Campervan Days Out: The Spooky Hellfire Club Caves

We had planned to take off in Trev-the-Prev, our converted Toyota Previa campervan, for the Easter weekend down to Brighton for a city break but we are pretty glad that we didn’t now as the weather was cold and wet. So instead we decided to do a more local, day trip and went to visit the spooky Hellfire Club Caves in West Wycombe. They certainly lived up to their name…

The Hellfire Caves are a bit of a strange place created by an English aristocrat in the 1700s. They are basically a series of tunnels and chambers carved out of the rock beneath a hill which has the family mausoleum and church on the top. Apparently, the Hellfire Club, a group of wealthy, upper class people used to get up to all sorts down there but I’ll let them tell the story.

“The Caves were originally excavated by Sir Francis Dashwood in the 1740’s to give employment to the villagers following a succession of harvest failures.  They were then and still remain totally unique.  Their design was no doubt inspired by Sir Francis’s Grand Tour of Europe and the Ottoman Empire.  Many of his fellow dillettanes were building great Estates and landscaping gardens and temples above ground but no others dared venture underground in this way.  The chalk was used to build the main road from West Wycombe to High Wycombe.  The Caves were all dug by hand and you can still see the actual individual pick marks on the walls.  Sir Francis established the Knights of Sir Francis of Wycombe, later to be known as the notorious Hell-Fire Club, who used the caves for a number of their meetings and parties.  Members included Lord Sandwich, John Wilkes and other influential men of the era.  Benjamin Franklin, a great friend of Sir Francis, was also a visitor to the Caves.”

Well, that’s the official story. Here’s what some others say:

The Hell-Fire Caves are in West Wycombe Hill, Buckinghamshire, opposite West Wycombe Park, the 18th century italianate villa that was home to the Dashwood family for over 300 years.  Sir Francis Dashwood, the 2nd Baronet (1708-81) founded the Hell-Fire Club, more properly or more cautiously known as the ‘Monks of Medmenham’ or the ‘Society of Saint Frances of Wycombe’.

The society, whose members included Sir Francis’s political cronies as well as poets and satirists, took the form of a mock religious order, perhaps inspired by Francois Rebelais’s imaginary Abbey of Thelema, a monastic establishment with the motto in old French of ‘Fay ce que vouldras’ or ‘Do as you wish’.

The activities of the Hell-Fire Club have probably been exaggerated but there’s little doubt that elaborate mock religious ceremonies, banqueting, orgies, drinking and free love played a part in the their meetings and parties which took place both at Medmenham Abbey some six miles from West Wycombe and, of course, in the Hell-Fire Caves.

Walpole recorded that the ‘monks’ had a white costume ‘more like a waterman’s than a monk’s’ and dressing up was a favourite pastime of its members.   There are several potraits of Sir Francis in fancy dress, including one in oriental cosume and another as Sir Francis in the guise of Pope Innocent toasting a female herm.

Well, whatever you believe they do make for a good day out, especially when the weather isn’t brilliant, and the children seemed to enjoy it too. If you like walking there are also plenty of pretty walks all around. For food, there is also a courtyard cafe that does light lunches/snacks and a surprisingly good cup of coffee.