Mayhem and magic - Buckinghamshire Heritage
PUBLISHED: 10:43 25 January 2011 | UPDATED: 20:30 20 February 2013
It may have a notorious past, but Venetia Hawkes finds peace and harmony walking with duchesses and in amongst the snowdrops at West Wycombe Park...
A duchess, detectives, grave-robbers and a were-wolf this may seem an unlikely collection of visitors, but West Wycombe Park has welcomed them all. For the home of 18th century libertine Sir Francis Dashwood, founder of the notorious Hell-Fire Club, has become one of Buckinghamshires most sought-after film locations and this February the grounds are open for everyone to enjoy, with a series of charity snowdrop walks.
The magnificent house and grounds, that lie just to the north west of High Wycombe, were designed with entertainment in mind.
A triumphal arch, officially called the Temple of Apollo, is known as Cockpit Arch after its use as a venue for cockfighting. Dashwood even kept a galleon, complete with resident captain, on the lake for mock sea-battles. The remarkable landscape Dashwood created, its hidden temples and sweeping views, together with the colonnaded, frescoed house are now a wonderful resource for film-makers. Though these days, they have to bring their own boats.
Rumours swirl around the activities of Dashwoods infamous Hell-Fire Club. There are stories of a baboon dressed up as the devil springing out at Lord Sandwich. MP John Wilkes, a member of the Club, described it as a set of worthy, jolly fellows, happy disciples of Venus and Bacchus. These classical allusions hint at the clubs wider interest in art.
Another of Dashwoods clubs, the Dilettanti Society, was dismissed by Horace Walpole as a club for which the nominal qualification is having been in Italy, and the real one, being drunk: the two chiefs are Lord Middlesex and Sir Francis Dashwood, who were seldom sober the whole time they were in Italy. However, the society helped establish the Royal Academy. It also funded archaeological expeditions. One of those expedition members became an architect for West Wycombe House.
West Wycombe features in numerous TV series, including Cranford, Miss Marple, Lewis, Foyles War and Downton Abbey. You expect to find period films like The Duchess and The Importance of Being Earnest taking advantage of the charms of West Wycombe. But the science-fiction action movie X-Men: First Class also shot there in autumn 2010. The film, starring James McAvoy, will be released this summer. And for an advert, the hall once housed a Jacuzzi for some computer-generated meerkats.
Estate Secretary Mary Hilder explains how each production is considered beforehand: Its the context in which the house is used thats important. So we did have a were-wolf movie, but the house wasnt portrayed as scary at all.
One of the most impressive transformations the house underwent was for the BBCs Little Dorrit. It became Venice.
Director Adam Smith recalls: We built a small tank at the front of the house and managed to float a gondola in it. For Smith, who has recently been directing episodes of Dr Who, location was a key part in telling the story of Little Dorrit. The opulent look, the colours of the terrace the warm tones really contrasted with the portrayal of London so helped created a different atmosphere for this part of the story, he says.
Burke and Hare, the Andy Serkis and Simon Pegg film, evoked quite a different mood at the Dashwood Mausoleum. Shrouded in dry ice, the hill-top became a graveyard where the duo attempts a spot of body-snatching. Serkis, who grew up in nearby Ruislip, was thrilled to work there with legendary Blues Brothers director John Landis.
Its easy to see the attraction for film-makers. Overlooking the Chiltern countryside, you could be a million miles and a hundred years away from the bustle of neighbouring High Wycombe and the M40. Indeed, the house has been described as Having been run up like a stage set, with its porticoes and colonnades and the extraordinarily ornate interior.
But this versatile stage set is also a family home. And around thirty years ago Sir Edward Dashwoods mother, a member of the local NSPCC committee, came up with the idea of opening the grounds in winter for a charity snowdrop walk.
These walks have been a great success. Carpets of snowdrops grow round the Temple of Venus and along the banks of the stream. South Bucks Hospice and The Child Bereavement Trust, of which Sir Edwards wife is patron, now also hold snowdrop walks in the park.
With teas in the village hall and snowdrops to plant, The Child Bereavement Trust raised over 3,000 last year.
The warm yellow walls of the house, its columns, sienna and teal blue frescoes could indeed transport you to Venice, even on the coldest of winter days. But the flint-studded bridges, the red kites keening overhead, the delicate snowdrops at your feet, bring you back to Buckinghamshire.
Just as so many film-makers come to West Wycombe, so June Hawkins of the NSPCC sees people return to enjoy the snowdrop walk year after year. The park itself is so beautiful, like a little English gem. She explains: You cant see anywhere else. Its as if youre in a little world of your own. I think thats the magic that attracts so many people.
West Wycombe Park is open for charity snowdrop walks on:
Sunday February 13, 12-4pm for the Child Bereavement Trust
Sunday February 20, for South
Sunday February 27, 12-4pm for NSPCC
National Trust Openings:
Grounds: April 3 - May 26, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, 2pm - 6pm
House and grounds: May 29- August 31: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, 2pm - 6pm