear friend, a series of caves called the Hellfire Caves was mentioned. I wondered if it had anything to do with the Hellfire Club, which I’d read about in the X-Men comics. In the world of the X-Men, the club was for the pleasure-seeking rich and it hid the ‘Inner Circle’, which was a powerful criminal organisation. I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t realise the Hellfire Club was an actual gentleman’s club, which had nothing to do with criminal activity.
Entrance to the Hellfire Caves
Time to discover the Hellfire Caves, which I duly did last weekend. It’s about a 20-minute drive from the town of Maidenhead, which wasn’t too long a train journey for me. There’s a taxi rank at the station, which was convenient.
The caves, also known as the West Wycombe Caves, being near the village of West Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, are a network of underground manmade caverns extending about a quarter of a mile. They were excavated between 1748 and 1752 for the 2nd Baronet and 11 th Baron le Despencer, Francis Dashwood.
Sir Francis Dashwood
At the time, there was serious local unemployment in the area due to successive harvest failures from 1748-1750. When he was Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1762, Sir Francis had introduced proposals for stimulating the creation of work to relieve rural unemployment. Putting his own ideas into action, Sir Francis decided to extend the ancient open-cast quarry on the side of the hill to provide, not only employment but also material for a new main road between West Wycombe and High Wycombe. The existing road had become so deeply rutted that carriages tended to overturn, especially in wet weather. For whatever reason, Sir Francis also decided to have a long, winding tunnel dug into the hill, filled with caverns and passages. All dug by hand, the caves are rightly regarded to be an incredible feat of engineering.
Sir Francis was the founder of the Dilettanti Society, made up of noblemen and scholars, and which sponsors the study of ancient Greek and Roman art. He was also co-founder of the Hellfire Club; in truth, there was more than one such club, which was exclusively for high society gentlemen, usually involved in politics, who wished to indulge in ‘immoral acts’. But the name tends to refer exclusively to Sir Francis’ club although, in his time, it was not known as the Hellfire Club. It was known by a few names, including ‘The Order of the Friars of St. Francis of Wycombe’; ‘The Brotherhood of St. Francis of Wycombe’; and ‘Order of Knights of West Wycombe’. Members of Sir Francis’ club included the painter, William Hogarth; the politician and journalist, John Wilkes; and John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich. Although not believed to be a member, Benjamin Franklin, a close friend of Sir Francis, visited the caves more than once.
It is thought that the unusual design of the caves was inspired by Sir Francis’ Grand Tour when he visited Italy, Greece, Turkey and other areas of the Ottoman Empire. The entrance, built around 1752, echoes a gothic church and is built from flint and chalk mortar.
Paul Whitehead's Chamber, named after the steward, Paul Whitehead
Lord Sandwich’s Circle is named after the Earl of Sandwich; and Franklin’s Cave, after Benjamin Franklin.
'Benjamin Franklin' on the right in Franklin's Cave
The Banqueting Hall is thought to be the largest man-made chalk cavern in the world.
The Banqueting Hall
Across a subterranean river, named the Styx – after the river in Greek mythology, which forms a boundary between the Earth and the Underworld - is the final cave, the Inner Temple. It is here that the meetings of the Hellfire Club were held, and the cave is said to be 300 feet directly beneath the Church of St Lawrence at the top of West Wycombe hill.
Following the death of Sir Francis Dashwood in 1781, and the Hellfire Club’s demise, the caves fell into disuse and disrepair until the 1940s. Plans to use the caves as an air-raid shelter during the Second World War came to naught as the area was too rural to be targeted by enemy planes.
The 11thBaronet, also named Sir Francis Dashwood, renovated the caves and reopened them in 1951 as a local visitor attraction. He used the profits to refurbish West Wycombe Park, the ancestral seat of the family, which was built between 1740 and 1800. Although now in the ownership of the National Trust, the family still live at the house.
At the top of the hill is the Dashwood Mausoleum, which is more of a walled enclosure than an actual mausoleum. Next to it is the Church of St Lawrence, the tower of which is capped with a golden ball. The Dashwood family are buried in a vault under the church. Across the valley is West Wycombe Park; the cave entrance can be seen from the house. The park is unique in its use of Classical Greek and Italian architecture, and the gardens are said to be among the finest 18th century gardens surviving in England.
The path that leads up from the caves to the mausoleum at the top of the hill
View looking down the valley, away from the Mausoleum ...
West Wycombe Park, seen from near the top of the hill
The Mausoleum, and the golden ball at the top of the church
The gates to the Mausoleum was locked; took pictures through the railings ...
Path leading away from Mausoleum, around to the church
Top of war memorial by the church and Mausoleum
Back down the path, back to the entrance to the caves
The caves were definitely interesting, though I can only imagine what it must have been like in the 18th century with only lamps to light the way. Now, there are strategically placed electric lights but parts of the tunnel were barely lit, and that was a little unnerving. My one complaint about the lighting is that they were almost at eye-level, which I found almost blinding.
Can you imagine lugging food and stuff along the tunnel to the Inner Chamber at the end? There were times when it was difficult to stand up straight. With all the alcohol that must have been consumed, how on earth did they find their way out? Female companions – not only prostitutes but also local women, wives and ‘ladies of society’ – were smuggled in dressed as nuns!
The caves are supposed to be one of the most haunted sites in Britain. The ghost of the steward, Paul Whitehouse, is said to wander the tunnels, looking for his heart. When he died in 1774, he asked that his heart be placed in an urn and kept at the Mausoleum. Unfortunately, it was stolen in 1829! Visitors and staff have reported seeing a man in old-fashioned clothing; when faced, he vanishes into thin air.
The other ghost is that of a young woman, believed to be Sukie, a 16/17-year-old barmaid, who worked at the local inn in the late 18th/early 19th century. An attractive girl with many admirers, she rejected them all as she wanted to marry into ‘society’. After she started dating a local aristocrat, she received a message from him to meet in the caves wearing her best white dress as a wedding gown. But it turned out to be a hoax, perpetrated by 3 of her rejected admirers. Angered by their teasing, she threw stones at them; one of the boys responded in kind. Hit by a stone, Sukie fell unconscious. Scared, the boys carried her back to the inn, but she died during the night. A girl in a white dress, called the White Lady, has been seen wandering the tunnel and chambers.
Display by the River Styx, showing 'Sukie' and a 'lady of the night' dressed as a nun
Sunday was sunny but the wind was cold. Honestly! It’s almost the end of April. Anyway, it was nice enough for a walk. About 10 minutes from the town of Maidenhead – a well-signposted route – is the Thames, and a nice walk it was too.
Plaque reads 'The Ada Lewis Trough, Erected November 1908'; she was a local benefactor
Male mandarin duck - love the colours!
Oh ... had to take a picture of the toilet roll dispenser in the ladies at the Hellfire Caves!