THE HELLFIRE CAVES – WEST WYCOMBE
Posted August 7, 2011on:
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Mention the name ‘The Hellfire Caves’ and it instantly sums up images of 18th century aristocratic debauchery, which would be exactly right. This man-made network of tunnels in rural Buckinghamshire was dug out between the years 1748-52 by the local lord of the manor, Sir Francis Dashwood (1708-1781), ostensibly to create jobs for local unemployed labourers, but also as an alternative party venue in which to entertain his guests. It can’t have been the most comfortable of places to party in, as the tunnels are very cramped and very cold, but perhaps this all added to the “ambience” for those with jaded palates on the look-out for new titillation. In some ways it all feels curiously modern, with people nowadays constantly looking for novelty venues in which to party. Here, Dashwood’s guests would gather underground, have a thoroughly Bacchanalian orgy, and hob-nob with prostitutes who were smuggled in dressed as nuns. This was thought to be a ruse to allay public suspicion, but I suspect the nuns’ costumes only added to the air of decadence. To add to the Sadean feel of it all, the honorary title of Abbot would be given to the leader of the revels, and he would wear flamboyant red robes.
Naturally many rich, famous people of the time were members of this club (again, as they would be now). The poet Paul Whitehead was secretary, and when he died he asked Dashwood to have his heart removed and preserved in an urn. This was done, but the urn was later stolen in 1829 (thought to be by an Australian soldier). Whitehead is said to have haunted the caves ever since. He has been seen as a shadowy figure who fades when people turn to look at him.
The most famous ghost-story connected with the caves is that of Sukie, a barmaid at the local ‘George And Dragon’ inn. Sukie had a lover, thought to be an aristocrat, as the local lads were very jealous, put-out no doubt that she preferred him over them. One night they hatched a dastardly plan. Sukie was told that her lover wanted to meet her in the caves late one night. Sukie unwittingly went off to meet them, and found the village louts waiting for her instead. A lot of teasing and horseplay got drastically out of control. One of the louts hit her with a stone, knocking her out. Distraught at what they had done, the men carried her back to the inn, but Sukie died that night.
Sukie’s tragic ghost (clothed Miss Haversham-style in a wedding dress) has been said to have haunted the caves and the pub ever since. Of course this is a classic ghost story, it has all the right ingredients: beautiful girl, a murder, tormented soul roaming restlessly for all eternity. I can’t say I have ever found any solid instance of anyone actually SEEING this ghost, certainly not in recent times, but I’m reluctant to write it off as a load of old rustic hooey. A few years ago I spent a night at the ‘George & Dragon’, and heard (in the middle of the night) the protracted sound of someone screaming.
Now of course this could have been anything, drunks mucking about (although I heard no one else at the time), an owl, a bat (though I do know what both sound like, and I would say it didn’t sound like either of those), most certainly I’m not instantly assuming it was a ghost. But it’s odd that that sound has disturbed me more since, than it did at the time. There is always that tantalising “what if?” feel to it.
Anyway, back to the actual caves themselves. The most spooky part of them is thought to be (naturally enough) the very lowest part, what is known as the Inner Temple, which sits across an underground river, known as the Styx from Greek Mythology. This sits some 300ft below the church, which was built on the top of the hill overlooking the village. The church was meant to represent Heaven, and the Inner Temple … well you’ve guessed it, Hell. The Inner Temple is a horrible, cramped little place, like the belly of the whale. When ‘Most Haunted’ visited here they found that the big iron gate to it moved by itself.
At Halloween 2010 I took my dowsing-rods to the caves, and braved all the hideous giant plastic spiders that the staff had seen fit to festoon all over the place, in honour of the occasion. I’m not an expert dowser by any means, and it is a matter of some debate as to whether they should be judged as accurate barometers of paranormal activity. The rods showed very little activity as I trudged all around the tunnels and the Great Hall (a magnificent cavern which was as the Club’s banqueting-hall), and I expected less and less as I went on. When I got down to the Inner Temple (which is the furthest you can go), I had to stick them through the bars of the gate (as you can’t actually enter it), and the rods suddenly moved quite dramatically. Now don’t shoot me, I’m not making any great claims here, it was scarcely the ideal way to do things, and I personally suspect the underground river was more the cause than anything supernatural, I’m just mentioning it out of interest.
If you’re ever in the area the caves are well worth a visit. We’ve been lucky enough to go round them by ourselves on a couple of occasions now, which can be oddly romantic if you get the chance!