Behind closed doors
Lifting the lid on hellish goings-on in a quiet English village
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.
West Wycombe Park has been home to the Dashwoods for centuries
Row of 15th-century cottages in Church Street, West Wycombe
Mannequins in Hellfire Caves
The entrance of Hellfire Caves