Your drive through the quintessential British countryside takes you past idyllic fields and via towns with small red brick pubs. You plunge headfirst through green hedgerows and grassy pastures while the sun glimmers in the English autumn sky. As you start to head up the lane towards the Chiltern Hills, the sky begins to darken. The golden orb of St Lawrence’s Church comes into view atop West Wycombe Hill and the sky becomes steely in hue. It is as though something dark lurks in this strange spot of Buckinghamshire countryside. Meandering up the lane, the source of the eerie atmosphere lurches into your path. The entrance to a set of chalk passageways 90 metres below the church awaits your arrival. All that you need to do is plunge directly into the Hell-fire Caves.
In the 18th century, Britain and Ireland were awash with what were known as hellfire clubs. These were exclusive clubs for the libertine social elite; specifically rakes. Rakes or rakehells were sexually and socially liberal aristocratic men who flittered away their family wealth on women, drink and gambling. Hellfire clubs were gatherings where the male social and political elite could act immorally with impunity. The Duke of Wharton founded the first hellfire club in 1719, stating that the president of the club was the Devil. The club was relatively short-lived and disbanded two years later in 1721. The most notorious club was the Order of the Friars of St. Francis of Wycombe. Founded by Sir Francis Dashwood, 15th Baron le Despencer in 1746, they met here at the caves that lie before you. Dashwood was an important mover and shaker and his club attracted the finest of the British ruling class.
Walking towards the church, your eye finds the golden ball that tops the church tower. St Lawrence’s was built in the early 1760s under the direct supervision of Dashwood. The sphere is said to have been inspired by the Customs Building in Venice that Dashwood saw while on his Grand Tour. The golden globe here is of debatable purpose and the unique structure maintains its mystery. Some claim that it was a meeting place for the club or a piece of magical apparatus; like a golden eye keeping vigilant watch over the sacred space. Likely, it was used by Dashwood as a heliograph station so that he could relay secret messages to his close friend and fellow club member, John Norris. Norris built the equally enigmatic 30-metre tall Camberley Obelisk about 20 miles to the south of St Lawrence’s. The content of such messages is unknown; perhaps wagers. The signals may have featured some news of their mutual friend, American founding father, Benjamin Franklin, with whom Dashwood became acquainted in his capacity as Postmaster General. Franklin was not a member of the club, but did attend some meetings.
From the church, you meander around the Dashwood Mausoleum; a huge open-roofed hexagonal edifice that safeguards the ashes of the Dashwood family members. Passing the large iron gates, you see urns and statues of the family notables and in the centre, the remains of Dashwood’s wife, Sarah. Built in 1765 from Portland stone and flint, the unique construction also houses the now empty urn of the poet, Paul Whitehead. Whitehead was the steward of the club and his devotion was so great, that his will bequeathed his heart to be placed in an urn in the mausoleum. His heart was stolen by an Australian in 1829 and Whitehead’s ghost is said to wander the caves searching for it.
You now stand at the cave entrance. Put up in 1752, it looks like a church has been built into the hillside. Approaching the imposing doorway, a sense of marvel builds inside you. It is like a twisted fantasy come to life. At about the same time as the caves were being excavated, Dashwood leased Medmenham Abbey; 12th century Cistercian ruins, to act as a meeting place for the club. He had them lavishly rebuilt and William Hogarth, another member, painted murals there. Some caves with phallic and sexual imagery were also carved out there. The club motto, fait ce que voudras (do what thou wilt) was inscribed above the entrance of the abbey. The phrase, first written by the French writer Rabelais in his seminal 16th century work Gargantua and Pantagruel where it is a rule of the anti-abbey of Thélème. The club, now also known as the Friars of Medmenham, adopted the phrase, as it reflected their own leanings rather aptly. The phrase was later used as the cornerstone philosophy of the Thelema religion created by the infamous turn of the 20th century occultist Aleister Crowley.
As you pierce the hillside you stand in a neat looking passageway that acts as a foyer into the under realm that you are about to traverse. Through another door, you begin to delve into the chalk tunnels that were excavated from the remains of a former chalk mine in the 1740s. You pass two small caves, Steward’s Cave (or the Intersect of Ra) and Whitehead Cave (or Robing Room). Paul Whitehead, in his role as the Steward of the club was responsible for taking stock of the wine that the members consumed during their rituals and meetings in the Cellar Book. He was the procurer of women, wine and other necessities.
Continuing along, you get to the circle; a split in the tunnel that is circular and re-joins again into one corridor. It is possibly linked to the idea of a round earth and the sponsorship of Captain Cook by, club founding member, John Montague, the 4th Earl of Sandwich. It may have a ritual significance that is unknown, due to the secrecy of the acts that occurred here. Whitehead burned the club records three days before his death in 1774. Coruscate rumours flew around at the time and Dashwood and his associates were accused of devil worship, human sacrifice and virgin defloration. While pagan, the rituals performed were not satanic. The worship of Greco-Roman gods such as Bacchus, Dionysus, Venus and Priapus were common and the Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient Greece were probably prominent in the ritual of the club. In the 1740s, Dashwood had a folly built in the gardens of his West Wycombe home. This was his Temple of Venus that sat on a hill representative of the mons veneris (pubic mound) and the small grotto below it, accessed through an oval entrance, was called Venus’ Parlour. Clearly, Dashwood’s time on his Grand Tour through Europe had influenced his personal, spiritual and philosophical ideals and shaped an obsession with Egypto-Graeco-Roman religious activities.
After the circle, you pass the mysterious inscription of XXII on the cave wall. This is said to refer to a secret passage to the church that has never been discovered called the Endless Stair. After a few more steps, you come to the cramped and labyrinthine Franklin’s Cave; named after Benjamin Franklin. The caves are loaded with sexual sub-meaning and Franklin’s Cave also represents the ovaries of Bona Dea; the Good Goddess of ancient Rome. Bona Dea accepted only blood sacrifice given exclusively by women during wine fuelled devotional ritual. Immediately after the symbolic ovaries is the Children’s Cave. From the small recess onwards, the walls start to become decorated with ghoulish faces. The faces are carved into the chalk and represent imps, ghosts, skulls and club members. The faces seem to be warning you that you have no business going any further unless you are an initiate in the select group. It has been suggested that members had to carve a face as part of the membership ritual.
One face that strikes you has a red pointy hat, like a wizard or jester. This is said to be a representation of Dashwood himself. The face leers out at you, mocking your presence as you bypass it into the biggest chamber of the complex; The Banqueting Hall. It is said to be the largest manmade chalk cave in the world and the layout is quite interesting. Standing in the middle of the domed chamber, you see four alcoves at cardinal directions. Two lead nowhere and have more modern statues of Hercules and Venus in them. The other two connect to a semi-circular passageway that circumnavigates the hall. This is possibly a representation of the path of the sun and suggests a link to the Egyptian god Ra. The purpose of the main hall is unclear, but as you stand taking in the large space, you can imagine parties being held here in what is symbolically the womb of the caves. The hall also marks the furthest point into the caves that you could go if you were not part of the inner circle. The elites of the elites, Dashwood and his 13 Apostles, were the only ones allowed to venture to the chambers that lie beyond.
Following the trail that was blazed by the debauched friars, you continue through Bona Dea’s reproductive system to The Triangle. Representative of the vagina, the path divides and comes together again once more. This time it forms a triangle pointing downwards into the cave system and by passing through it, you have journeyed through the ovaries, womb and vagina into a state of rebirth. At the point of the triangle, the path you are now on is representative of the shaft of the penis, fertilizing the mother goddess in the very earth itself. The seed of fertilization comes from two caves that are adjacent to the shaft, representing the testicles. The Miner’s Cave (or Nun’s Cave) and the Buttery (or Wine Store) are small niches, but their location is quite apt, as you are now nearing the terminus of the complex. The ‘monks’ were serviced by prostitutes and ladies of reputable virtue, known as nuns. The Nun’s Cave may have been a location at which certain duties could have been performed by the nuns to the inner circle of club members.
Having gone through the trials of the Earth Mother, you come to an important checkpoint. You must now cross the River Styx. The subterranean river is named for its counterpart in ancient Greek mythology that marks the crossing from the land of the living to the shades of the dead. There is no need for Charon, the ferryman, as this one is small and has a bridge. The underground river is framed by hand-placed stalactites and stalagmites, possibly acquired from the Witches Cave at Wookey Hole in Somerset, and has a manufactured eerie aura about it. The hero Achilles was dipped into the River Styx as a baby thereby gaining invulnerability and perhaps the inner circle felt invincible behind it. To your left and right, you cannot see its end. The branch to your right ends in a section called the Cursing Well. It is here that the underground river probably flows from the brook near St Lawrence’s above where you now stand.
After Crossing the Styx, you pass the mysterious inscription XXXIV before landing directly in the belly of the beast; The Inner Temple. This is the deepest part of the cave and the counterpart to the Inner Sanctum at Medmenham Abbey. The Inner Temple is said to lie directly below St Lawrence’s, though this may not be the case. Regardless, it represents the hell of the Hellfire Club, whereas the Church is the heaven. The role of the Inner Temple is as enigmatic as the rest of the cave system. It may have held an altar to Bona Dea (worshipped only by women in ancient Rome), or acted as a place for the inner circle to retire after banqueting in the hall. Regardless of its purpose, it was reserved for a select few and was where they felt the most at ease carrying out their activities. It is in the Inner Temple that John Wilkes tricked the Earl of Sandwich into thinking a baboon was the devil, resulting in the Earl making some embarrassing confessions.
This possibly marked the beginning of the end for the club. The Earl started to foster a hatred for John Wilkes and he started a public attack on him for his pornographic work ‘The Essay on Woman’. Charges of seditious libel against the crown were brought up against Wilkes and he fled into exile. Sandwich was reviled for his part in this, as he was known to be a man of loose morality himself. Combined with bad sentiment caused by his naval failures during the American War of Independence, Sandwich fell into disfavour. By the mid-1760s, the club was finished; Wilkes was in exile, the public knew of the baboon incident and Dashwood inherited his father’s position in the House of Lords.
Back in the light of day, you process the rakish folly that you have explored. Whether it was a sex club, a cult, a satanic circle that performed the black mass, a neo-pagan brotherhood or just a boys club of the movers and shakers of British politics, the Hellfire Club has left its mark on the landscape at West Wycombe. It has imprinted itself on many aspects of British culture and the bawdy upper-class man with little regard for reality is a caricature that was no doubt influenced by the Hellfire Clubs and similar such establishments of that era. The light is now dim, but the golden orb of the church seems to glow with an almost supernatural brilliance.