“ Church Lane / West Wycombe / High Wycombe Buckinghamshire / HP14 3AH „
There was a thick fog over the valleys as we drove to West Wycombe and the car was breathtakingly cold despite the heating on full blast. I shuddered under my scarf and hood and checked the postcode on the tom-tom again. Little Sis (also heavily layered up in warm clothes) was eating a multipack of crisps in the back, The Boyfriend was edging the car forward and moaning about visibility and the fact he hadn't brought a coat. The plan was to visit the infamous Hellfire Caves.
It took us a while to find them, partly because The Boyfriend had written the address down wrong, partly because of the mist and the fact that they aren't well signposted. Eventually we turned up a slope and spotted a towering brick folly set into the side of a steep hill. Dad went to the caves many years ago, when they were unattended and forgotten; now they have a gift shop and car park and you have to fork out a fiver each to get in. Their popularity has increased following the construction of their website and a séance on Most Haunted, but it's the local tales I've heard since I was a kid that made me want to visit.
Near to where I live is Medmenham Abbey. On the edge of the Thames, it has now been converted to a rural residential property, but is still the kind of building that makes your skin crawl. This Abbey was home to Sir Francis Dashwood.
Born into a wealthy family, he inherited the vast 5000 acre estate at West Wycombe from his father at the age of 16 and in accordance with convention, took a Grand Tour of Europe to round off his education. Whilst on this tour, Francis was taken with Italy, bringing home a love of mystery and the occult. Forget fashionable, catholic, modern Italy; the Italy of Sir Francis' time was one of secret societies, corruption and decadent nobility and heavily influenced his restoration of the estate and the digging of the caves.
Pulling up in the gravel car park, The Boyfriend began angrily tipping through the rubbish in the car for a £20 note he thought he'd lost. Little Sis and I sauntered off to the shoebox sized gift shop and cafe to find the toilets. Outside it was freezing, but inside the café was steaming hot and had a family group slumped around the table sipping hot chocolate. Among the gifts were a few books on the local history and although limited, the selection was very good. The same couldn't be said for the food; although they did some toasted sandwiches I couldn't see a vegetarian option. We holed up in the generous toilet cubicle together to check our make-up and redo our hair while The Boyfriend paid the entrance fee of £5 each.
The entrance to the caves is through a turnstile where you insert a metal token, there's something quite creepy about the way it's unstaffed and it adds brilliantly to the isolated feeling on the hill. Those material 'flame' style torches (the kind you get outside nightclubs) glowed red either side of the doorway and a voiceover played on a loop. Desperate to get out of the cold and mist, we pushed each other into the narrow passage and waited for our eyes to get used to the dark. Little Sis turned out to be surprisingly knowledgeable on caves. For scientific reasons, not because there is either hell or fire in the caves, she told us it would be warmer the further underground we went and she was right.
The sloping passages are uneven and low in places; the pickaxe marks a clear indication of the laborious work. As there was something of an economic slowdown around 1748, Sir Francis commissioned local labourers to hollow out the hill, using the excavated stone to build the London to Oxford road. Heading down into the hill, the caves finish 300 feet below the church of St Laurence which crowns it, symbolising the underworld to the heaven of the church.
We crunched our way along the dim passages, clinging to the walls and each other in places. Some way in, they open onto a large central cavern, the Banqueting Hall, surrounded by eerily lit and mouldy classical style statues. Laughably, at the time of our visit, this also contained a Christmas tree.
Following the smell of damp and dark and a distant sound of dripping, we headed deeper, crossing an underground river. This is the Styx, named after the Classical crossing to Hades and glimmering in red light with stalactites and stalagmites.
The caves end at a more cheerily lit cavern, where the Hellfire Club would have met. Filled with gaudy masked shop mannequins in nylon dress, the Inner Temple is set up to depict such a meeting.
IS IT HAUNTED?
The way back was a little more interesting than the journey down. Moving back into the dark we stopped to look in the niches set into the walls and having been alone so far, we began to play about. The Boyfriend and Little Sis had been glued to the Most Haunted on Youtube and he started to call out in a low voice.
"Give us a sign...." a moment later "Is anyone there? Give us a sign" The resounding scream that answered him made us jump and our skin crawl.
The man and his kids, playing about round the corner of the passage, were in stitches. We passed them with a joke and a laugh and back into the Banqueting hall where we set our minds to taking photos of ourselves looking scared. It was here and then again later by Paul Whitehead's cave where we found cold spots. Little Sis noticed the spot first and we took it in turns to stand there. This was no trick of our imagination, all three of us commented that the area was definitely colder than the surrounding cave.
On the car journey back we checked our photos and found two. One of Little Sis and I in a passage has an unmistakeable shadow, which could either be a small figure in a white apron or a trick of the light against the rock. One just outside the Banqueting Hall has a floating white spot, which we thought was the camera flash, but according to ghost spotting websites is 'an Orb'.
Based on our experience, I'm undecided.
There have been countless trips to the cave by ghost spotters and the internet is rife with evidence of the paranormal. However, there are two 'official' ghosts who have reason to haunt the caves. The first of these is Paul Whitehead, friend of Sir Francis and secretary of the Hellfire Club, patrolling the caves in search of his heart, which was snatched from the Dashwood Mausoleum on the hill by an Australian Soldier.
The second is Sukie, a local girl who was murdered in the caves. A barmaid at the George and Dragon, she longed to marry into the gentry and spurned the advances of the local boys, eventually accepting a proposal from a wealthy local man. One night, she received a note asking her to meet him in the caves so that they could elope. Arriving in her wedding dress, she discovered that the local boys had sent the note and were waiting for her. A fight erupted, stones were thrown and she died in the passages fro a blow to the head.
There are all manner of stories surrounding the caves, mostly told in pubs on sunnier afternoons than the one of our visit. Due to their unsubstantiated nature and most of the sightings revolving around drink or drugs, I won't bother repeating all these here. The hill is known to be haunted and a place of ill-feeling and the Hellfire Club is thought to have engaged in all manner of insalubrious behaviour.
Coming out of the caves to a desperately cold and heavy dusk, we looked over the silhouettes of the trees and down to the valley. Despite having only one headlight in the approaching dark, we carried on up the hill, parking outside the graveyard of the church. At the gate, Little Sis rallied, reasoning that evil spirits couldn't possibly inhabit consecrated ground.
The unconventional church with it's Golden Orb is well worth a look, as is the spectacular Dashwood Mausoleum, with incredible views. Even in the dark, the ribbon of light from the road at the bottom of the valley picked out the archways and tombs. The best time to visit would be a clear Sunday, when you can climb to the Orb of the Church and look out over the tree tops all the way to High Wycombe.
On the way home, the thick mist and cold coupled with Little Sis being unaccustomed to the creepy English countryside meant that she wasn't keen to get out of the car in Medmenham. Here, you can catch a glimpse the Abbey if you know where to park and how to climb up the wall (straight on past the church until you stop at the edge of the river, although it is better seen from a boat). The churchyard also yields one of the creepiest tombs yet; a stone coffin lying on the ground with the lid slightly ajar.
IS IT WORTH A VISIT?
The caves are definitely worth a visit, especially if coupled with a trip to the Church and the Mausoleum at the top of the hill. Although shrouded in stories, they can be enjoyed as a feat of engineering and imagination in their own right and aren't too creepy if you want to take children.
The plastic dummies kill the atmosphere, but do help you to understand the history and liven the place up, while the information boards are more informative than most I've seen. For a fiver you'd be hard pushed to find somewhere as good as this and if you believe in the supernatural this would be the place to sense it.
In summer, April to October, the caves are open 7 days a week from 11.00 until 17.30, between November and March from 11.00 until 17.00. Facilities are adequate without spoiling the place, though access is narrow and would be difficult for the less able.
There are candlelit ghost tours, night visits and children's parties available with all details on the excellent website at: http://www.hellfirecaves.co.uk/index.php?id=10
The mines are said to have a prehistoric origin, and were presumably created to extract the flint found in the chalk to make hand tools. Locally, flint is used as a building material.