I spent Christmas in England and visited part of the West Wycombe estate on a bright sunny day. Sir Francis Dashwood created some unusual features on the estate in the 1750s to 1780s. The estate remains in the family and the most recent baronet has spent time and money on making the hill on the estate a tourist attraction.
St Lawrence’s Church on the top the hill is a parish church serving the town. Its unusual feature, the golden ball at the top of the church tower, is closed to the public these days. It seats six people and boasts spectacular views of the surrounding countryside. Building a structure from which to observe and appreciate the countryside is in itself is not that odd, usually they are not part of a church though.
Having a family mausoleum is also not unusual, the scale and shape of this one marking it out as worthy of visiting.
The most well known attraction, giving this post its title, are the Hell Fire Caves dug into the hill. They had been created to mine chalk for road construction in the 1750s and subsequently hosted events of the Hell Fire Club which had some illustrious members at the time.
Benjamin Franklin was a friend of the family and visited the caves, writing about them “the exquisite sense of classical design charmingly reproduced by Sir Francis Dashwood at West Wycombe, whimsical and playful sometimes may be its imagery, is as much evident below the earth as above it”. Although it is not completely clear what the Hell Fire Club got up to, it appears that alongside political discussions (and differences which ultimately led to the club’s demise) there was plenty of drinking and feasting. There were female members who wore masks to preserve their modesty – presumably hiding their identity so that they could behave immodestly without tarnishing their reputation.
In the 1950s the current baronet undertook extensive safety work on the caves and created the cafe at the entrance so as to make it a tourist attraction.
The caves are along a single line which had been the chalk mine shaft with ‘rooms’ off it. It is not clear whether these rooms were excavated to create halls for use by the Hell Fire Club or were a side effect of the chalk extraction.
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