West Wycombe Caves

Hell Fire Caves - Hellfire Caves


Useful Information

Location: West Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. Halfway up West Wycombe Hill, surmounted by a church with a golden ball on its tower.
 Location by UK Streetmap
Open: MAR to OCT daily 11-17:30.
NOV to FEB Sat, Sun, Bank Holidays and School Holidays 11-17:30 (or dusk).
[2003]
Fee: Adults £3.75, Children (3-18) £2.50, OAPs £2.50, Students £3.00.
Groups (20+): Adults £3.00, Children (3-18) £2.00, OAPs £2.00, Students £2.50.
[2003]
Classification: artificial chalk caverns.  Stone Age Flint mine
Light: electric.
Dimension: L=800m
Guided tours: L=400m, D=30min.
Photography:  
Accessibility:  
Bibliography: Sir Francis Dashwood, Bart MA. (1961): The Hell Fire Caves, 16 pp, 8 photos [3 in colour]. Tales of wine, women and song surround these caves. But before you get too excited all this happened in 1746. A scarce item.
E. Beresford Chancellor (1925): The Lives of The Rakes IV - The Hellfire Club, London, 1925
Sir Francis Dashwood (1987): The Dashwoods of West Wycombe, Aurum Press Ltd., 1987, ISBN 1-85410-108-0
Geoffrey Ashe (1974): The Hell-Fire Clubs - A History of Anti-Morality,
Daniel P. Mannix (1978): The Hellfire Club, 158 pp. PB New English Library, London.
Describes the orgies carried out in the caves in 18thC England.
Address: West Wycombe Caves, West Wycombe, Bucks HP14 3AJ, Tel: +44-1494-533739, Fax: +44-1494-471617.
Last update:$Date: 2013/04/25 23:00:16 $

History

 
early 17th ctyopen-cast quarry. The chalk is used for roads and foundation of houses.
1746Sir Francis Dashwood founded his Order of the Knights of St Francis.
1748-1754to relieve unemployment and to offset hardship from three successive harvest failure, Sir Francis, the 2nd Baronet, paid locals, a shilling a day to dig a 400m long tunnel into the hill.
1751Dashwood paid for St Lawrence's church to be restored.
1772Benjamin Franklin visits the caves.
1949Sir Francis Dashwood, the 11th Baronet, visits Carlsbad Caverns, USA. He is so impressed with the hordes of visitors that he decided to open the Caves at West Wycombe to the public.
1951-52Work starts on the caves, stabilising passages etc.
1951Caves open to the public at a shilling a head, with candles provided free. Nearly 10,000 visitors.
1974Great Hall reopened after extensive engineering works.
1987Two million visitors to date.

Description

Sir Francis Dashwood (1708-1781), later Lord Le Despencer, was the founder of the best known Hell-Fire Club of Britain. But the club never called itself Hell-Fire Club, they called themselves Knights of St. Francis (after Francis Dashwood), The Order of Knights of West Wycombe or Monks of Medmenham. The club is often mentioned as the first Hell-Fire Club, which is not true either. To be precise it was one of several such clubs and rather moderate, nothing special at all.

What made them special was something else: many members of the club were from famous families, the club was a who is who of the 18th century society. One still famous member was Lord Sandwich, who gave name to the snack. It is said, that he was too busy playing cards, so he instructed his servants to slap some meat between two hunks of bread. The names of the others mean little today, but they were well known in the 18th century and so the club had some prominence then.

Hell-Fire clubs were notorious, thought to be the home of sexual rites, orgies, abuse of alcohol, hedonism, satanism, freemasonry, and the worst of all: free thought! All in all, much of it is probably true, but Satanic goings-on and Black Masses are most likely the product of imaginative fantasy. From todays point of view, where swinger clubs, rave parties and hard rock concerts are rather common, the 18th century bigotry seems rather naive.

Probably to be safe from witnesses or because of the strange atmosphere, Sir Francis Dashwood used the former chalk quarries of West Wycombe for meetings of his club. He enlarged them, which gave work to numerous men and produced enough chalk to build a road. The Monks of Medmenham doubtlessly held wild parties here, but it's doubtful that they ever did any more than that. The caves are cold, dank and damp and not very comfortable for orgies.

The chalk quarries existed for a long time, when Dashwood enlarged them. They are said to be of prehistoric origin, but this is most likely an exaggeration. It is possible though, as prehistoric flint mines are known from other places in Europe. The chalk contains a lot of flint, typically forming a sort of dark layers in the soft white chalk. The soft chalk made the mining easy, even for stone age tools. But because of the heavy alterations by Dashwood, all older remains seem to be destroyed.

The flint of the area was used to build several buildings at West Wycombe. The entrance to the caves consists completely of this rock. Also the St Lawrence's church, which is located exactly above the Inner Temple of the caves, is built of this rock.

A show cave for connoisseurs! To be more precise this is a chalk mine. It was greatly extended from 1748 to 1752 by Sir Francis Dashwood to provide work for the unemployed villagers, and was subsequently used by the Hell Fire Club, also known as the "Monks of Medmenham". Many prominent pofiticians were members of the club, whose activities included the promotion of drunkenness and promiscuity, in sessions attended by members of both sexes, which lasted for several days at a time.

A unique feature of this cave is a multi-channelled tape recorder, connected to speakers at various points in the cave. Guides are therefore dispensed with, and visitors are free to wander around the cave at will, and listen to the commentary at each vantage point.

Throughout the cave life-sized waxwork figures dressed in period costume depict some facet of cave life in the eighteenth century. This gives one the impression of having returned to the time of Sir Francis Dashwood and the Hell Fire Club.

At one point, in the Banqueting Hall, Sir Francis Dashwood, as the Abbot, is standing, giving a toast to the devil. At the mention of the name of the subterranean deity, there is a clash of thunder and a flash of light.

Just before the end of the cave is the subterranean river Styx, a natural stream which flows through the series. The show cave terminates in the Inner Temple, and one can only guess at what went on there.


Text from: Tony and Anne Oldham (1972): Discovering Caves - A guide to the Show Caves of Britain. With kind permission by Tony Oldham.

See also


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