Hellfire On a Hill

The fire had been provided by a portable BBQ, that now lay discarded with accompanying beer bottles under a tree just behind the mausoleum. I am sure Sir Francis Dashwood, creator of all I could see, would have approved of the party, but not the litter.

Perhaps I was subconscioulsy drawn to West Wycombe hill that day, despite driving past it many times, because Brad Pitt had been spotted in the area; the giveaway was a film set that included a downed WW2 airplane stuck nose-first into the side of the hill. Cue a Twitter frenzy followed by crushing disappointment as of course mere mortals were not allowed anywhere near!

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Brad Pitt caused ripples when he appeared to film the plan crash scene from a WW2 spy drama ‘Five Seconds of Silence” as reported in The Times.

A more perfect scene-setter I could not have wished for: West Wycombe Park is a place that has swirled with rumour, innuendo, and antics of the famous and infamous that would have put any Hollywood star to shame.  Located three miles west of High Wycombe, west of London, this fascinating place is home to a medieval high street, country seat, St Lawrence church, a mausoleum and Hell-Fire Caves attraction, all dominating the landscape by virtue of reputation and location atop the excavated, yet impressive Chilterns chalk outcrop.

All the legacy of the Dashwood family, whose Sir Francis Dashwood, 11th Baron le Despencer (1708 – 1781) was an English rake and politician, Chancellor of the Exchequer (1762–1763) and founder of the notorious Hellfire Club, along with the Earl of Sandwich, are alleged to have met at the George and Vulture Inn, (located in the City of London), throughout the 1730s before moving the club to Medmenham Abbey, a short distance from West Wycombe on the River Thames and then into the caves. The club was notorious for orgies and black magic, but had disbanded by 1763 (according to church records) with the caves falling into disuse.

Sir Francis was a very busy man; building roads, a fine country house,  church, mausoleum, an elaborate cave system where he entertained, all using local materials hewn from the hillside (by the locals at a shilling a day), that legend has it has been inhabited since…well, forever. The church was named St Lawrence, as all churches are, that supersede places of pagan worship, and seems to retain elements of its ‘sense of place’ as it includes a golden ball that rises above the tower and has space for six Georgian party-goers inside. Saying their prayers?

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St Lawrence and the infamous golden ball atop the church tower.

The church was closed when I visited, but outside of service times, is open on Sunday afternoons from 27th March from 12.30 – 5.00pm until the end of September 2016. The churchyard is bursting with gravestones, many at strange angles as if the inhabitants have been moving around inside, some impressive columns to the fallen  of the First and Second World Wars, and local families including the Joynson’s. They have prominent burials with one poignant inscription to their 16 year-old son William, who drowned whilst swimming in the Seine in Paris in 1865. The imaged journey home from Paris to West Wycombe in 1865 has stayed with me since my visit.

What does steal the show however, is the mausoleum that straddles the hilltop, still dominating the landscape after 250 years. Based on the design of the Constantine Arch in Rome, this unroofed structure is unlike anything else in the country. It was built using excavated flints from deep inside the hill,  still in the family ownership (unlike the rest of the estate that had to sold following the Wall Street Crash of ’29), this memorial to Sir Francis and his friends is in remarkable condition. Unlike the surrounds, which looked much used and abused; the fire provided by a portable BBQ, that now lay discarded with accompanying beer bottles under a tree just behind the mausoleum. I am sure Sir Francis, creator of all I could see, would have approved of the party, but not the litter.

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To the rear of the Dashwood Mausoleum, with the more discreet William Joynson mausoleum in the foreground.

Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of America who helped to write the Declaration of Independence in 1776, was a great friend of Sir Francis Dashwood of West Wycombe Park and spent much time there in the early 1770s. He is reputed to have taken part in sessions of the notorious Hellfire Club and clearly found the surroundings of the house and park much to his liking as he wrote many times to his son. I do wonder what he took from this time here to contribute to co-writing the Declaration of Independence?

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The great, the good and the not-so-good have all made their homes in the Chilterns. Many of their finest houses are now in the care of the National Trust. Make your own selection to plan your Grand Tour, with more than its fair share of opulence, interest and intrigue.

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