West Wycombe Caves
West Wycombe Caves (also known as the Hell-Fire Caves) are a network of man-made chalk and flint caverns which extend one quarter of a mile underground, situated above the village of West Wycombe, at the southern edge of the Chiltern Hills near High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, Southeast England. They were excavated between 1748 and 1752 for the infamous Francis Dashwood, 15th Baron le Despencer (2nd Baronet), founder of the Dilettanti Society and co-founder of the notorious Hell Fire Club, whose meetings were held within the caves. They have been operating as a tourist attraction since 1951 and have attracted over 2 million visitors since their re-opening.

The caves run deep into the hillside above West Wycombe village and directly beneath Saint Lawrence's Church and Mausoleum (which were also constructed by Sir Francis Dashwood around the same time the caves were excavated). West Wycombe Park, ancestral seat of the Dashwood family and also a National Trust property, lies directly across the valley. The caves' striking entrance, designed as the façade of a mock gothic church and built from flint and chalk mortar, which would have been erected at around 1752, can be viewed directly from West Wycombe House.

Design and Layout
The unusual and intriguing design of the caves were much inspired by Sir Francis Dashwood's visits to Italy, Greece, Turkey, Syria and other areas of the Ottoman Empire during his Grand Tour. The caves extend a quarter of a mile underground, with each individual cave or "chamber" connected by a series of long, narrow tunnels and passageways. The underground chambers are named, from the Entrance Hall, to the Steward's Chamber and Whitehead's Cave, through Lord Sandwich's Circle (named after John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich), Franklin's Cave (named after Benjamin Franklin, a friend of Dashwood who visited West Wycombe), the Banqueting Hall (allegedly the largest man-made chalk cavern in the world), the Triangle, to the Miner's Cave; and finally, across a subterranean river named the Styx, lies the final cave, the Inner Temple (where the meetings of the Hell Fire Club were held), which is said to lie directly 300 feet beneath the church on top of West Wycombe hill. According to Greek mythology, the River Styx separated the mortal world from the immortal world, and the subterranean position of the Inner Temple directly beneath Saint Lawrence's Church was supposed to signify Heaven and Hell. An alternative viewpoint was advanced by Daniel P. Mannix in his book about The Hell Fire Club. This theory suggests that the caves had been deliberately created by Dashwood according to a sexual design. The design begins at the 'womb' of the Banqueting Hall, leading to rebirth through the female triangle, followed by baptism in the River Styx and the pleasures thereafter of the Inner Temple. This theory is not mentioned in National Trust literature and is allegedly refuted by the Dashwood family. The flint mining theory is also questionable because the Chiltern Hills flint bed overlays the chalk escarpment and does not have to be mined except by means of small open flint dells, of which there are many in the area.

History of the Caves

Alteration and extension of the Caves
A chalk mine of supposedly ancient origin is believed to have existed above West Wycombe for centuries. During the late 1740s, and in an attempt to combat local poverty, Sir Francis Dashwood commissioned an ambitious project to supply chalk for a straight three-mile road between West Wycombe and High Wycombe (then part of the busy London - Oxford trade route, and now the A40 road). Local farm workers, impoverished due to a succession of droughts and failed harvests, were employed at the rate of a shilling per day (enough to sustain a family in the Georgian era) to tunnel beneath ground and mine chalk and flint. The chalk was used to construct the West Wycombe - High Wycombe road as well as being used for building material for the houses in the village and for the church and Mausoleum. Considering they were all dug by hand, the caves are often regarded as an incredible feat of engineering.

The Hell-Fire Club
The caves were used solely as a meeting place for Sir Francis Dashwood's notorious Hellfire Club, whose members included various politically and socially important 18th century figures such as William Hogarth, John Wilkes, Thomas Potter and John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich. Though not believed to be a member, Benjamin Franklin was a close friend to Dashwood who visited the caves on more than one occasion. The Hell Fire Club had previously used Medmenham Abbey, eight miles away from West Wycombe and situated on the River Thames, as a meeting place, but the caves at West Wycombe were later used for meetings in the 1750s and early 1760s. Sir Francis' club was never actually known as a Hell Fire Club - this name was given much later. His club in fact used a number of other names, such as The Brotherhood of St. Francis of Wycombe, Order of Knights of West Wycombe, and The Order of the Friars of St. Francis of West Wycombe. According to Horace Walpole, the members' " practice was rigorously pagan: Bacchus and Venus were the deities to whom they almost publicly sacrificed; and the nymphs and the hogsheads that were laid in against the festivals of this new church, sufficiently informed the neighbourhood of the complexion of those hermits." Dashwood's garden at West Wycombe contained numerous statues and shrines to different gods; Daphne and Flora, Priapus and the previously mentioned Venus and Dionysus. Meetings occurred twice a month, with an AGM lasting a week or more in June or September. The members addressed each other as "Brothers" and the leader, which changed regularly, as "Abbot". During meetings members supposedly wore ritual clothing: white trousers, jacket and cap, while the "Abbot" wore a red ensemble of the same style. Many rumours of black magic, satanic rituals and orgies were in circulation when the club was around. Other clubs, especially in Ireland and Scotland, were rumoured to take part in far more dubious activities. Rumours saw female "guests" (a euphemism for prostitutes) referred to as "Nuns". Dashwood's Club meetings often included mock rituals, items of a pornographic nature, much drinking, wenching and banqueting. Disbanding of the Hell-Fire Club The early years of the 1760s saw the downfall of Dashwood's exclusive club. In 1762 the Earl of Bute appointed Dashwood his Chancellor of the Exchequer, despite Dashwood being widely held to be incapable of understanding "a bar bill of five figures". (Dashwood resigned the post the next year, having raised a tax on cider which caused near-riots). Dashwood now sat in the House of Lords after taking up the title of Baron Le Despencer when the previous holder died. Then there was the attempted arrest of John Wilkes for seditious libel against the King in the notorious issue No. 45 of his The North Briton in early 1763. During a search authorised by a General Warrant (possibly set up by Sandwich, who wanted to get rid of Wilkes), a version of The Essay on Woman was discovered set up on the press of a printer whom Wilkes had almost certainly used. The work was almost certainly principally written by Thomas Potter, and from internal evidence can be dated to around 1755. It was scurrilous, blasphemous, libellous, and pornographic, unquestionably illegal under the laws of the time, and the Government subsequently used it to drive Wilkes into exile. Between 1760 and 65 Chrysal, or the Adventures of a Guinea by Charles Johnstone was published. It contained stories easily identified with the doings of the Hellfire Club, one in which Lord Sandwich was ridiculed as having mistaken a monkey for the Devil. This book sparked the association between the Medmenham Monks and the Hellfire Club. By this time, many of the Friars were either dead or too far away for the Club to continue as it did before. The Hellfire Club was finished by 1766. Paul Whitehead had been the Secretary and Steward to the Hell Fire Club. When he died in 1774, as his will specified, his heart was placed in an urn at West Wycombe. It was sometimes taken out on display visitors, but was stolen in 1829.

Disuse and re-use as a tourist attraction
Following the demise of the Hell Fire Club in the 1760s and Sir Francis Dashwood's death in 1781, the caves no longer served a purpose locally and subsequently fell into disrepair, disused from a period between 1780 and the late 1940s. Following the outbreak of the Second World War and the threat of German aerial bombardment, the caverns had been planned to have been used as a large air-raid shelter if bombing had occurred in the local area, but Buckinghamshire's rural geographical position meant that High Wycombe and surrounding towns were not an enemy target, and therefore the caves were not in use during this time. During the late 1940s and early 1950s the caves were renovated and turned into a local visitor attraction by the late Sir Francis Dashwood (11th Baronet), who used the profit earned to refurbish the dilapidated West Wycombe Park. West Wycombe Caves have received over 2 million visitors since their re-opening in 1951 and continue to be a popular attraction today.

The caves have been the source of abundant paranormal interest and many ghost stories. The two most common ghost stories surrounding the West Wycombe Caves are the two listed below; Paul Whitehead Paul Whitehead, a steward and secretary of the Hell Fire Club and close friend to Sir Francis Dashwood, had his heart placed in an elegant marble urn (at the sum of £50) in the Mausoleum by Sir Francis Dashwood, as his will requested. It occasionally was put on display to visitors but was allegedly stolen in 1829 by an Australian soldier. Legend holds that the ghost of Whitehead haunts West Wycombe Caves and Hill, searching for his heart. Numerous visitors and staff have reported seeing a man in alarmingly old-fashioned clothing wandering the passageways. When faced he is said to vanish into thin air. The White Lady Another well-attested local legend is the tale of Sukie, the White Lady. Legend holds that Sukie (an abbreviation of the name Susan) was a teenage maid at the local George and Dragon Inn during the late 18th century or early 19th century. The sixteen year-old girl was apparently by far the most appealing of the serving staff, and many local men vied for the girl's affections. But Sukie had ambitions to marry into society and rejected the advances from all her local admirers. She began dating a local aristocrat, with whom she was very much taken with, and one day a message, purported from her lover, was sent to Sukie at the tavern instructing her to meet him in the caves one night wearing her best white dress as a wedding gown. She arrived, in candlelight and in her white dress as was asked, only to find it was a cruel hoax planted by three village boys. The girl threw stones and rocks in fury at her laughing tormentors, but when one of the boys threw one back, the joke went horribly awry. She was knocked unconscious, and shocked at what they had done, the boys carried her back to her bed in the inn, but she died during the night. The caves and inn are reputed to be haunted by her ghost, and many staff and visitors have reported sighting a girl in a wedding dress wandering the passageways. West Wycombe Caves on TV In 2004 and 2007 West Wycombe Caves were visited by British and American paranormal reality TV shows Most Haunted and Ghost Hunters.