THE myths surrounding West Wycombe, the Hell Fire Caves and Medmenham Abbey are many - and the Dashwood family will answer your questions only with a knowing smile! (Sir Francis Dashwood - who died in April 2000 - is pictured, left, in front of the stately home). It might be said that never has so much myth been piled on so little fact as in the case of West Wycombe's Hell Fire Club. The result is a legend as tangled and tortuous as the caves that twist and turn under the imposing West Wycombe Hill with its golden-domed Church of St Lawrence. The dedication to St Lawrence, patron saint of prostitutes, is rather appropriate, some might say deliberate for it is claimed that prostitutes dressed in nuns' habits were among those who attended the meetings of the Hell Fire Club The caves set within West Wycombe Hill, Buckinghamshire, are open to the public and can also be hired for private events. They lead to a large cavern with a church-like Gothic interior. The excavation of the caves was put in hand by an eighteenth century ancestor and namesake of the present Sir Francis Dashwood. He intended it to give work to the large number of unemployed of the area at that period, as well as being the place where the rakes of the Hell Fire Club - The Knights of Saint Francis - could pursue their activities without risk of discovery.
Certainly nothing is known for sure about the identity of the 'nuns' who, before the club moved to West Wycombe, apparently frolicked in the grounds of Medmenham Abbey. A motto above the entrance to the abbey declared "Do as you please".
The identity of the Knights of St Francis is however known. They included Sir Francis himself - who was a former Postmaster General and 'the worst Chancellor who ever lived', a former prime minister, a First Lord of the Admiralty, various cabinet ministers, a Lord Mayor of London and other famous personages. This was not however, the only Hell Fire Club of the time. Indeed there was quite a craze for them during the 18th century although at one stage they were actually banned. This one seems to have achieved lasting notoriety for two reasons: one, it was lampooned in a best-selling satirical book, Crysal; and two, tourism. Nothing delights tourists more than tales of ghosts and strange goings on and of those there is an abundance in West Wycombe.
Curiously however the Hell Fire Club did not, for the most part, meet at West Wycombe. It met six miles further south in Medmenham on the Thames. This does not seem to worry the thousands of tourists who frequent the more accessible West Wycombe. In its last days the club met a few times in the caves but they were too damp for general use. And it is also reported that some games of cards were held by club members inside the dome on top of St Lawrence Church. It is still possible on days when the church allows, the climb into the golden ball and witness the astonishing views.
So what happened at the notorious meetings of the Hell Fire Club? According to the accounts in Crysal there was plenty of wine, women and song but without any factual historical record no one can be sure. The result is plenty of speculation! It would be wrong however to link the area with black magic as this was never the case. The publication of Crysal and the ensuing public debates and curiosity about the events may have hastened its demise with the members fearing too many locals sneaking into the grounds to see for themselves what was going on. One event in particular is cited as heralding the closure of the club. One member, most authorities say it was the radical politician John Wilkes, dressed a baboon up with horns and hid him in a box. When this was opened at the start of the meeting the baboon leapt out. Its gibbering, horns and wild appearance made some of the members believe it was the devil himself and they began confessing their sins and praying to the Lord. Much to the amusement of course of those in the know! However the outrage of those tricked led to accusations and recriminations . It seems that for many this was proof the club meetings had got too out of control. The notoriety of the club may have died down but for the timely nudge of tourism and an awareness that people would be willing to visit the area and spend their money to see the places where these happenings were said to have taken place.
It may have been then that some of the other legends about West Wycombe began to grow. The legend for example of the spectre at the George and Dragon pub. She is the ghost of a barmaid, Sukie, who fell in love with a rich gentleman. She received a note, apparently from the gentleman asking her to meet him in the secret tunnel (its existence has never been proved) that runs from the pub to the caves. Then, the note said, they would dash away and be married. In fact the note was forged by the local lads who intended to have a laugh at her. Sukie turned up dressed in a bridal gown (as in all good ghost stories!) only to discover the lads laughing at her. The lads threw stones in a playful way but one hit her on the head killing her. The lads took her body back through the tunnel to her room at the pub. Her ghost has been reported at the pub even in modern times. And for those who want to spend a night in a haunted house, you can lodge at the George and Dragon in West Wycombe's High Street and lie awake waiting for the ghost of Sukie to return once more...
Other secret tunnel legends exist in West Wycombe and High Wycombe. One rhyme apparently spoke of a secret passageway in the caves. Two of the verses go:-
'Take 20 steps and rest a while,
Then take a pick and find the stile
Where once I did my love beguile
'Twas 22 in Dashwood's time
Perhaps to hid this cell divine
Where lay my love in peace sublime
Today's tourists still delight in the mystery of the area and perhaps even hope that they may stumble on some of its final secrets. The village is owned by the National Trust so it is possible to visit West Wycombe House and Park. Or take a stroll in the picturesque village and then make the steep ascent to the hilltop and visit the magnificent church. The views are superb. Of course a visit to the caves is a must (as is a visit to the village's tea shops and pubs). The caves are still owned by Sir Francis Dashwood and it is possible to 'bump into him' around the village. Then you can ask him yourself about the family secrets!
THE booklet Strange Wycombe is long out of print but I do have a few copies available for sale. Click here for details.