Heaven, hell and a very naughty boy

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?


39 thoughts on “Heaven, hell and a very naughty boy

  1. He could not go wrong with such a magnificent name as Sir Francis Dashwood. When looking at paintings interpreting Heaven and Hell, there certainly appears to be much more fun and antics going on in the latter. Regrettably the former looks pretty dull in comparison.

  2. Brings back memories of misspent late teens when we used to set off in cars late at night to wander the estate, which was certainly less security conscious in the early 60’s. You made a good judgement of Sir Francis, I think.

  3. Wonder what today’s world equivalent would be -fibre optical sssssstupour high speed internet? Just a strange thought.

    You must consider yourself in heaven and smile every time you venture out, given where you live, that there exists an abundance to the legacy of man’s absurd silly pursuits. A picnic in the ruins (in this case not ruins) becomes something entirely else. Oh, how your mind must wander, an what a mind. Good shtufffs.

    1. Thanks, Hudson: we are lucky to live here, and school holidays are just a time to take it all in. Today’s equivalent of the caves? I can only look at what science fiction has provided. You remember Westworld?

  4. Wow, and to think I’m only taking my kids to a movie. I feel as though I’m shortchanging them somehow. 😉

    Loved looking at the photos, especially the one with your two kiddos outside the gate. Was a great shot.

    1. They were most perturbed that they could not get into the church, Carrie: it only opens on Sunday afternoons, apparently…the place is just one huge film set. And the hill was perfect for rolling back down again 😀

  5. It doesn’t surprise me at all that Ben Franklin would’ve been curious about Sir Francis, because Ben was such a bawdy eclectic. I love the stories an appalled John Adams wrote about Franklin at the French court, “befriending” a Frenchwoman (with all Adamsian judgmental intonation implied) and mooning over her when her dog weed on the floor at a formal dinner, and she wiped it up with her skirt.

    But, I am digressing.

    You are finding such treasures on your summer adventures, Kate. How someone could build a thing for his own amusement (and assistance to the surrounding area, certainly), and it still amuses and delights almost three hundred years later.

    1. I’m sure you know his advice to a young man on taking a mistress, Andra. Classic stuff…..”As in the dark all Cats are grey, the Pleasure of corporal enjoyment with an old Woman is at least equal, and frequently superior, every Knack being by Practice capable of Improvement…and…they are so grateful!”

      1. Why don’t they teach these things in US history? Our founders were such interesting people, but history book writers gave them our usual Puritan wash.

      2. I love Franklin’s advice to a young man on taking a mistress . . . the OLDER, the better (because they are so grateful). 😉

  6. what a stunning place though, not at all how i had envisioned it to be.. they were naughty boys in those days, well probably in these days too!! c

    1. Do you know what you would have loved most, Penny? The incredible variety of wild flowers, waist high, covering that pudding basin of a hill with views to die for. A little bit of Heaven.

  7. Lovely photos and a delightful story, Kate. If Sir Francis fancies the coolness of a cave, I doubt he’d find the warmer clime in the afterlife appealing. It sounds like Sir Francis did well by the residents and should be properly rewarded.

  8. I don’t think I know of an equivalent to such a place! I’m sure the children were inclined to stay close, but I would have the same response, I’m sure. Just the idea of someone having their heart buried there brings to mind Poe, and it would be hard to keep my imagination from running ahead of me! I am indeed fascinated with such an imaginative public works project. Debra

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