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Sunday 19 June 2016

The Hell-Fire Club

The evocatively named Hell-Fire Caves in West Wycombe were originally excavated for a very practical reason – to quarry chalk for a new road to neighbouring High Wycombe. But the person behind the project, Sir Francis Dashwood, had the tunnels carved in a strange symbolic design (see top left picture), somewhat reminiscent of a modern-day crop formation. The caves were finished in 1752, and for the next ten years they served as the meeting place of Dashwood’s mysterious “Hell-Fire Club”.

I wrote about the Hell-Fire Caves on a previous occasion, using a picture that Paul Jackson sent me (and Paul has written about the site on his own blog). But I finally got around to visiting the caves myself last week, so I can show some of my own photos!

Actually “the Hell-Fire Club” seems to have been a pejorative term applied by outsiders – Dashwood and company actually referred to themselves as “The Knights of St Francis of Wycombe” (or sometimes “Friars” rather than “Knights”). Many of them were prominent poets, politicians and doctors – Dashwood himself was Chancellor of the Exchequer at one point. Other famous members included the Earl of Sandwich (who served as First Lord of the Admiralty, as well as inventing the sandwich) and the great painter and cartoonist William Hogarth (who is fortean enough to have appeared on this blog at least four times – here and here and here and here). Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s Founding Fathers, wasn’t a member of the club but is known to have visited the caves on more than one occasion (as depicted in the bottom right photo).

The caves contain a strange mixture of Christianity (as in the references to St Francis and Friars) and pre-Christian mythology (such as the statue of Venus that can be seen in the bottom left photo). The final chamber has the pagan-sounding name of “The Inner Temple”, and is located some hundred metres directly below the Christian church on top of the hill. Undoubtedly this helped give rise to the various rumours of “satanic” goings-on at the Hell-Fire Club. Personally, I’m increasingly sceptical about this – remember it was a time when the God-fearing masses believed anyone who read a book other than the Bible was a closet Satanist. Instead, I think Dashwood and his circle were just indulging in fashionable romantic fantasies about Graeco-Roman culture (a bit like the Stourhead temples I wrote about last year, which also date from the 1750s).

Normally when I hear about a “family mausoleum” in a churchyard I think of something comparable in size to my garden shed. Dashwood’s mausoleum, which he built on the hill directly above the Hell-Fire caves around the same time, is more like a small fortress:

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