The Hell Fire Cave, West Wycombe, ReadyClickAndGo

Safety was in the noise the kids making a few meters away from me, far enough to hear them but too dark to see them. The halls were narrow, winding and the further I walked the ceilings got lower.  I felt cold, damp and the walls were damp. Suddenly the noise stopped and I felt alone, scared. For a seconds I was ready to run back to the entrance but then I come to the end of the caves, 100 meters below the surface in the part called the Inner Temple situated below St Lawrence’s Church.

I was at the mystical Hell Fire caves in West Wycombe, the place where myth and reality are so entangled that you can’t separate facts from legend. The legend said after local harvest failed Sir Francis Dashwood decided to give jobs to the local community and build a road from High to West Wycombe by excavating caves on his estate. Many of his contemporaries were building Estates, temples, landscape gardens above the ground but no one ventured underground. The caves are dug from chalk, white and porous rock that can hold a large amount of water. Hence the cold and damp in the caves. The Caves are hand hacked which was hard work and in some places it is possible to see pick marks on the walls.

The excavated chalk was used to build a road from High to West Wycombe which stretches along a thin line and it’s clearly visible from St Lawrence’s Church. Sir  Francis Dashwood established the Knights of St Francis of Wycombe, another, more respectable name for the notorious Hell Fire Club. The Caves were the playground for club members who used them for meetings and secret parties.  Membership was limited to twelve people at one time but was later increased.  Famous members included Lord Sandwich, Benjamin Franklin, William Hogart, Paul Whitehead…

The entrance to the caves looks like a Gothic Church with pillars on the each side which are built from local flint which can be easily found in the area.   The first cave you come across is the Stewart cave where you can find the tools used by the locals for the excavations. The next cave is dedicated to Paul Whitehead, a poet and the steward of the Hell Fire Club. His role was to keep a list of the wines consumed by its various members during their debauchery. His dedication to the club is shown when he left a notable sum of money in his will, and his heart to Sir Francis.

Half way down the Caves the number XXII is inscribed on the wall. Legend says the number is a signpost to a secret passage to the church. The reality is that the passage was never found and some suspect it doesn’t exist as it’s 300 feet to the surface.  I personally think there is a connection between the caves and the church but it just hasn’t been found yet.

The next cave is dedicated to Benjamin Franklin, the founder of the USA who, on his visit to the UK, stayed at West Wycombe Park with Sir Francis Dashwood.

If you are a child would you like to go and play in a dark, wet and damp place? I wouldn’t, but apparently the kids of the Dashwood did and the next cave on the way down is dedicated to children.

The Banqueting Hall with its high ceilings and with exhibits of classical statues from Italy is half way down the Caves. The decoration shows the rituals which may have taken place in the past. Today it’s used for private parties.

Continuing, step down and you will come across a triangle which leads back to the main path and before you reach the Inner Temple there is one more cave – The miners’ cave, dedicated to the local workers who worked on the excavations.

In Greek mythology the River Styx is the border between Earth and the Underworld and here at the Hell Fire Caves you will cross it before you come to the Inner Temple where the meetings (parties!) took place.  There are several rumours about these and one is fuelled by the fact the caves are exactly 90 metres below the Church so so clearly signifying Heaven and Hell.   The second one is mentioned by Daniel P. Mannix in his book about The Hellfire Club and its design which describes the sexual architecture of the Caves beginning with the Banqueting hall which represents the womb. Next is rebirth through the female triangle and baptism in the River Styx followed by the pleasures of the Inner Temple.

What is the truth? It’s hard to say. The best way is to find it yourselves. The tickets are so affordable – only £5 for adults. Summer opening times (April – October) are seven day a week from 1100 -1730.  Winter opening times (Nov – Mar) are weekends only from 1100 until dusk. Christmas and Bank Holidays the Caves are closed.

Also there is a small café which serves very nice, tasty food. Lots of local people come just for a meal! The Hell Fire Caves are excellent place to have spooky Halloween when the  Caves are transformed with props, lighting and creepy music.

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About the author: Tara

 

The travel professional with years of experience in the travel industry – in guiding, reservations, operations, contracting, customer service and product development – and have travelled extensively in Asia and Eastern Europe not just on holiday but also for work, inspecting hotels, visiting attractions and seeing exactly what each destination has to offer. The only way I could do this properly was with my own guide, car and driver and this inspired me to create my own range of customised private day tours for other people to be able to explore in-depth and learn to love their destination as much as I do.

Website: www.readyclickandgo.com