Friday, 17 April 2015

The Hellfire Caves

Just to round off a thoroughly magical Easter weekend, I also paid a visit to the Hellfire Caves!

Drink! Sex! Fancy dress! Wheeeee!
These were built  between 1748 and 1752 under the orders of Sir Francis Dashwood, Chancellor of the Exchequer and early cosplayer, who wanted to provide employment for local men during a recession.
Dashwood was a notorious libertine with a notable private library of pornography. It was said of him: "he has the staying power of a stallion and the impetuosity of a bull".

The aim of the excavations was to provide chalk for road-building, supposedly...

Sure, this definitely looks like the layout of an ordinary chalk mine....
Once he had his caves, Sir Francis used them for meetings of his infamous and extremely exclusive  drinking club "The Brotherhood of St Francis of Wycombe" - later dubbed the Hellfire Club. With an inner circle of 13, an outer circle who dressed like monks, and a penchant for debauchery and faux-pagan rituals at their secret meetings ... well, you can guess what they got up to. Women involved in the gatherings wore masks and had to be "of a cheerful lively disposition to improve the general hilarity".

Also, not claustrophobic
Americans who may be inclined to scoff at British aristocrats with a fetish for dressing up  and getting wasted in silly costume might be shocked to know that Benjamin Franklin was a very close friend of Sir Francis and often visited the caves...

That's his ghost, right there

Of course, from this distance it's impossible to say whether they were nasty Satanists or genuine Pagans or just hardcore party-animals. Dashwood and Franklin, btw, produced an abridged Book of Common Prayer, professing a need to make services shorter and so less boring for young people, and more survivable for the elderly!

Dashwood's mausoleum on top of the hill (caves lie directly below). The man was, quite literally, a monumental show-off.

The caves are reputed to be haunted, for what that's worth, and here are some of the spooky faces carved into the chalk walls...

The best-attested story of the Club was the famous BABOON INCIDENT ... in which a baboon was secretly hidden in a box, and jumped out upon an unfortunate club member who totally wigged out and lost it - screaming
“Spare me gracious Devil, spare a wretch who never was sincerely your servant.  I sinned only from vanity of being in the fashion, thou knowest I never have been half so wicked as I pretended, never have been able to commit the thousandth part of the vices which I have boasted of, leave me therefore and go to those who are more truly devoted to your service.  I am but half a sinner.”
Which is quite an impressive speech for someone busy wetting his pants.