Ghosts of the Hellfire Caves
A Paranormal Postcard from West Wycombe
Dominating the landscape as we drive towards the small village of West Wycombe is the hill that houses the network of caves infamously known as the Hellfire caves. It’s believed that the site was originally an ancient hillfort, and that the cave system was dug out of a chalk mine that had existed for centuries. Since the 1700’s however, the hill has been occupied by an imposing octagonal mausoleum, its entrance overlooking magnificent views across the valley and its high, flint walls open to the sky. Rising up behind it is the steeple of the church of St Lawrence, topped with its unusual golden globe.
These now-famous landmarks, as well as the caves that lie 300 feet beneath them, deep within the ancient hill, are the work of Sir Francis Dashwood, and some say that this design, with the church high up on the hill, and the caves directly below, was supposed to represent heaven and hell.
For all their notoriety, the Hellfire caves certainly started life innocently enough. Dashwood was member of parliament, and as such he promoted the idea of creating work to ease rural unemployment. In his role as the Baronet of West Wycombe, he soon found the need to put these proposals into action, when a series of crop failures between 1748 and 1750 caused serious local unemployment.
Another issue affecting the village, was that the old road running through the valley was so deeply rutted that carriages travelling along it regularly overturned, but Dashwood saw a clever way to solve both problems at once. He employed local men to dig material out of the mine and used what they extracted to build a new road. So, the men got paid and the new road got built…the only question is why – instead of simply mining the hill – Sir Francis decided to dig a complex cave system a quarter of a mile into it. Perhaps equally perplexing, is the grand folly he built around the entrance to the caves, with towering flint walls featuring window arches and steepled points looking every bit like the ruins of a gothic church nestled into the side of the hill.
On our arrival, the entrance to the caves does nothing to dispel its slightly sinister reputation. Past a spiked iron gate, flickering torches show the way into the first, dark tunnel, over which a crucifix hangs, clearly playing on the creepy associations the place has garnered over the years. But where did this reputation come from?
Well, the caves weren’t always called the Hellfire caves, they were once known merely as the caves at West Wycombe, but building strange and beautiful follies and mausoleums wasn’t Sir Francis Dashwood’s only pastime; he founded many elite gentleman’s clubs during his life. Some were established to appreciate art, others apparently involved religious pageantry, and some had rather more … salacious pursuits at heart, although very little is known about what actually went on within the club’s inner circles. All the members came from high society, many of whom were involved in parliament, so their activities were closely guarded secrets, and one can imagine that the very secrecy itself was a large part of the appeal.
One such club — the Knights of St Francis of Wycombe — became very fashionable, attracting Lords and MP’s as well as notable artists, writers and poets of the time. Initially, they met at the converted remains of a ruined Cistercian Abbey on the banks of the River Thames, the so-called ‘chapter meetings’ taking place twice a year. Although the purpose of the meetings was a closely guarded secret, contemporary letters give away fragments of information that paint an odd picture for sure, and of course, fuelled rife speculation.
The twelve inner members called themselves brothers, and wore white, flowing robes, whilst an elected Abbot wore a crimson gown and a red hat similar to a Cardinal’s. The meetings at the ruined abbey would go on until dawn, and although ladies were admitted, they wore masks to conceal their identity.
From these details alone you can see how the rumours began, and when political arguments between members led to the club being exposed in some London newspapers, the Knights of St Francis of Wycombe club was branded with a new, more ominous name…The Hellfire Club.
The dramatic lighting in parts of the caves adds to the atmosphere
The speculation was given a new and sinister twist when a story emerged about a prank that John Wilkes had played on the Earl of Sandwich, which appeared in a publication of 1766.
[Wilkes had smuggled in a baboon of all things, but worse than this, he dressed it up as a devil [in ‘phantastic garb, in which childish imagination cloths devils’] and concealed the poor creature in a large chest, which he then rigged up so that he could open it from his chair without any of the company noticing, and let the animal loose.
The story goes that at the chosen moment, Wilkes pulled the cord, and out popped the wretched animal which leapt on to the shoulders of Lord Sandwich, who, feeling the shock and seeing the animal grinning horribly at him, concluded that the Devil had obeyed his summons in good earnest and had come to carry him bodily away. The harder he tried to shake off the poor creature, the tighter it clung, whilst Sandwich cried out: “Spare me gracious Devil: spare a wretch who was never sincerely your servant. I sinned only from vanity of being in the fashion; thou knowest I never have been half so wicked as I pretended : never have been able to commit the thousandth part of the vices which I have boasted of…leave me therefore and go to those who are more truly devoted to your service. I am but half a sinner.”
Of course, this set alight rumours of the shadowy goings on of this most secretive society and, years later, after the club had disbanded, it only added to the mystery and intrigue when the steward, Paul Whitehead, made a huge bonfire, and burned all the club’s meticulously kept records just days before he died. We will never know what secrets he was keeping, as all we have left today are the cellar books, recording the wine that was drunk.
The caves fell into disrepair after the eighteenth century and weren’t restored and opened to the public until the 1950’s. In the intervening years however, locals still knew of their existence, and their ruinous state did nothing to deter adventurers young and old. Perhaps inevitably, legends grew up around the caves, and many a youngster enjoyed spooking themselves in the pitch darkness of the underground warren.
After the caves opened up to tourists, staff and visitors alike started having their own ghostly experiences. Disembodied footsteps, whispering, unexplained screams and cries in the banqueting hall, the apparition of a lady in a white dress, flitting through the tunnels…I couldn’t wait to get down there!
Looking at a map of the caves shows a curious design that people have tried to makes sense of for years. Some think it was copied from an ancient subterranean Greek temple, while others say it symbolises human anatomy and think it represents a birthing journey.
Nobody really knows what Dashwood was thinking when he designed the caves…but all I can tell you is that there is no sense of any of this once you’re down there in the dark. On a map it all looks quite simple; a series of long tunnels connected, at interludes, by pleasingly shaped chambers and grottos, the path splitting occasionally to create detours so that the route of the tunnels themselves add yet more shapes to the odd design. Of course, it’s one thing looking at a bird’s eye view sketch of the caves, and quite another to be in them.
The first tunnel is brick-lined and hung with information plaques—all quite familiar—especially with the shafts of daylight still seeping in from the tunnel’s entrance. So it is quite a shock to then rather suddenly find yourself in the caves proper, the reassuring daylight all at once utterly gone. Of course it’s lit well enough to see without undue hazard, but it’s quite obvious that the intermittent lighting is merely nipping at the edges of the shadows down here. It’s not often you get to experience true dark…a dark so thick it almost seems to have substance, and the lights seem to serve only to bring the dark alive, casting crazily shifting shadows that chase you around blind corners and into dead ends. In the cave walls there are sinister carved faces with ghastly, hollow eye sockets which fill with shadow as you pass, making them appear to leer grotesquely.
In the first cave – whether it be paranormal, or simply geological in nature, I experience a bitter chill and a distinct change in atmosphere. It’s freezing, and there’s a pressure in the air. I brush it off – I mean, we are descending underground after all. But later on, I wonder. After our visit we watch a documentary on the caves which reports that paranormal investigators do indeed record a large temperature drop in this area, which is odd, as we’re still very close to the entrance at this point, and the real bowels of the system are a still nearly a quarter of a mile further into the hill.
But in fact, this is where we encounter one of the main ghost stories associated with the caves, and there is a fittingly spooky mannequin tucked into a dramatically lit cavern to help tell the story. It is the figure of the club’s steward Paul Whitehead, and he is depicted sitting next to the urn that once contained his heart…
The figurine is shown doing what he did in life, writing up the cellar book that recorded all the Hellfire club drank at each meeting. When Whitehead died, he left Sir Francis Dashwood 50 pounds with which to purchase an urn. He asked that his heart be sealed in the urn and interred in the great mausoleum on top of the hill ‘as a memorial of [his] warm attachment to its noble founder’
Dashwood honoured the request, purchasing an urn upon which an epitaph read;
‘Unhallowed hands, this urn forbear!
No Gems or Orient spoil
Lie here concealed-but what’s more rare
A heart that knew no guile!
Whitehead’s heart was sealed within, and carried in a large and grand procession up the hill to the mausoleum where it was interred, but by all accounts, it was not left to rest in peace, with the heart apparently quite often taken out of its urn and shown to visitors! That alone wasn’t enough to stir up the steward’s ghost, but when one visitor actually stole the heart from the mausoleum, Paul Whitehead’s apparition started making appearances.
After the theft, the shade of Whitehead was seen flitting about the gardens of West Wycombe House, and after the urn was moved into the caves for safety visitors began to report encountering the apparition of a man in 18th century clothing on the hillside near the mausoleum and in the caves, where he is sometimes mistaken for a member of staff in historical dress … until he fades away before the witnesses’ eyes.
The Dashwood Mausoleum
After what seems like a particularly long descent into darkness, we reach what’s known as Franklin’s cave, so-called after none other than Benjamin Franklin.
While he was in England between 1764 to 1775, Franklin became a close friend of Sir Francis Dashwood, and often spent his summers at West Wycombe House, the 5000-acre Dashwood family estate. In a letter sent during one stay he described the gardens as ‘a paradise’ and of Dashwood himself, wrote; “But a pleasanter thing is the kind countenance, the facetious and very intelligent conversation of mine host, who having been for many years engaged in publick affairs, seen all parts of Europe, and kept the best company in the world, is himself the best existing.”
We don’t know for sure if he was involved with the meetings of the Hellfire club, but he certainly seemed to have enjoyed visiting the caves, as he wrote to a friend in Philadelphia after a visit in 1722;
‘The exquisite sense of classical design charmingly reproduced by Sir Francis Dashwood at West Wycombe, whimsical and playful sometimes may be its imagery, is as much evident below the earth as above it.’
After negotiating a maze of cramped tunnels – Fitz having to stoop to avoid the low ceiling – the space, all of a sudden, opens up to cavernous proportions as we enter the banqueting hall.
At four points around the circular cavern, akin to the points of a compass, there are little alcoves, referred to as cells – like those you would find in a monastery. Apparently, these used to be curtained off for private use by members, so you can imagine the activities rumoured to take place within. These days each cell contains a Greek-style statue, up-lit with red and green lights that cast a formidable, looming double of each figure.
After the warren-like tunnels the scale comes as rather a shock! The ceiling is 40 feet high, and the walls seem to simply disappear into the darkness above, the constant dripping of water making loud echoes as it splashes to the floor. I found out later that while Dashwood’s ancestor – another Sir Francis – was working to restore the caves in the 1950’s, great chunks and boulders of this very ceiling had fallen in on several occasions, and those working in the caves had narrowly avoided disaster. To make the hall safe, they had to drill 130 feet down from the top of the hill, lowering wire ropes down through the holes in order to hoist up a huge, protective steel canopy on the inside of the cave! If this wasn’t unnerving enough, there’s also the knowledge that directly above our heads is the graveyard of St Lawrence Church!
As impressive as the hall is, it’s also where most sightings are reported of the cave’s other famous ghost.
During the late 18th century, the road through West Wycombe was on a major coaching route between London and Oxford, so the local tavern – the George and Dragon, saw its fair share of well-at-heel gentlemen passing through. One of the inn’s barmaids was Suki, the local beauty much admired by the town’s resident young men. But Suki had her sights set on bigger things, hoping to escape the small town on the arm of a rich suitor.
She thought her day had finally come when a suitable bachelor happened to be passing through town, and seemed to take quite a shine to Suki. The girl was smitten and giddy, so giddy in fact that when she received word that her feelings were reciprocated, she didn’t doubt it for a moment.
A group of local lads, jealous and bitter, decided to play a cruel prank on her. They gave her a message – supposedly from the target of her affections – telling her she must go to meet him at the caves that very night, and to wear a wedding dress, for they were to elope with haste.
Suki did exactly as she was bid, searching the dark, lonely depths of the caves looking for her love but of course, finding no-one. When the local lads gave the game away she realised the cruel trick, and in her pain and frustration she flung a handful of gravel at the laughing boys. Still full of sport, the boys retaliated, but amongst the stones they flung back, was a large rock which hit Suki in the head, and she was killed where she stood, heartbroken, in her white wedding gown.
It’s no surprise that her ghost is said to still haunt these caves, visitors have heard screams and cries emanating from the hall that they attribute to Suki, and the fleeting glimpse of a white dress, flitting round a corner has been seen quite often.
Staff report that some visitors have even asked if the caves have been hosting a wedding or fancy-dress party in the banqueting hall, as they have been confused by seeing a lady in a white wedding-like dress, and one customer told of how that he had witnessed a white, ghostly figure cross from the left to right side of a passageway. Being a complete sceptic, he raced down there to discover the cause, but found no-one, and was met with nothing but darkness and silence.
The phantom bride even makes the odd appearance on camera, with tourists later discovering odd mists and blurred forms on their photographs that just might resemble a moving figure in a white dress. Fully owning this ghost story, there caves have provided information boards about the haunting of Suki, and even a life-sized model of her, looking suitably spooky in a gauzy, white wedding dress and blood-smeared brow!
After traversing the triangle and the miner’s caves, we reach the River Styx. It’s a real subterranean river, although augmented somewhat by stalactites purloined from Wookey Hole — a natural underground cave in Somerset. Nowadays the small river is crossed by a bridge, but in the days of the Hellfire club, it was reportedly much wider, and you had to cross it by boat, some accounts even suggesting a villager was employed to stand in for the mythical ferryman Charon and ferry you across the river for the cost of a shilling, re-enacting the Greek legend, in which the River Styx separated the mortal world from the underworld.
On the other side of the river is the deepest point of the caves, the inner temple, where the secret club meetings were said to take place. And here, 300 feet underground, visitors have heard a disembodied whispering in their ears. Some have actually been shushed whilst chatting between themselves, and others – especially women – have been yelled at to go away.
Like all the other caverns, this one has mannequins – which can be creepy enough on their own! But in 2001 the water rose in the subterranean river and flooded the inner temple. When it drained away, and staff went in to clear up, they discovered that some of the mannequins had fallen forwards, and were shaken to see that these figures’ hands had somehow turned outwards, as if to save themselves from the fall.
The mannequins in the inner temple depict a party scene showing members of the Hellfire club and their lady friends sporting 18th evening wear and gathered around a table laden with food, wine and candles. The warm lighting makes it look cosy, but I have to wonder to myself how good a party venue it really was, as my feet squelch over the sodden gravel floor and water drips into my hair from above.
The caves have so often been painted as a den of iniquity, a place of parties and frivolous celebration, I was surprised at the cold, damp reality of them. I don’t really know what I imagined the caves to be, but all the stories of flamboyant parties, together with the man-made nature of them — I was almost expecting something more … opulent perhaps? But there was no luxury here, no comfort. Just the chill of a place forever untouched by daylight. A distinct, mineral smell hangs sharply on the air and the walls are slick with moisture, leaving a white film on anything that brushes against them.
The dark is impenetrable enough with electric light, I can only imagine trying to find your way through them with just a candle, and the thought of wandering through this dark, slick labyrinth … disoriented, the sinister carved faces leering at you from the walls, the echoes of dripping water sounding for all the world like a footstep or two, following behind you … well, I imagine the Hellfire caves can truly live up to their name.
The view over West Wycombe from the Dashwood Mausoleum.