The Hellfire Club - The Story of Lord Dashwood Witchcraft and Ghostly Apparitions at the Hellfire Caves
Set in the beautiful Buckinghamshire countryside, outside the main town of High Wycombe, you will find one of the most fascinating, historical and intriguing networks of Caverns in the West Wycombe hillside. The Caves are just around the corner from the famous Lord Dashwood Mausoleum. With it's towering Hexagonal shape and brooding atmosphere, it has been causing gossip and ghostly stories to abound since the 1760's.
Walking up the hill towards the Mausoleum is quite difficult as it is very steep, so if you are planning to visit it unless you are quite fit and healthy, I suggest taking the longer but flatter route around the roadway. I have puffed my way up a few times, and believe me when I say, the older you get, the more difficult it is. Most people visit the Caves first and then take a walk up the hill.
The Caves were first built in or I should say, extended in the 1740s, as they were already a vast network of caves and holes in the hillside. Evidently, they were centuries old when they were first discovered.
The Hellfire Club was first established shortly after Sir Frances Dashwood decided to add to the caves, which were originally built and added too because he wanted it as part of his garden. Lord Dashwood was a great traveler, and wanted to do something a little bit different from all the other society gardens that were the fashion of the time. Little did he realized that his famous Caves and Mausoleum would have people telling stories of the Witchcraft and Ghostly Apparitions that many visitors have supposedly seen over the years.
Sir Frances Dashwood and the Famous Hellfire Club
Lord Dashwood started to use the Caves for supposedly political meetings but was rumored to be a cover for much more sinister goings-on. Debauchery, Witchcraft, and prostitution seem to be the main accusations. But some believe that evil took place there. Murder. The frightening thing about it was that Lord Dashwood had the most prominent men of society there with him.
The Earl of Sandwich is just one of a few politicians and members close to the Royal Family. Most went on to be leaders in their fields of work. Dashwood actually started his Hellfire Club a few years before the Hellfire Caves. The only trouble was that he held in the local George and Vulture inn. Not very private.
In fact not private enough for their shenanigans it seems! To make the club sound more select and secretive, Dashwood named them the Order of the Friars of St. Francis of Wycombe, or Order of the Knights of St. Francis. Their motto was Fais ce que tu voudras (Do what you will). Says it all doesn't it?
Dashwood at His Devotions
Meetings and Club Activities
The main parts of the ceremonies consisted mainly of innocent Pagan worship or a much more sinister Satanistic ritual. Openly worshiping Baccus and Venus, they flaunted their beliefs in front of new members to shock them. This, of course, was at a time when the Country was predominantly Christian.
So you can imagine how that went down with the locals! Even Dashwoods Gardens were full of pagan statues much to the chagrin of the local population. A lot of the early meetings were conducted six miles away at Medmenham on Thames, just a few miles from where I live.
From local gossip and tales spoken passed down from mother to daughter, father to son, there is a tunnel that takes you from Mednemham to West Wycombe. This is mentioned in the wonderful Diana Gabaldon's series of books which mentions the Caves in Lord Grey and the Hellfire Club.
Is this the ghost of Sukie?
St. Lawrence Church or Golden Ball
The Legend of Sukie also known as The Ghost of the White Lady
One of the most tantalizing stories is the Legend of Sukie, also known as The Ghost of The White Lady. Evidently, the story goes that Sukie (Some sources call her Susie as most people were illiterate at the time) worked at the local inn called The George and Dragon.
Sukie fell in love with a rich gentleman. Receiving a note supposedly from him, asking her to meet him in the secret tunnel that runs from the pub to the Cave, she rushed to the tunnel believing the note was asking her to run away with him and get married. Sukie dressed in a white wedding dress and stood waiting for him, not realizing that the note was written by local lads who were having a laugh at her expense.
On realising that she had been duped, Sukie panicked and started to run away. The lads threw stones at her, laughing, but one hit her on her head and she fell down and died.
In panic, the boys took her body back to her room at the inn, trying to look as though she had died from an accident there. Her ghost has said to have been seen since that tragic murder, haunting not only the inn but the Hellfire Caves.
A Strange Happening.
When my son was two years old, I took him for a walk around the Caves, and then up to the Golden Ball which is on the Church behind the Mausoleum. Locals always call it the Golden Ball as it has a large ball at the top of the tower.
At this time I had never heard of the White Lady. As we were walking towards the Mausoleum, my son's shoelace came undone and I bent down to do it up. My son was staring at the stones on the outside of the Mausoleum, and suddenly he pointed towards the towering walls and said, 'White Lady mummy, White Lady'.
So I looked over to where he was pointing, and I couldn't see anything. There was no other person around, only me and him. And the Mausoleum. I tried to see if there were any statues there of a White Lady. Or even just a statue of a lady.
So, we carried on walking, and I thought, on the way back I will take him around that way again, and see if he says anything. About an hour later, we walked back that way. Stopping a bit further on to make sure that he was near the place but not close enough to remember what he said, I stopped to get something from my bag. I saw my son looking around, and then suddenly he said, once again, White Lady, mummy. I said, 'Where?' And he pointed into the Mausoleum grounds again.
There was nothing there. When I managed to drag him away, he was upset by this time, I would imagine he was thinking why can't mummy see it? We eventually got back home and he forgot about it.
That was when I first opened a book about the Mausoleum and Caves and read about the White Lady Ghost! It has fascinated me ever since. Amazing.
Dashwood Mausoleum exact spot where I was standing with my son.
Candlelight Entrance to Tunnel Leading to Hell Fire Caves
Introduction to the Hellfire Caves
Taking that first step into the Caves, you get a sense of foreboding. It is quite dark as you look down past the entrance with its candlelight flickering shadows off the entrance walls.
The darkness seems to want to suck you in, and for a few seconds, I felt a bit claustrophobic. The tunnels arch down and travel over half a mile underground. As you walk down, the tunnel begins to get lighter, and then you come across your first exhibit. With each statue, there is a commentary telling you the history of the subject. Halfway down the tunnel, the poem below they believe is a reference to the secret tunnel
'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
See Map Below.
Map of the Caves
The Banqueting Hall
The Inner Temple
The River Styx
There are many signs and Exhibits that show how the cave was carved and the tools that were used. In the Steward's Cave, you can see shovels, hammers crowbars, and candles with their holders.
Paul Whitehead's chamber. He was a minor poet who was employed to keep an eye on the drinks and make sure they were topped up. He was mainly a steward. This part of the Cavern is said to be one of the spookiest parts, and even the most staunch unbelieving person will be known to rush through it as it is said to be haunted. The feeling is very eerie, believe me!
The Numerals XXII is probably a measurement that was used in the caves, but it is also believed to be part of a secret code, pointing the way to the Tunnels. These have never been found yet, but they are still being investigated.
Franklin's Cave is named after Benjamin Franklin who was a great friend of Sir Frances Dashwood. He is said to have stayed at West Wycombe whenever he was in the area. This cave is meant to be something mythical or even part of the human anatomy.
The Children in the Caves are the actual paintings of the Dashwood children in 1880, in West Wycombe Park.
The Banqueting Hall is 40 feet in diameter and is about a 1,000 feet from the entrance to the Caves. A lump of chalk was recovered here and found to have coins dated from 1720 to 1754 inside.
The Miner's Cave shows more workers tools and a wheelbarrow, and lots of other implements used for the digging out of the cave. Local workers were paid a shilling a day. It was a dirty and very dangerous job as the ceiling of the cave was prone to fall down, and the whole tunnel was in danger of cave-ins.
The River Styx, is named after the legendary river. Originally in 1796, it had to be crossed by using stepping stones. Previously it was crossed by using a small boat.
The last but not least we come to the Inner Temple. Directly beneath the Church, it is 300 feet straight down. The scene shows some of the members of the club including John Wilkes and Charles Churchill standing by the statue of the famous Venus De Milo. The women who attended the meetings had to wear a mask, and in some places a disguise.
Very Spooky Tunnel to the Inner Chamber
Statue of Baccus
A Great Day Out
If you are visiting the area for the first time, it is a good idea to head for High Wycombe first to make sure you follow the right directions. The Caves and Mausoleum are situated in West Wycombe a few miles from Wycombe town center. When you get to the Caves, it is well worth the climb up the hill to the Dashwood Mausoleum.
The views are amazing. While you are there, go around the back of the Mausoleum and you will find the private Church. There is a very spooky pathway that you walk through, Well worth the visit.
In the Caves courtyard is a great little shop that sells all sorts of collectibles. I bought a fantastic slate notebook with a Gothic pen. It looks really old and is not something that you can buy anywhere else. Fantastic.
When you have finished your walk around the Caves, buy a cup of coffee or tea, and sit outside admiring the view over the hills. It's a great day out. Oh, and don't forget to watch out for Ghosts!
Opening Times and Prices
April - October
7 Days a week 11.00 - 17.30
November - March
Saturdays and Sundays - 11.00 - dusk
School and Bank holidays 11.00 - dusk
Christmas and Boxing day closed.
Adults - £7.50 Children - £6 Student and National Trust Members £6 Family £20
Most Haunted TV at the Hellfire Caves
Would You Walk Through The Hellfire Caves On Your Own?
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© 2011 Nell Rose