The West Wycombe Caves are best known for their association with the infamous Hellfire Club – a secret, elite society that was notorious for debauchery and sinister occult practices.
The caves are rife with paranormal activity and are said to be one of the most haunted places in the United Kingdom.
History of the Hellfire Caves, West Wycombe
The Hellfire Caves or West Wycombe Caves were originally excavated in the late 1740s by Sir Francis Dashwood, 11th Baron le Despencer (2nd Baronet).
Dashwood commissioned the ambitious project to try to combat local poverty and employed local farmers to quarry the chalk to build a new road between West and High Wycombe.
A chalk mine of ancient origin is believed to have existed in the area, but the natural caves were soon extended to become an elaborately designed network of tunnels and chambers, inspired by Dashwood’s travels through Europe.
The chalky rooms and disorientating passageways cover a total area of 5000 square feet and lead 300 ft underground to the River Styx and notorious inner temple.
The inner temple, the inner sanctum of the Hellfire Club, sits directly beneath St Lawrence’s Church and supposed to represent hell below the heavenly church on the hillside above.
The Hellfire Club
Dashwood was believed to be obsessed with private societies and in the late 1740’s, formed a highly exclusive gentleman’s club with some of Britain’s most famous noblemen in the George and Vulture public house in London.
Although the first official Hellfire Club was founded in 1712 by Philip, Duke of Wharton, Dashwood’s is arguably the most well known.
Dashwood’s secret society had various other titles, including the Order of Knights of West Wycombe, The Order of the Friars of St Francis of Wycombe, and the Monks of Medmenham.
Medmenham Abbey, a remote monastery dissolved by Henry VIII during the dissolution of the monasteries, hosted the club whilst the caves were excavated on the Dashwood estate.
Dashwood leased the Abbey from the Duffield family and invested huge sums of money restoring the ruins into a suitable headquarters for his Order, believing it’s discreet location made it the perfect location for their risqué meetings.
He installed stained glass windows, carved the club’s motto (“Do as thou will”) above the front door and is said to have constructed the garden in the form of a naked woman.
Members of the Hellfire Club initially dubbed themselves the Monks of Medmenham and mock religious ceremonies were said to take place.
Notable English writer Horace Walpole noted that “practice was rigorously pagan: Bacchus and Venus were the deities to whom they almost publicly sacrificed”.
West Wycombe Caves
The excavation of Dashwood’s caves in West Wycombe was completed in 1752 and the debauchery found a new home underground.
The Hellfire Club’s activities were shrouded in secrecy and much of what we know today is based on hearsay and speculation.
It is alleged that Paul Whitehead, secretary of the club, destroyed all of the records just days before his death, taking many of their sordid secrets to the grave.
According to first-hand accounts, the Hellfire Club’s meetings were characterized by banqueting, poetry, song and the company of prostitutes, who were often dressed as nuns in religious habit.
It is also believed the caves played host to sexual rites, pagan rituals, orgies, abuse of alcohol and even satanism in the inner temple, which is said to be the most oppressive part of the cave system..
Ghosts of the Hellfire Caves
Paul Whitehead, the loyal secretary of the Hellfire Club, is one of the many ghosts that are said to haunt the caves.
On his death bed in 1774, Whitehead requested that his heart should be cut out, placed into an urn and buried in the Mausoleum above the caves.
The first sighting of Whitehead was reported in 1781, when staff and members of the Dashwood family saw his spirit roaming the grounds, smiling and waving in their direction.
His presence has been felt and seen more regularly since a bizarre turn of events in 1829, when Whitehead’s heart was taken out of the urn and stolen by an Australian soldier.
Ever since, Whitehead’s angry spirit has been seen roaming the tunnels of the caves searching for his missing heart.
The ghost of Suki, known as “The White Lady,” is also said to wander the underground tunnels.
The tragic story dates back to the 19th century, when she worked as a housemaid at the nearby George and Dragon tavern.
Three local boys, jealous of her blossoming relationship with a visiting aristocrat, lured her into the caves under the guise of an elopement.
Suki arrived wearing a beautiful wedding gown, expecting to be meeting her lover, only to find she had been tricked by the three boys she had spurned.
In anger, she picked up a handful of gravel from the cave floor and threw them. Sadly, the boys retaliated and a large rock was thrown. The rock hit the barmaid and she fell to the floor, left to die in the darkness.
Her heartbroken ghost now roams the caves, seeking justice for the betrayal that led to her untimely death.
There have also been sightings of ‘nuns’ and the sound of a crying baby has been heard echoing through the tunnels.
Haunted Locations close to the Hellfire Caves
The Hellfire Caves in West Wycombe have long been known as a site of paranormal activity.
Numerous haunted locations can be found in the vicinity of the caves, including the nearby St. Lawrence Church.
The church is said to be haunted by the ghost of a woman who was murdered by her husband in the churchyard.
West Wycombe Park’s eerie mausoleum, which contains the remains of Sir Francis Dashwood, is also rumoured to be haunted.
Visitors to the area have reported hearing strange noises and feeling an inexplicable sense of unease, adding to the spooky atmosphere of this haunted location.
The Red Lion Pub in Wycombe is also reputed to be haunted, with sightings of a ghostly figure in the bar area.