When, in 2004, the wonderful Yvette Fielding chose High Wycombe, and in particular, the West Wycombe Caves as the setting for a Most Haunted paranormal investigation, I knew I had found the perfect meeting place for my trilogy’s two male protagonists. Earlier this week (and ten years, and my first novel later), I finally headed south to investigate the caves for myself…
The caves were the brainchild of Sir Francis Dashwood. Following three successive harvest failures in 1748, 1749 and 1750, the caves were excavated to provide the raw material for a new main road between West and High Wycombe. According to the current Sir Francis Dashwood, Bt, ‘the project was very much in keeping with proposals (his ancestor) had already introduced into parliament for stimulating the creation of work to relieve rural unemployment.’ However, the symbolic design of the caves could suggest that, in their excavation, Sir Francis was working towards more than one goal. In 1733, Sir Francis had founded the Dilettanti Society to encourage interest in classical art. In 1744, he founded the Divan Club for those who had visited the Ottoman Empire. The progression of these clubs, counting amongst its members, politicians, physicians, poets and painters, was The Knights of St Francis of Wycombe. This later became known as the notorious Hell-Fire Club.
It is late morning when I eventually arrive in West Wycombe. My journey has been plagued by heavy rain and glaring sunshine, making visibility difficult and slowing the M40 traffic to a crawl. I follow the request of the Caves’ web site, and, like the dutiful citizen I am, park in the overflow car-park. After grabbing my coat, my gloves, and my scarf, (winter wardrobe), and donning my sun-glasses (summer wardrobe), I alight.
No sooner have my booted-feet hit the ground, than I spot the fleet of Movie Makers’ tractor units and trailers. I nod at the group of extras suspiciously watching me, and, donning an unconvincing, “a film crew? Oh, we get lots of those in my village,” expression, I head off to the caves, praying that the crew’s set for the day isn’t my chosen destination.
When I arrive in the caves’ courtyard, I am pleasantly surprised by the lack of tourists. At the small admissions office (which doubles up as a café), I acknowledge the two grounds-men drinking coffee, purchase my entrance token and a guide book, and ask about the next departing tour. There won’t be one, ‘but there are plaques throughout the caves which should explain everything.’ The friendly admissions lady then turns back to her colleague and they continue their conversation… No tour? No film-crew? In fact, no-one? I resist the urge to punch the air, push my sunglasses to the top of my head, shove my guide-book into my bag, and stride forward. I have the caves all to myself. Yey!
I congratulate myself on my good fortune as I pass under the arched entrance, through the turnstile, and along the informative first passageway. And I continue to do so – right up to the tool store. The intermittent conversation from the café has faded, as has the natural light. In the relative gloom lurking behind me, I can hear the echoed drip of fresh water through the chalk walls. Mumbled voices from static exhibition displays, distorted by their surroundings and the distance travelled to reach me, remind my over-sensitive ears of the kind of mono-syllabic chanting synonymous with horror films. I slowly turn. Oh dear… Now, I am a believer in the afterlife. But as someone who avoids confrontation with the living at all costs, I immediately question my sanity. The caves, more like tunnels, are arched, low, and narrow. Lights are dotted, at intervals, along the stone walls, but they do little more than take the edge off the threatening black. Restoration work, which began in the 1950’s, has seen the treacherous stone floors covered with gravel. I inhale, and order myself to “man-up”. If I want the prequel (“The First Portrait”) to my first novel (“The Huntsmen of Nethermoor” ) to be realistic, I have to experience the caves first-hand. I tentatively step forward, and instantly wish that the gravel wasn’t so noisy under foot – I’d rather not know I was being followed. “Whenever I feel afraid…”
The first break in the tunnels is Whitehead’s Cave. Circular in shape, it parts, and re-joins as the caves continue onwards. Following his death in 1774, Paul Whitehead is said to have left his heart to Sir Francis. It was later stolen, and rumour has it that Whitehead’s ghost now roams the caves in search of his lost organ.
The air around me feels damp and suddenly very cold. I shudder, and push on.
XXII, ‘probably a measurement in poles of the distance from the entrance,’ is the caves’ longest passage. The ceilings appear taller, but the descent, sharper. The walls are covered with curious etchings, impossible to fathom. I crunch forward, trying to focus on the gloom at the end of the tunnel, and dismissing the flecks of white that dance across my mobile screen as I snap away, as nothing more than dust.
At the end of XXII, the caves make a 45 degree turn. Brief respite from my growing fear comes in the form of the Children’s Cave, followed by the truly magnificent Banqueting Hall. I stay a while in here, admiring the vast ceiling, and wondering what hilarity – and otherwise – these walls have witnessed.
As I leave the banqueting Hall, my descent again steepens. I am certain that the ceilings are lower, and I suddenly feel very far away from the caves’ entrance. I arrive at the Triangle, and for the first time since entering the caves, experience a sense of real disorientation. The light is minimal, turning the triangle’s turns a shadowy black. One can only imagine what it must have been like to navigate these caves by candlelight.
Having taken one side of the triangle’s tunnels, I edge around its corner, meet its other side, and continue downwards. The Miner’s Cave – another static exhibition with more audio – lies beyond. Unable to decide if the audio is a comfort or not, I do my best not to listen to it, for fear of hearing something else altogether.
I am nearing the end of the caves, and the one area above all the others – the Inner Temple – I yearned to experience. But, prone to flooding, and without electricity, it has been cordoned off. I turn, and head with determination, back towards the admissions desk. Minutes later, having explained why I am here, and having promised to take care, (and to not blame anyone else for my own clumsiness), I return. I step over the red tape, and into the black. With only the flash of my mobile to provide intermittent light, (I have a torch app, apparently, but god only knows where), I glance down into the depths of the River Styx – said to divide this world from the underworld – before inching towards the temple. Despite the locked iron gate blocking my entrance, I peer inside. My heart pounds with a mixture of utter excitement and abject fear. I can see nothing but the illuminated images caught on my mobile, yet I continue to snap away, anxious to capture even a hint of the caves’ incredible atmosphere.
When, minutes later, my senses are utterly spent, I turn and begin my ascent. At the Banqueting Hall, I again pause, hoping that when the time comes, my novel does this wonderful cavern justice.
I almost skip past the Children’s Cave and back along XXII. Only at Whitehead’s Cave, do I hesitate – and glance back. The hair at the back of my neck is on end, and the air temperature has again fallen. Immediately, I scurry away.
When I emerge in to the warmth of the May afternoon, the sun is shining. I slump down onto one of the café’s wooden benches, lock my trembling hands between my knees, and giggle.
I explored the Hellfire Caves… All by myself. And I have the photos to prove it!
As an aside…
Before moving to Hertfordshire, the Hellfire Club held its meetings at the George and Vulture Inn, in London. The Inn is also famously mentioned in Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers. The Inn still stands proud today.