There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Monday, 29 June 2015

West Wycombe

I think I can claim to have done a bit of travelling. Recent journeys are detailed in this blog but there were many more in the decades before blogs - or the internet - existed.

But it was not always like this. I was born in 1950 and for many years holidays meant two weeks with my grandmother in Porthcawl on the South Wales coast. The drive from Iver in Buckinghamshire to Porthcawl, Google tells me, is 157 miles and takes 2½ hours. Back then, when there was no Severn Bridge (it opened 1966) and no motorways, the journey was 180 miles and took over five hours.

From (about) 1951 to 1958 my father owned a grey Standard Vanguard, very similar to this one
(Credit to Wikipedia and Redsimon for the picture) 
The first of several bottlenecks was High Wycombe. Just beyond the town on a bare hilltop above the village of West Wycombe was a church with a large golden ball perched on its tower. My mother would mutter something about the 'Hellfire Club' in an appropriately disapproving manner and then say, 'We must go there someday.'

We never did, but now, over half a century later, I have. The church is still there, though trees have grown up to partially hide it, the road through West Wycombe is still designated as the A40, though it is no longer a trunk road, and the child who bickered with his sister in the back of a Standard Vanguard went grey long ago.

St Lawrence's Church is now hidden by trees, but the golden ball is still there
The Hellfire Caves, lower down the hill, were built between 1748 and 1752. A run of bad harvests threatened starvation and Sir Francis Dashwood, the 2nd Baronet Dashwood, who owned pretty much all there was to own in West Wycombe, saved the day by personally paying the destitute to mine chalk and flint to rebuild the road from West Wycombe to High Wycombe.

Humanitarian as his motives may have been, it would have been cheaper and easier to use the hillside as a quarry than to laboriously scrape out 500m of tunnels linking some seven or eight chambers. And why finish it with a Gothic entrance?
Entrance to the Hellfire Caves, West Wycombe
Like many rich young men of his time Sir Francis Dashwood finished his education with a Grand Tour. Between 1726 and 1731 he visited Italy, Russia and the Ottoman Empire and earned a certain notoriety, not least by attempting to seduce the Tsarina Anne while in Russia. He developed an interest in the religious practices of classical time and a profound disrespect for the Catholic Church.

The Hellfire Caves
500m of tunnels laboriously hacked out by hand
In 1746 along with John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich (and the man who first stuck a slice of meat between two pieces of bread) he founded the Knights of St Francis of Wycombe, dedicated to the veneration of Bacchus and Venus. The knights met at Medmenham Abbey a little way along the Thames from West Wycombe, and seemed to enjoy dressing up, mock rituals and of course the more practical applications of the worship of gods of wine and love. Gentlemen were encouraged to bring lady guests who should be 'of cheerful, lively disposition, to improve the general hilarity '(i.e. prostitutes).

In time the club became known as the Hellfire Club. Stories of Black Masses and Satanic rituals began to circulate but they were probably just stories, the members merely had a healthy interest in sex and alcohol (drugs and rock 'n' roll not yet being available). With their understandable aversion to record keeping it is not known who participated in these meetings, but references in correspondence suggest John Wilkes, the radical journalist and politician, was associated with the club, as were engraver William Hogarth and American polymath and diplomat Benjamin Franklin.
To reach the club room guests had to cross an underground stream, the River Styx
Hellfire Caves, West Wycombe

The association of the Hellfire Club with the Hellfire Caves is problematic. It is believed that one or two meetings may have taken place there but much of the association with the caves was made later and probably to promote tourism. But the question remains: ‘Why build the tunnels and the entrance?

Deep in the caves the Hellfire Club is still in session - at least in effigy
I am far from averse to a boozy dinner, but walking through the caves on a warm summer's day was a decidedly chilly experience and I would hesitate to accept an invitation which came with the instruction 'wrap up warm'. A roaring fire might solve the problem, but I doubt the caves have sufficient ventilation. The alcoves off the dining hall were allegedly curtained off for amorous activities but although they could be made comfortable, if not spacious, they could not be made warm, a serious disincentive to activities requiring the removal of clothing. I suspect, though this is only my hunch, that Sir Francis Dashwood built the caves with his club in mind, but found they did not suit.

We left the caves and warmed up by climbing West Wycombe Hill.

Lynne climbing West Wycombe Hill
On the way we had a view down the dead straight road to High Wycombe built using the contents of the caves. I suspect it has been rebuilt several times since and the traffic lights are probably not really Georgian.

The long straight road to High Wycombe built by Sir Francis Dashwood

We could also see West Wycombe Park, the home of Sir Francis Dashwood.

West Wycombe Park
On the top of the hill is the Dashwood Mausoleum. Built in 1765 it was financed by a bequest from a friend and is a vanity project if ever there was one. The satirist Paul Whitehead, who had been Club Secretary, left his heart to Sir Francis Dashwood when he died in 1774. The incinerated remains were kept in an urn in the mausoleum, until they were stolen in 1829 – a gift for promoters of tourism who then claimed that his ghost haunted the caves.

The Dashwood Mausoleum, West Wycombe Hill
 St Lawrence's Church behind the mausoleum was built, also by Sir Francis Dashwood, in 1761 though there had been religious buildings on the site since the 7th century. Questions were asked at the time why he should build a church at the top of the hill for the benefit of a village at the bottom of the hill, but it still functions as an Anglican Church, even though a more convenient alternative was built in the village in 1875. The golden ball, 8ft in diameter, can seat six, though it is currently closed and I was disappointed to see it was in such poor condition.

St Lawrence's Church, West Wycombe
It was lunchtime, so we descended to the village in search of sustenance. Many of West Wycombe’s buildings, which were constructed between 200 and 400 years ago, are owned by the National Trust and have not been modernised, at least externally.
West Wycombe
The high street is busy and full of parked cars so my photographs do not do it justice. Inevitably it has been used as a film set, most notably in the Importance of Being Ernest in 2002 (Colin Firth, Rupert Everett, Reese Witherspoon) and as Cranford in the television series.

West Wycombe
Lunch in the George and Dragon, an 18th century coaching inn, was a half of IPA from the Rebellion microbrewery in nearby Marlow and an omelette. It was pricey, as might have been expected, but my bacon and goat's cheese omelette was excellent, the softest and fluffiest I have eaten in ages.

The George and Dragon, West Wycombe

West Wycombe Park was donated to the National Trust by Sir John Dashwood, the 10th Baronet, in 1943, though the Dashwoods retained ownership of the contents and Sir Edward Dashwood, the 12th Baronet, still lives there.

The house is approached through parkland surrounding an artificial lake. In 1698 the estate was bought by Sir Francis Dashwood, the 1st Baronet and father of ‘Hellfire’ Francis Dashwood, who demolished the existing manor house and constructed the forerunner of the current house. The younger Sir Francis, inspired by his travels in Italy, rebuilt it. It took him 60 years and consequently ‘...encapsulates the entire progression of British 18th century architecture from early idiosyncratic Palladian to Neoclassical...’ (thanks, Wikipedia). It looks a bit of a dog's breakfast to me (noted architectural critic as I am not) with stands of trees cunningly concealing imperfections in symmetry.

The front of West Wycombe Park (which appears to be round the back)

I also have a feeling that houses should have a front and a back and the main entrance, whether you are important enough to use it or not, should be at the front. The entrance to West Wycombe Park feels like it is round the back, though which is back and which front is open to debate.

Lynne sits in the entrance, West Wycombe Park
The guided tour was conducted by a venerable lady who might have been patted on the head as a child by Sir Francis Dashwood himself and seemed to remember every member of the family since. It is a very liveable house; for its date many of the rooms are manageable in size and unusually well lit.

The ceilings, painted by Giuseppe Bornis, are direct copies from Italian palaces, mainly the Palazzo Farnese in Rome, while the entrance hall ceiling is a replica of a ceiling in Palmyra that had impressed Sir Francis when he visited Syria on the Grand Tour. It is a sad thought that, given the current situation in Palmyra, these copies may be all that survives.

There is some corner cutting: the marble walls of the entrance hall are marble effect wallpaper and, as at Stowe House, the ‘marble’ columns are scagliola.

Like the village, the house and grounds had often been used as a film set. Austenland was filmed here in 2012 as was the forthcoming Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. It has also featured in Downtown Abbey.

The house is surrounded by acres of well-tended greensward dotted with extravaganzas like the Temple of Music on an island in the lake….

Temple of Music, West Wycombe Park
 …. and the Temple of Venus. I can only speculate about what Sir Francis intended to do in the cavern beneath the Temple, but it is a dark and dank space, so I expect he did it somewhere else.

Temple of Venus, West Wycombe Park
West Wycombe Park is a less ambitious version of Stowe, with which it is contemporary. The house is much smaller, the gardens have fewer pseudo-classical monuments and the view of the house across the lake is barely Championship compared with Premier League Stowe

West Wycombe Park across the lake
(this is the back, which looks like a front, maybe?)
The Dashwoods, though wealthy, were paupers compared to the Temples of Stowe. The Temples, though, ran through their fabulous wealth and in three generations went from being richer than the king to the biggest debtors in the kingdom. They were also notoriously arrogant and unpleasant, and when they fell few mourned. The Dashwoods have had their ups and downs but they are still here.

I rather like Sir Francis Dashwood. He may have been a rake and a libertine, but he also found time for a serious political career. In 1747 he introduced a bill for poor relief by the commissioning of public works. The bill failed, but he put his money where his mouth was, tunnelling out the Hellfire Caves to save the people of West Wycombe from penury, and he was credited with other humanitarian acts. He was a disastrous Chancellor of the Exchequer for a year in the 1760s but was later a more successful Postmaster General.

For me to criticise a man who enjoyed a good dinner and a glass or three of wine would be immensely hypocritical – and at a time of stifling social conventions when marriage was a business deal, I would not want to judge his horizontal recreation too harshly.
Fun guy - Sir Francis Dashwood in Hellfire Cub Regalia
by Adrien Carpentiers
This post was supposed to be about West Wycombe, but it has almost entirely been about Sir Francis Dashwood, but then he was West Wycombe and to a certain extent he still is. He was a fun guy, but he had his caring side and I am sure he would be pleased, and probably amused, that the villagers he helped in their time of need, today live in a village notable for its affluence.

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