The Hellfire Club Tunnels and Caves, West Wycombe

Photographs of the Hellfire Club, West WycombeIn yet another episode in a never-ending series, blather.net returns to the lair of the English Hellfire Club – Sir Francis Dashwood’s party-house at Medmenham Abbey, and the fantastically kitsch tunnels in West Wycombe.


Back in 1998, blather.net visited the Hellfire Club tunnels, in West Wycombe, Buckinghamshire – which, in case you don’t know, is about 50km out of London. Back then, I knew very little about photography – I pointed and I shot, and was pleased enough. Now, I know a little more, and hope I’ve presented some better images of one very, very odd place.
I’ve already written extensively on blather.net about the Hellfire Clubs, both the Irish Hellfire Club and their English counterparts. So, rather than getting into an explanation of 18th century rakes and satanists, I’m going to stick with talking about our recent visit.
In November 2005, a crack blather.net & Strange Attractor team descended upon West Wycombe. First, however, we decided to track down the whereabouts of Medmenham Abbey, where Sir Francis Dashwood, and his Knights of St. Francis had their Bacchanalian raves. Many writers confuse the two – claiming that the Hellfire Club had their orgies in the tunnels, while in fact, Dashwood commissioned the digging of the tunnels quite late in life, and after the heyday of the ‘club’.
We found Medmenham Abbey easily enough – on a beautiful stretch of the Thames, between Henley and Marlow. The problem is, if you’re on the same side of the river as the Abbey, you can’t see it – the walls are two high. We decided to see it from the other side of the river. Back in the car, we made for Hurley, via Henley. Before heading out on the towpath, we visited the churchyard in Hurley.
The Thames has abundant wildlife here – grebes in the water, and kites (the bird of prey) flying overhead. And then there’s the camera-loving llama in a field along the way.
About a half-hour walk took us up where got a full view of the Abbey – these days, it’s a privately owned residence, and by the looks of it, the owner has plenty of money. Cistercian monks founded Medmenham Abbey about 1145, which survived until the dissolution of the monasteries in about 1540. In the mid-17th century, Sir Francis Dashwood – then Chancellor of the Exchequer – got his hands on what was left, and used it as a scandalous private club for his friends.
More about Sir Francis Dashwood &raquo
It’s a quick drive from Hurley to Marlow, and then on to High Wycombe. Driving out of High Wycombe towards the village West Wycombe, the Dashwood Mausoleum is visible on top of the hill, directly ahead. It’s a quick, but steep climb up to the mausoleum – a massive flint structure that looks more like a fortress than a last resting place for the dead.
Just up the hill is St. Lawrence’s Church – built by Dashwood, from the ruins of an old Norman tower, which itself was inside the banked enclosure of West Wycombe Camp – an iron age fortification. Dashwood, in a fit of Italian fervour, modelled the tower on the customs house in Venice – and put a large golden sphere on top. This (Christian ) church is claimed to be 300 feet (91m) above the ‘Inner Temple’ of the caverns.
Back down the hill, are the slightly tacky entrances to the tunnels. When we visited, we got the impression that the staff hadn’t quite cleared up after Halloween, but instead we’re putting together a ‘scary Christmas’ theme from the Samhain leftovers. The cafe and souvenir shop has lots of plastic tat – rubber bats and the like. The management seem obsessed with marketing the place as a good, clean, wholesome family day out. Disney with a slight edge. This is ironic, given the history of the place, and Dashwood’s carry-on.
Inside, the disembodied voice of the recently-deceased most-recent Sir Francis Dashwood greets us, telling us the story of the caves. The tunnels aren’t natural – they were dug out by local workers at the behest of Dashwood following a crop failure. They used the chalk from the caves to build what is now the A40, in order to rejuvenate the local economy.
However, instead of digging a quarry, Dashwood created a bizarre tunnel system, with a banqueting hall, an inner temple – and even a fake River Styx. Everywhere in the tunnels, carved faces leer. I don’t remember so many the last time – I have a suspicion that some of them are fairly recent, but I can’t be sure. They cute carving of a cat on one wall is definitely suspect.
But enough blather from me – enjoy the photographs…

  1. Entrance
  2. Tool Store
  3. Whitehead’s Cave
  4. Lord Sandwich Circle
  5. Franklins Cave
  6. Children’s Cave
  7. Banqueting Hall
  8. Triangle
  9. Miner’s Cave
  10. River Styx
  11. Inner Temple

(‘XXII’ refers to a marking on the wall, mentioned in a poem of the time… )
To purchase high resolution copies of Hellfire Club UK photographs, please visit davewalshphoto.com »
Medmenham Abbey, on the Thames, where the Hellfire Club had their meetings
Medmenham Abbey, on the Thames, where the Hellfire Club had their meetings. It’s between Henley and Marlow.
Medmenham Abbey, on the Thames, where the Hellfire Club had their meetings
Medmenham Abbey
The Churchyard and Mausoleum, West Wycombe, Dashwood's Hellfire Club
The Dashwood Church, West Wycombe
The Churchyard and Mausoleum, West Wycombe, Dashwood's Hellfire Club
The Dashwood Church, West Wycombe
The Churchyard and Mausoleum, West Wycombe, Dashwood's Hellfire Club
The Dashwood Church, West Wycombe
To purchase high resolution copies of Hellfire Club UK photographs, please visit davewalshphoto.com »
The Churchyard and Mausoleum, West Wycombe, Dashwood's Hellfire Club
The Golden ball on top of the Church. It has a little hatch, allowing access for a couple of people. Dashwood used to use the ball for sending heliograph signals to his friends, apparently.
The Churchyard and Mausoleum, West Wycombe, Dashwood's Hellfire Club
The Dashwood mausoleum. Hammer fans might recognise it from the movie based on a Dennis Wheatley novel, To the Devil a Daughter (1976)
To purchase high resolution copies of Hellfire Club UK photographs, please visit davewalshphoto.com »
The Churchyard and Mausoleum, West Wycombe, Dashwood's Hellfire Club
Mausoleum detail
The Churchyard and Mausoleum, West Wycombe, Dashwood's Hellfire Club
Mausoleum detail
The Churchyard and Mausoleum, West Wycombe, Dashwood's Hellfire Club
Inside the mausoleum
To purchase high resolution copies of Hellfire Club UK photographs, please visit davewalshphoto.com »
The Churchyard and Mausoleum, West Wycombe, Dashwood's Hellfire Club
Inside the mausoleum. Note the tiny people!
The Churchyard and Mausoleum, West Wycombe, Dashwood's Hellfire Club
Mausoleum detail
The entrance to the Hellfire Club Tunnels and Caves, West Wycombe
The entrance to the Hellfire Club Tunnels, at West Wycombe
To purchase high resolution copies of Hellfire Club UK photographs, please visit davewalshphoto.com »
Hellfire Club Tunnels and Caves, West Wycombe
Entering the tunnels
Hellfire Club Tunnels and Caves, West Wycombe
Disappearing in the tunnels
Hellfire Club Tunnels and Caves, West Wycombe
Ghoulish faces abound – carved hither and thither in the soft chalk walls.
To purchase high resolution copies of Hellfire Club UK photographs, please visit davewalshphoto.com »
Hellfire Club Tunnels and Caves, West Wycombe
Another face.
Hellfire Club Tunnels and Caves, West Wycombe
The ‘Banqueting Hall’
Hellfire Club Tunnels and Caves, West Wycombe
The ‘Banqueting Hall’
Hellfire Club Tunnels and Caves, West Wycombe
Bizarre mannequins are employed to tell the story of the tunnels.
Hellfire Club Tunnels and Caves, West Wycombe
The Tunnels
Hellfire Club Tunnels and Caves, West Wycombe
And there’s no one there
Hellfire Club Tunnels and Caves, West Wycombe
Eek!
To purchase high resolution copies of Hellfire Club UK photographs, please visit topfoto.co.uk »
Hellfire Club Tunnels and Caves, West Wycombe
Wizard or dunce?
Hellfire Club Tunnels and Caves, West Wycombe
Hello…
Hellfire Club Tunnels and Caves, West Wycombe
Another demon
Hellfire Club Tunnels and Caves, West Wycombe
Another carved face
Hellfire Club Tunnels and Caves, West Wycombe
I’m lonely
Hellfire Club Tunnels and Caves, West Wycombe
A figure appears
Hellfire Club Tunnels and Caves, West Wycombe
The blather.net Strange Attractor gang.
Hellfire Club Tunnels and Caves, West Wycombe
Who was Lord Luxford?
To purchase high resolution copies of Hellfire Club UK photographs, please visit topfoto.co.uk »
Hellfire Club Tunnels and Caves, West Wycombe
A pentagram. Modern or ancient?
Hellfire Club Tunnels and Caves, West Wycombe
Carved Skull
Hellfire Club Tunnels and Caves, West Wycombe
Skull
Hellfire Club Tunnels and Caves, West Wycombe
Lonely tunnel
Hellfire Club Tunnels and Caves, West Wycombe
A copy of a page from the cellar book from Medmenham, kept in the tunnels at West Wycombe, detailing what the Knights of St. Francis were drinking.
To purchase high resolution copies of Hellfire Club UK photographs, please visit topfoto.co.uk »
Chalk carvings in the Hellfire Club tunnels
Zig Zag faces
Hellfire Club Tunnels and Caves, West Wycombe
I’m just a lonely face
Hellfire Club Tunnels and Caves, West Wycombe
More tacky mannequins – Dashwood, a baboon and some friends
The entrance to the Hellfire Club Tunnels and Caves, West Wycombe
The entrance to the Hellfire Club Tunnels at night. Note tacky skull in centre of photograph.
To purchase high resolution copies of Hellfire Club UK photographs, please visit topfoto.co.uk »
Google Earth
Click here to open the Google Earth placemarker and go direct to the Dashwood Mausoleum

blather
The disembodied collective editorial voice of the only really nice website in Ireland.

19 comments

  1. Hi Colman – thanks for the comment. That was the first time using my 550ex flash, so more flashes would been too complicated!

  2. well. i suspect the tacky dummies etc. may just about be enough to put me off visiting..its a shame they dont dress it a little better, lets face it with such an interesting past a person with a little imagination could have huge fun.. ah well.. thank you for your piece it was very interesting.

  3. Hagbard (Celine?) you are right. I must have dropped me ‘aitch’ when I was in England. Fixed now, thanks!

  4. You twat, I work at the caves and the “tacky skull” was there for our halloween late nights. God sakes, don’t diss what you know nothing about. Fag head.

  5. Well, Victoria, that’s fine language coming from a member of the staff of the Hellfire Club Caves, Sir Francis would have been proud of yould. Great public relations stance too!
    I would point our visit was was on November 19th, nearly three weeks after Halloween!

  6. Well you aren’t a customer now are you?! And yeah I think he would be proud of me and the rest of girls, we look after that place and love, see there you go, saying stuff you know nothing about. Well this is the last time I come to this site. Keep up the “fantastic” work friend.

  7. Victoria.
    Damien here – I’m another regular contributor to blather.net. I find it informative that you managed to look at an article about the place you work, which has been lovingly written, complimented with some superb photography and a welter of links and information for prospective visitors and found the one thing from which you could have derived offence.
    Blather.net has been responsible for more free publicity and press for the Wycombe tunnels and Dashwood estate than anyone else on the web: fact.
    And you’ve been given it for free: fact.
    About the skull. I’m sorry, but I was there that day. That skull *is* tacky. Empirically, undeniably tacky. With a capital ‘T’. You may not like that, but again, it’s a fact.
    One last thing: if you’re smart, you’ll shut up now. We welcome comments from vistors but do not tolerate insults. Your use of the expression ‘fag-head’ is just such an insult.
    And what’s more, it’s a pathetic, childish insult. If you’re going to throw insults our way, you’ll have to do a tad better. We get a slightly better class of flame-throwing around here.

  8. Hello, I also work at the caves, and I have been reading your website for many years. I found it quite interesting to read what people think about my place work. I am always amazed at how many websites there are on the caves, which only proves everyone loves them as much as I do.
    We do a big halloween event at the caves every year, which attracts around 10,000 people in one weeks, purely for the fact the caves are dressed up in halloween costumes. Hence the giant skull which was there in the entrances, from what I could tell you were at the caves at the time when we dressing the caves for the next event. We would advise anyone who would like to the see the caves as it is “normaly” I would say dont visit October-November.
    I would also like to apoligise for any offense by Victoria ( I will lock her down the caves for a week!!)
    I would also like to say thank you for the website, because all the interest in these websites helps interest in the caves, but I would like to point out, photos of the caves should not be sold as photos produced down the caves are only for personal use and not commercial.
    Susan

  9. wicked site, I have never seen the caves, however am reading a great deal of them, as well as reading on the “hellfire clubs”
    cudos to you lads

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