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
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