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Club Outing: the Hellfire Caves of West Wycombe

“That Devil Wilkes...” Anon., 1785.

There are few ways to spend a Bank Holiday Monday more worthwhile than in the footsteps of some eighteenth century hellraisers. Quite apart from anything else, it reminds us that the unlamented Bullingdon cabal so recently dragged from public office and sent back to the Cotswolds were in reality mere parvenus – smashing pianos and throwing wine bottles at scholarship swots or whatever it is that the Bullingdon gets up to, not to mention that thing with the pig, would have struck the well-born and well-connected of earlier and nobler times as rather meek ways of letting one’s hair down.

We are talking, of course, about the notorious Hellfire Club of Sir Francis Dashwood, or more accurately the Order of the Friars of St Francis of Wycombe: ‘Hellfire Club’ was, in fact, a generic name given to an exclusive private society got up by a clique of sporting fellows for the purposes of drinking like pirates, dining like ogres, entertaining young women of negotiable virtue and generally giving the local vicar cause to suspect that he may not be getting his message across. John Wilkes and other ‘Friars’ of the Order would descend into caves beneath a church near Dashwood’s West Wycombe Park in Buckinghamshire, fig themselves out as monks and the meretricious young women aforementioned as nuns, and, crossing a subterranean water feature dubbed the River Styx to a natural grotto called the Inner Temple – directly beneath the altar of the church far above – are said to have invoked Old Nick himself in Black Masses.

Whether or not the Devil ever actually turned up to join the party is not recorded – doubtless the honourable members were too busy with the nuns by that stage to set it down properly in the minutes – but the caves are still there and open to the public for a few quid a go. We even took a few photographs. Try them next weekend, but bring your own nun.

Hellfire Caves 1

Hellfire Caves 3

Hellfire Caves 4

Hellfire Caves 5

Hellfire Caves 6

Hellfire Caves 2

Photographs copyright The John Wilkes Club