West Wycombe's Hell Fire Caves: Visiting one of the most haunted venues in the country
PUBLISHED: 11:51 08 November 2016
Even a falling drop of water can start the shrieks and shivers in West Wycombe's Hell Fire Caves, Sandra Smith discovers
I don’t believe in ghosts. Never have done. As far as I’m concerned, what to banshee fans are supernatural occurrences or mystical deeds can be explained rationally without any recourse to the sort of bloodcurdling response that belongs in a horror film. So when the editor asked me to write a feature about ghosts, bravado got the better of me.
“I’ll visit West Wycombe’s Hell Fire Caves,” I offered nonchalantly, “and see if it’s as scary as everyone makes out.” Her response was touching: “You don’t mind going underground to one of the most haunted venues in the country?”
“Hmm, just how frightening can it be?” I laughed, shrugging off her concern before booking a place on the next Candlelit Ghost Tour.
You know the expression about eating your own words? Well, read on.
Approaching the tall, flint façade where vegetation creeps around its vaulted window and stone columns, I blame a shiver on the early onset of autumnal evenings. Nevertheless, I’m greeted by, and soon warming to, Jack Sheppard who is sporting a dashing 18th century outfit.
“It’s really spooky how I came to be here,” he enthuses. “I applied to help out in the café but the Assistant Manager had resigned that day. I had an interview and got the job. I am a complete sceptic but the last time I was in the caves something happened I could not explain.”
He’s winding me up. Of course he is. Then he gathers tonight’s group together, promising to be our guiding light through the myriad of caves which are home to scores of bats and numerous secrets.
Along with a dozen adults I congregate just inside the cave entrance to hear about the origins of this unique structure which was originally excavated by hand during the 1740s. The project not only provided employment for villagers decimated by a succession of harvest failures, the carved out chalk fuelled the construction of the main road between West Wycombe and High Wycombe. Possibly an altruistic venture by Sir Francis Dashwood who resided at the nearby West Wycombe Estate… or were there more sinister influences afoot?
Jack lights a lantern and asks for a volunteer at the rear to carry a candle.
“Embrace your imagination,” he commands, steering us into the unknown, “and step into my domain. Don’t forget, the person at the back gets taken first!”
Light-hearted giggles ripple through the group until, a few strides later, we’re plunged into darkness. The temperature continues to plummet as we descend. Couples, determined not to be left behind, hold onto each other. I make sure I remain close to the person ahead of me and I’m grateful when, a minute or so later, Jack stops and we all gather round to be alerted to the faces – including Satan – carved into the walls and a doorway, long bricked up, which modern day scans reveal is a long lost entrance leading to more corridors.
We continue descending, bypassing shadowy side aisles, grateful for our guide to whom this maze of underground passageways is familiar. Eventually we reach the Banqueting Hall, the largest man made chalk cavern in the world, measuring 40’ wide and 50’ high. Its domed ceiling is reminiscent of a subterranean church. Yet there is no aura of sanctuary here for this is where the notorious Hell Fire Club met to indulge in mock religious ceremonies, ‘female entertainment’ and alcohol. Indeed, an inventory taken in 1774 listed a well stocked cellar of sherry, rum, port, claret and beer. Participants included Members of Parliament, Oxford Dons, First Lord of the Admiralty, the Earl of Sandwich, and even the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Underground excesses in this private nightclub, however, were accompanied by tragedy.
Jack tells the story of a barmaid from the local George and Dragon who was lured to the cave believing she was there to meet the man she hoped to marry only to discover she had been duped by two farm labourers. Overcome with disappointment, the young woman picked up a handful of gravel from the floor and hurled it at her tricksters. They responded with more force, throwing stones which killed the unfortunate girl, whose spirit is said to haunt this place where she met her end.
Everyone is gripped by the legend. And spellbound by Jack’s narrative. Nearly three centuries may have passed since the caves’ creation, but he has a knack of bringing this notorious place alive.
I’m already chilled by ribaldry that was believed to have taken place here, 300’ underground, when a drip from above prompts a shriek from one of my fellow visitors. “Remember there’s a graveyard above us,” Jack points out before disappearing along another corridor, the rest of us scurrying behind.
At our final stop we’re told about John Wilkes MP who played a practical joke by dragging into the caves a large chest which contained a great baboon. When the lock was sprung, the creature leapt onto Lord Sandwich who believed it to be the devil.
Our guide concludes by blowing out the two small candles. Have I ever been bothered by darkness before? No matter, I am now. Particularly after that unexplained scream I just heard from the depths of the caves.
With my heartbeat quickening, I’m grateful when Jack directs us back through the network of corridors. Everyone hurries to keep up. Eventually, back at ground level, we learn about adult parties, witches’ workshops for children and paranormal investigations, all of which are regular occurrences here. Staff members relate unexplained incidents and I can’t help but wonder whether our guide’s cheeky brashness is a light-hearted cover for mysterious goings on.
Pervading my senses is an appreciation at the feat of creating half a mile of arched corridors in the Chilterns countryside. But there’s also relief. I attempt to reassure myself the last hour was nothing more than an entertaining experience. But as I head for my car, a black cat strolls towards me. Did I allow it to cross my path? Let’s just say I wasn’t prepared to take any chances.
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