From de­bauch­ery to tourism...

Deep in the hill­side in West Wy­combe lie the no­to­ri­ous Hell­fire Caves, where what was once home to the de­bauched Hell­fire Club is now a popular tourist at­trac­tion. Jack Abell finds out more Do you want to advertise in this sup­ple­ment? Email james.king-s

Buckinghamshire Advertiser - - LIFE & LEISURE -

DUR­ING the 18th cen­tury, un­be­knownst to civilised so­ci­ety, a group of re­spected mem­bers of so­ci­ety would gather in man-made caves in West Wy­combe where they would in­dulge in all kinds of de­bauched ac­tiv­i­ties, with ru­mours rife of sa­tanic rit­u­als, or­gies and black magic.

Im­por­tant 18th cen­tury fig­ures such as Wil­liam Hog­a­rth, John Wilkes and even Benjamin Franklin were among those known to have vis­ited the caves.

The group, call­ing it­self the Hell­fire Club, was led by Sir Fran­cis Dashwood, who com­mis­sioned the caves to be made, ini­tially to help com­bat lo­cal poverty by ex­ca­vat­ing chalk from the road to build a three mile road be­tween West and High Wy­combe.

Once the caves had been dug out how­ever, it was used a meet­ing point for the club’s ne­far­i­ous ac­tiv­i­ties.

The se­cre­tive na­ture of the club means that records of ex­actly what oc­curred in the caves is mostly un­cer­tain but the meet­ings are known to have in­cluded much drink­ing, vis­its from pros­ti­tutes, ban­quet­ing and porno­graphic ma­te­rial, as well as cer­tain pa­gan rit­u­als.

The club dis­banded fol­low­ing Sir Fran­cis Dashwood’s death in 1781 and fell into dis­re­pair, go­ing un­used un­til the late 1940s when they were ren­o­vated and even­tu­ally turned into a tourist at­trac­tion.

Sue Turner, of the es­tate re­spon­si­ble for the run­ning of the caves, said: “They ob­vi­ously have quite a his­tory, and it re­ally does fas­ci­nate peo­ple of all ages.

“Chil­dren love it be­cause of the mys­tery of it all, and be­ing un­der­ground in the dark, whereas adults are shocked to hear what went on down there and all about the club.

“It’s a re­ally unique at­trac­tion, and there’s no where else quite like it.”

The caves con­sist of a se­ries of tun­nels, which link to­gether to al­low ac­cess to var­i­ous rooms. The largest of th­ese is the In­ner Tem­ple, de­signed to be di­rectly be­low St Lawrence’s Church which sits on top of the hill, sup­pos­edly to sig­nify heaven and hell.

To­day the caves still hold a fas­ci­na­tion for the public, and the le­gacy of the club is far reach­ing, with a Hell­fire Club ap­pear­ing as one of the enemies of the X-Men in the comic book and film se­ries.

The site has also been used as a film­ing lo­ca­tion for popular pro­grammes such as Most Haunted and Ghost Hun­ters, be­cause of the per­sis­tent ru­mours that the spir­its of those as­so­ci­ated with the caves lurk within its cor­ri­dors.

“It’s re­ally a place which ap­peals to peo­ple’s imag­i­na­tion,” adds Mrs Turner. “The story be­hind it is so un­usual, and peo­ple like to see it for them­selves, which I think is why it’s still so popular.

“We re­ally do get peo­ple com­ing from far and wide to visit the caves, and want­ing to find out more about why they ex­ist and what hap­pened here.”

In­side the no­to­ri­ous Hell­fire Caves of West Wy­combe

The en­trance to the Hell­fire Caves in West Wy­combe, and right, A por­trait of Sir Fran­cis Dashwood, founder of the Hell­fire Club

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