The Hellfire Caves
The hellfire caves of Wycombe in Buckinghamshire may have started as a natural formation. However, they were reshaped and extended in the eighteenth century by Sir Francis Dashwood, Chancellor of the Exchequer, rake, and Hellfire club member. In the late 1740s, after a series of bad harvests, Dashwood decided to quarry into the caves and so provide employment for local men, surfacing materials for the new London road- and to bring his pet project of an underground temple to fruition.
Dashwood had recently returned from a grand tour, when, besides becoming a Freemason, he had been introduced to the concept of the Eleusinian mysteries. The caves were his interpretation of an Eleusinian cavern of initiation. A long tunnel, with small rooms branching off opened onto a cavernous banqueting room. After passing over an artificial “River Styx,’ the revellers entered into the inner temple- which lay 300 feet below the local St. Lawrence’s church.
Once the work was over in 1752, the caves became a meeting place for Sir Francis’s ‘Order of the Friars of St Francis of Wycombe.’ This club was either a branch of the Hellfire Club, (a gentleman’s club for pleasure-seeking rakes) or a freemasons temple- depending on sources or viewpoints. Here Dashwood was joined by other notables such as Lord Sandwich and even Benjamin Franklin for meetings and ‘ceremonies.’ Whatever the truth of the activities in the caves, they aroused the suspicions of the locals. Tales spread of drunken debauchery and occult activity.
After Dashwood’s time, the caves fell into disuse. By the twentieth century, the caves were in neglect and disrepair. But a subsequent Sir Francis Dashwood renovated them after the Second World War. It was then the caves developed their spooky reputation. At their reopening, a local vicar, Father Allen told a journalist that his stomach wobbled ‘like jelly ‘ every time he passed the entrance. He later gave a sermon about the evil influence of the caves
The ghosts of the caves are varied and reflect their history. Besides mysterious orbs of light, unseen growls and gravel throwing, the spirit of the poet Paul Whitehead whose heart was buried in the caves until its theft by soldier 150 years ago, reputedly wanders the caverns searching for his lost heart. A Victorian ghost called Suki also haunts the caves. A chambermaid at the village pub, she was lured to the caves and murdered by local youths angry that she had spurned them.