Be­hind closed doors

Lift­ing the lid on hellish go­ings-on in a quiet English vil­lage

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - TONY PER­ROT­TET

THE tiny vil­lage of West Wy­combe in Buck­ing­hamshire would be typ­i­cal of any ru­ral English out­post ex­cept for one com­pelling twist. It was home in the 1750s to a blas­phe­mous sex club that went by the in­nocu­ous name of the Or­der of the Friars of Saint Fran­cis of Wy­combe.

The club was the brain­child of the era’s most colour­ful rake, Fran­cis Dash­wood, pa­tron of the arts, hu­man­i­tar­ian landowner and shameless de­bauchee.

Its mem­ber­ship in­cluded some of the high­est peers of the Bri­tish realm who, ac­cord­ing to pop­u­lar tra­di­tion, in­dulged in sac­ri­le­gious or­gies, hu­man sac­ri­fice and devil wor­ship. Mod­ern schol­ars dis­count the more ra­bid ru­mours of satanism. But le­gends about the brother­hood have been em­bel­lished through the gen­er­a­tions, in­spir­ing a string of Vic­to­rian porno­graphic nov­els, films and an episode of The Avengers.

A ver­sion of the club even turns up in Stan­ley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, when Tom Cruise stum­bles on to a re­mote ru­ral manor filled with masked aris­to­crats in­dulging in un­speak­able acts.

To un­tan­gle the sor­did truth, I first need to find a base to stay in West Wy­combe, and these days the most ter­ri­fy­ing thing about the vil­lage may be Tripad­vi­sor.com guest re­views of its sole ho­tel, the Ge­orge and Dragon pub.

But I can’t avoid it. Apart from it be­ing the only ac­com­mo­da­tion, the Ge­orge and Dragon is the per­fect his­toric set­ting; it’s a 300-year-old car­riage inn that lurks in the very shadow of the Dash­wood fam­ily es­tate.

What’s more, Fran­cis Dash­wood’s 10th-gen­er­a­tion de­scen­dant Ed­ward is alive and well in the an­ces­tral man­sion. He is even op­er­at­ing the fam­ily’s se­cret tun­nels as a tourist at­trac­tion called the Hell­fire Caves. Staying in the vil­lage, I rea­son, I can surely pay him a visit.

A sum­mer driz­zle has de­scended on West Wy­combe as I drive along its 100m main street. The Ge­orge and Dragon seems in­no­cent enough. I stoop un­der a low door­way and en­ter the pub.

‘‘Hello,’’ croaks a voice from the gloom. ‘‘Fancy a pint, mate?’’

I look at my watch. It’s 10am. Well, might as well in­gra­ti­ate my­self. Two fig­ures are hunched at the bar like gar­goyles; one of them turns out to be the cook. Sev­eral pints later, as I lurch up the stairs, the Ge­orge and Dragon creaks and groans as if it is alive. The ho­tel room is a bit frayed and air­less but not quite the des­per­ate rat-hole de­picted by the re­views.

From the win­dow, I can even see the vil­lage’s fa­mous hill­top church. A gilded wooden sphere is mounted on top of its steeple, gleam­ing in a burst of sun­shine like a Doc­tor Who de­vice or an­tique Or­gas­ma­tron.

In 1763, Fran­cis had de­vised this ball so that he and his friends could sit in­side and drink while en­joy­ing panoramic views of his es­tate. Of course, these were not your av­er­age ru­ral vis­tas. One­day, the vil­lage vicar ac­cepted an in­vi­ta­tion to climb up, but was hor­ri­fied to see that Dash­wood’s gar­den had been land­scaped to mimic the fe­male form. On a pre­ar­ranged sig­nal, fountains erupted at each of the gar­den’s eroge­nous zones, caus­ing the vicar to col­lapse in shock. He was only re­vived with ‘‘strong liquor’’.

The or­der’s in­fa­mous club­house was the medieval abbey of Med­men­ham, about 6.5km from West Wy­combe. It is nowa pri­vate man­sion with high walls, but by hik­ing along the op­po­site banks of the Thames, I get a good view of the splen­did stone ed­i­fice sur­rounded by an­cient trees. In 1750, when he was an up-and-com­ing young MP, Fran­cis Dash­wood ren­o­vated this relic of the Mid­dle Ages into a pri­vate rum­pus room for car­nal mis­be­haviour. We know that, twice a month, club mem­bers dressed up in monks’ robes and met be­neath the abbey’s erotic fres­coes.

Saucy lo­cal ‘ ‘ nymphs’’ were paid to lie naked on his al­tar so the monks could lick holy wine from their navels — a mere aper­i­tif be­fore the real fes­tiv­i­ties be­gan. But de­tails of fur­ther rites have been a sub­ject of fever­ish spec­u­la­tion by schol­ars ever since.

In 1765, sus­pi­cion about the club’s ac­tiv­i­ties forced Dash­wood to re­treat to an even more se­cret venue — an old chalk mine that he con­verted into an elab­o­rate net­work of tun­nels and cav­erns go­ing down 100m. To­day, you can climb the leafy hill above West Wy­combe to find the en­trance of the Hell­fire Caves, op­er­ated by the present-day Dash­woods as a vil­lage at­trac­tion.

Af­ter buy­ing an en­try to­ken at the gift shop, I ven­ture into the cave’s dark maw, still framed by the orig­i­nal gothic facade. The clammy air seeps down my col­lar as I fol­low the sepul­chral cor­ri­dors across an ar­ti­fi­cial River Styx; plaques in­clude an 18th-cen­tury poem re­lat­ing a nun’s ad­ven­tures with an ab­bot. The high­light is the cav­ernous ban­quet­ing hall, with five cosy lit­tle monks’ cells ra­di­at­ing from its perime­ter, each con­tain­ing moss-cov­ered stat­ues.

A piped-in voice an­nounces in plummy tones that the cells were once ‘‘used by the club mem­bers for pri­vacy with their ladies’’. WHEN I tele­phone the of­fice of Lord Dash­wood, the 12th baronet (that is, Ed­ward), I am sur­prised to learn from the sec­re­tary that he would be happy for me to drop by the manor.

At the iron gates of West Wy­combe Park, I punch in a se­cu­rity code and make my way up a ma­jes­tic tree-lined drive­way.

I fi­nally find the mas­ter sitting be­hind a desk in the es­tate of­fice near the sta­bles. This mod­ern de­scen­dant of the wicked old rake has the af­fa­ble, pro­fes­sional de­meanour of a vil­lage ac­coun­tant., He is in his mid-40s, be­spec­ta­cled, and ca­sual in khakis and a crim­son polo shirt. This Dash­wood is a quiet fam­ily man; in­stead of de­flow­er­ing lo­cal vir­gins, he spends his time man­ag­ing the fam­ily’s 2000ha of farm­land.

Still, I can’t help but re­joice at meet­ing this di­rect de­scen­dant, who might pro­vide clues to the club’s ac­tiv­i­ties.

Over tea and bis­cuits, Ed­ward is quick to de­fend his an­ces­tor’s rep­u­ta­tion, ar­gu­ing that the pop­u­lar con­cen­tra­tion on his sex life does him an in­jus­tice. ‘‘Sir Fran­cis wasn’t crazy,’’ he in­sists.

‘ ‘ He was j ust a tremen­dous, larger-than-life char­ac­ter. He sup­ported the arts. He looked af­ter his vil­lagers in quite an en­light­ened way. But, yes, he was also very self-in­dul­gent.’’ And the or­der? ‘ ‘ Oh, it was a good, fun men’s club,’’ Ed­ward says. ‘‘Yes, they all dressed up and drank a hell of a lot, and yes, there were women in­volved. But look at the men them­selves. They were ex­tremely eru­dite; they loved the clas­sics, as­tron­omy, astrology.’’

Of course, he adds, the aura of sex­ual de­prav­ity has al­ways been ex­cel­lent for busi­ness. If it weren’t for the dev­il­ish Fran­cis, the Dash­wood fam­ily would be in dire fi­nan­cial straits. Two gen­er­a­tions ago, West Wy­combe Park had been bank­rupt. The man­sion was a wreck. But in the 1950s, in­come from the Hell­fire Caves helped fund a re­cov­ery. The fam­ily cut a deal with the Na­tional Trust to al­low pay­ing vis­i­tors, lured by Hell­fire lore, into the lower floors of the Pal­la­dian man­sion, while they live up­stairs.

Af­ter­wards, I visit the Dash­wood home, a kalei­do­scope of Ital­ian mar­ble, chan­de­liers and ta­pes­tries. There is a fine por­trait of Fran­cis’s fe­male cronies, the lus­cious ac­tress Fanny Mur­ray ex­pos­ing her left breast with an in­sou­ciant smile. And in the es­tate grounds, I fi­nally find Fran­cis’s Tem­ple of Venus, where a grotto’s en­trance and curved walls were de­signed in the 18th cen­tury to evoke a woman’s open legs. From the frag­men­tary ev­i­dence, we know that on a warm sum­mer’s night, guests would ar­rive at the abbey via lux­ury gon­dola and be met by 12 hooded ‘‘ apos­tles’’ in monks’ habits.

Aris­to­cratic women trav­elled from Lon­don to join the fun, al­though they wore masks un­til all the males had ar­rived, so that they could leave un­recog­nised if an ac­quain­tance (or hus­band) was among the guests. Af­ter a boozy din­ner in a can­dlelit cham­ber, there were plen­ti­ful mock­eries of the pa­pacy. Claret was drunk from cups fash­ioned from hu­man skulls. Pornog­ra­phy was read from vol­umes bound as ser­mon books. Scraps of food were given to the club mas­cot, a ba­boon dressed as a pri­est.

But fur­ther de­tails will al­ways be elu­sive. Many years af­ter the club closed down, a Buck­ing­hamshire his­to­rian tracked down Fran­cis’s el­derly house­keeper at Med­men­ham and quizzed her on the specifics of its meet­ings. Ap­par­ently he was so hor­ri­fied by her sto­ries that he de­cided they ‘‘might as well be buried in obliv­ion’’. The killjoy.

na­tion­al­trust.org.uk This is an edited ex­tract from The Sinner’s Grand Tour: A Jour­ney Through the His­tor­i­cal Un­der­belly of Europe by Tony Per­rot­tet. Avail­able at on­line book­sellers or sin­ners­grand­tour.com.

TONY PER­ROT­TET

West Wy­combe Park has been home to the Dash­woods for cen­turies

VISIT BRI­TAIN

Row of 15th-cen­tury cot­tages in Church Street, West Wy­combe

TONY PER­ROT­TET

Man­nequins in Hell­fire Caves

TONY PER­ROT­TET

The en­trance of Hell­fire Caves

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