A small picturesque village in the Chilterns famous for the deeds of its long time owner, and the notorious hellfire caves.
West Wycombe has been around since ye ancient times, and may possibly have had an iron age fortification on the hill overlooking the village, but its real claim to fame comes from the caves and the 18th-century actions of Sir Francis Dashwood.
As the local landowner, he owned the village and his own huge estate next to the village. Thus being aware of some bad harvests, in an act we might call work for welfare, decided to improve the road between West and High Wycombe.
He paid local farmers a shilling a day — a decent wage for the time — to dig out the chalk hill and use the flints and chalk to pave the road linking the two towns. That mining operation lead to the creation of the Hellfire caves — as they are known today — which was to become the reputed location for satanic masses, orgies, and murder.
You might be unsurprised to learn that the legend is substantially more interesting than the facts, but this is less a place to visit for facts than just to soak up some fun.
Candidly, with a website that focuses mostly on ghosts and misty autumnal nights, I was expecting a fairly uninteresting visit. I was wrong.
The mock-gothic church was added in the 1950s when the caves were first opened up properly to visitors, and after paying, it’s basically a self-guided wander around the caves.
It’s actually a lot of fun. There are a number of information boards dotted at various points with actual history on them, and obviously some ghostly goings on, and a few rather iffy waxworks to add character — but mainly it’s walking along narrow dark corridors carved into the chalk hill. Most seems to have been painted gloss white, which helps in the dark, and they’ve kept the lighting to atmospheric levels, meaning some spaces are nicely scary dark and others spooky green.
Down here, the banqueting hall is still thought to be the largest man-made chalk cavern in the world, and there is a sunken river to peer at.
The gravels that line the floor crunch agreeably as you walk over them, and the drops of water coming from the ceiling cause the occasional squeal of surprise.
In a way, there’s not much to see down here, it’s just the sheer fun of wandering around the tunnels, exploring the spaces and just enjoying yourself.
It’s very good fun.
Dashwood Mausoleum and Church
One thing that the Wycombes are rich in is low valleys and high hills, and West Wycombe has a very steep hill to climb to get up to see a building that’s visible for miles around — the Dashwood Mausoleum, and the church hiding behind.
Both are built on the site of the presumed iron-age fort, although nothing of that is visible now. What dominates is the rather curious flint covered mausoleum. A sort of English Greek temple, with iron gates to stop you going inside, alas. As a building, it’s worth seeing, but not that interesting frankly. The biggest win is simply climbing up to see it, and the OKish views of the town below.
Around the back is the church, which is closed normally, but apparently open on Sundays and sometimes they open up the church tower to climb up for the ever so slightly more elevated views.
West Wycombe village
The Dashwood family used to own the village, but put it up for sale following the Wall Street Crash, and it was bought by the Royal Society of Arts to preserve ancient cottages — and in 1934, handed over to the National Trust.
Ignoring the very busy main road that runs right through the middle of it, you have an utterly delightful old village straight out of a period TV drama. Old Tudor buildings lean over showing their age, grand Georgian coaching inns stand proud, and there are lots of narrow alleys and spaces to explore.
St Paul’s Church
This was an unexpected surprise – what looks to be a normal village parish church, but is full-on Orthodox Christian inside.
Built as a conventional Anglican church in 1875 and funded by Lady Elizabeth Dashwood. It is known as the ‘Winter Church’ and St. Lawrence, on West Wycombe Hill as the ‘Summer Church.’ This was because there was no road up to St. Lawrence until 1928 and no power until the 1970s.
Today though, it’s shared with a Serbian Orthodox congregation, hence the unusual altar, which is decorated with saints and icons that would never find themselves in an Anglican space.
West Wycombe Park
On my visit, the park was closed, as it is for winter — so my sole glimpse past the locked gates was from the top of the hill, where you can get quite a good view of the estate.
The park opens in April, but the House remains closed until June.
West Wycombe is a short trip up on the Chiltern Railway, about 30 minutes from London Marylebone to High Wycombe station, then either a modest half-hour walk, or a short bus ride.