Friday: time for a little hellfire at Hellfire Caves.
Despite its name, the little complex of tunnels is no longer a hotbed of Hadean horrors. Truth be told, it never was. Children have always loved it, because it offers a place to be spooked without being traumatised.
The village of West Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, is owned by the National Trust, and supervised with paternal indulgence by a great round mausoleum and church on West Wycombe Hill.
In the chalk mound below burrow the caves.
The National Trust has sown the entire hill with wild flowers and it seems a little like Elysium, up there, with a picnic, looking down on the world below. It is the site of a pagan place of worship much like Stonehenge, and a lost Saxon village.
Maddie and Felix cottoned on immediately to the metaphor. The church was heaven: the caves hell. And we were making the steep climb. As I got up to clear the picnic and stride the final metres to the church at the top, they were doing serviceable impressions of souls in purgatory, hugging the slopes and begging loudly (if rather cheerfully) for mercy.
Sir Francis Dashwood (1708-1781), the man who built both church and caves, would have been proud of them.
Because while, admittedly, the Eton-educated Member of Parliament, who rose briefly to be Chancellor of the Exchequer, did like a nice orgy and was partial to a bit of black magic, there is a childlike -one might even venture, puerile- sense of fun at the heart of his antics.
He adored dressing up. Mainly as monks and popes and suchlike. Like any young aristocrat he had been on an extensive grand tour of Europe: he studied seminaries carefully and found them “in direct contradiction to nature and reason”. But the bells and spells of the Catholic church were capital games to copy, and he spent his life in homage to paganism, inventing inner circles and rituals and costumes and cultivating mysterious places.
Our picnic finished, we came down the hill ready for our descent into Dashwood’s underworld.
These are not natural caves. They were hollowed out between 1748-1752 by workers from the village to provide material to build a three-mile road to the nearest big town. So they are hewn with some rough artistry to a map based on a classical Greek temple, specified by Dashwood.
The lighting is still scant and the children walked very close indeed as we trod the damp path down into the heart of the hill. The walls were wet to the touch, and every sound reflected with that strange muffled quality that only chalk can provide.
This place was pure theatre. It was a folly, albeit centuries old. It has its own River Styx – a small stream – and an inner temple directly below the church on top of the hill. One of the club willed his heart to be buried in a jar there, and it has been. There is a room named after Benjamin Franklin, a visitor to Sir Francis’s estate. The tunnels include small rooms to either side and one great cavern with cathedral-like roof.
It was companionable spookiness, though. Because while Sir Francis was a little debauched, I have a suspicion he was a good man.
The caves are a result of a public works project. The village was in dire need: work was becoming non-existent and the families of the village were starving. At a shilling a day, workers dug and built the road, and were able to support their families. This was a Roosevelt-style solution to a community in dire need.
So it is my belief that the Devil was cheated of Sir Francis.
Foolish, rakish, theatrical and laviscious he may have been, but the man who made a pagan-style Heaven and Hell at West Wycombe also made life bearable once more for the families in his village.
I wonder, though, whether having achieved Heaven, he finds it a little dull?