Albion, ancient sites, Art, Don and Wen

West Wycombe and the Hellfire Caves

West wycombe bw (7)The little village nestles in the Buckinghamshire countryside. It is a pretty place of cobbled alleys and ramshackle buildings; very small, no more that a cluster of houses, pubs and shops that span hundreds of years, watching time flow along the old Roman road. As you walk through the village you can see how the road, a main route to London, was central to the village and its economy. In 1767, at the time when coaching inns were a necessity for travel, there were only 67 houses in the village… and 17 were inns. At one end of the High Street a narrow lane winds its way up the hill, and, as you turn the corner, a Gothic ruin tells you that this is a village unlike any other… West Wycombe has a history that goes beyond its timbered buildings, back into the far distant past and its ghosts still walk…

West wycombe bw (8)There are many tales of ghostly apparitions here. While most may be linked to the more famous of its inhabitants, the most often cited is the ghost of Suki, a pretty barmaid of the George and Dragon who was affianced to a highwayman. One night Suki received a message to meet her love beneath the hill, and arrived to find only the jealous young men of the village. Upset, angry at being tricked and perhaps to defend herself too, Suki threw stones at the men. They threw them back, striking the young woman on the head and killing her.

west wycombe (1)She walks beneath the hill to this day and many say they have seen her. Her presence is felt and seen at the pub too, watching out of windows or appearing as a light in the haunted room. One American tourist in 1969 reported icy hands around his neck in the night and a light by the door that grew as he approached… Suki is not the only ghost at the inn… the footsteps of a customer murdered and robbed there always sound in the night.

West wycombe bw (3)You leave the village and climb the hill where once stood the lost village of  Haeferingdune, or Haveringdon as it was later known. It was this Saxon settlement that saw the building of the first church by St Birinus before being wiped out by the plague. One wonders how many ghosts linger from such a tragedy… Crowning the hill is an ancient hillfort. Perhaps four thousand years ago there was a temple here… something, say the archaeologists, similar to Stonehenge. Later, a Roman temple stood here too, dominating the landscape from within the ancient earthworks. Then, in 635AD, the first Christian church on the site was built and later still a Norman watchtower.  All that now remains to be seen of these early places of worship is the henge and deep ditch that surround a rather more modern temple… the church of St Lawrence.

West wycombe bw (1) St Lawrence is known locally as the Summer Church. It is a curious place. Within the circle of trees and ancient embankments, a 14thC church was transformed in 1761. The outside of the edifice gives little indication of the highly unusual interior, oozing symbolism from every painted nook and cranny and modelled on old prints of the Temple of the Sun at Palmyra. However, the only thing that draws the eye is the Golden Ball. And thereby hangs a tale or two…

Church of St Francis, West Wycombe 16The landscape here, like the church, bears the imprint of a notorious and colourful figure… Sir Francis Dashwood, 1st Baronet and Baron Le Despenser (1658 – 1724)… known to history as the founder of the infamous Hellfire Club.  Francis was a wealthy merchant who was later knighted. He had bought West Wycombe manor and the surrounding lands and has left a real mystery and a plethora of legends in the landscape crowned by the Golden Ball.

West wycombe bw (5)You can climb the narrow and treacherous steps, squeezing between the beams and crossing the open section of the tower in order to reach the final platform… a perilous ascent even with modern safety precautions and rails. Once there, if you look closely, you can see how a segment of the tower drops down. Inside the segment are steps and around the inner edge of the globe there are benches. It is not a large space… quite cramped… yet here, allegedly, Sir Francis and his cronies would hold drunken card parties. I am not so sure. It is a dangerous ascent slim, sober and in daylight… and then, there is the rest of the site…

West wycombe bw (2)Beside the church and dwarfing it, stands the Dashwood Mausoleum, a great octagonal enclosure, full of niches and intriguing grates… one wonders where they lead, as, some 300 feet beneath the tower, lies another temple… but one seen by history as unhallowed and perhaps satanic. From here you can look down into the grounds of West Wycombe House and distinguish some of the temples…ornamental or symbolic… that Sir Francis had built in the grounds. Temples which some have suggested symbolise the role of the divine feminine and in which others see no more than sexual imagery.

rollright2012 092The House too has its ghosts. A woman in white, thought to be the grandmother of Sir Francis, is said to roam the house, while a smiling monk appeared, apparently enjoying a song Noel Coward was playing on the piano in the Music Room. Sir Francis himself is said to ride a white horse up the hill and terrifying wails have been heard there… and even a headless horseman reported…

hawk-hill-nick-005Why so much ‘activity’ in one tiny village? That isn’t even the half of it… but then, there are the Hellfire Caves themselves and all that purportedly went on there…

The caves seem to have already been there prior to Sir Francis’ time. When the road needed renewing, in order to give work to the locals who were in a time of great hardship, Sir Francis had them quarry chalk from the caves for the road surface. Perfectly acceptable, a noble gesture and nothing to raise any eyebrows. Except… if he was only quarrying chalk, why exactly were the caves dug to such a complex and intricate design…?

rollright2012 091The caves became the haunt of the Hellfire Club, later known as the Monks of Medmenham when they occupied the Abbey there. Tales of orgies and ‘nuns’ less than holy… of Sir Francis, who styled himself St Francis of Wycombe, and other members in robes… of strange doings within the final cave beneath the church known as the Inner Sanctum, reached only by crossing the River Styx… and of banquets and revels in the great central chamber…

West wycombe bw (4)The motto of the Club was the Rabelaisian Fais ce que tu voudras (Do what thou wilt), a phrase which was to become much more widely known later in association with occultist Aleister Crowley and the philosophy of Thelema. I wonder if the common folk were misled… perhaps deliberately… when they saw only orgiastic indulgence in what may have actually been something entirely different… It would be an easy way to keep the curious away, especially if they thought satanic practices were involved… and anything not overtly Christian would have been seen in that way.

rollright2012 035Certainly the symbolism that is carved into every aspect of Dashwood’s landscape would imply that he and his fellows were delving into arcane knowledge, perhaps, according to a scientist friend of mine, even seeking to combine such knowledge with a more modern science. He posited that the entire hill followed the design of an orgone accumulator. It would not be surprising if they were seeking to harness nature’s energies when you consider that amongst the list of members there were many figures prominent in both society and history… including artist William Hogarth, John Montague, Earl of Sandwich, activist John Wilkes, the poet Paul Whitehead and Benjamin Franklin… yes, that Benjamin Franklin… while he was in Britain. A man well known for his work with electricity. A natural force….

West wycombe bw (9)Within the caves ghoulish faces, stare out from the chalk. A poem beneath the Roman numerals XXII tells of secret paths and hidden chambers. Stories tell that the church and caves were connected by another passage. And yet more apparitions are seen and felt. Paul Whitehead requested that upon his death his heart was to be buried in the Mausoleum. This was done with great ceremony, the heart being placed within an urn in one of the niches. It was stolen… the empty urn now rests within the caves… and Whitehead’s ghost is often reported as roaming the caverns, dressed in 18thC clothing, still searching for his lost heart.

rollright2012 098

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