diamond geezer

 Saturday, May 20, 2006

Days Out - West Wycombe

Where: 40 miles west-northwest-ish from central London [map] [map] [map]
How to get there by road: along the A40, or via junction 4 on the M40
How to get there by rail: Chiltern Railways to High Wycombe (and then a long walk)

What to see (1): West Wycombe Church & Mausoleum
Dashwood Mausoleum & St Lawrence ChurchThe first building you see as you approach West Wycombe is the 18th century church, high atop a chalky hill immediately above the village. It's a stupid semi-accessible location for a church, but local landowner Sir Francis Dashwood had it built more for the view than for any religious reason. At the top of the tower is a big golden ball which, if you're lucky and get the weather right, glints for miles across the valley. The ball is hollow, with sufficient space inside to hold up to six people, although it closed to visitors a few years ago because of vandalism. But turn up on a Sunday afternoon and you can still climb the tower to enjoy the view (is that Windsor Castle over there?) and to admire the church's unexpectedly startling Georgian interior. At the foot of the graveyard is the hexagonal Dashwood Mausoleum, another building which dominates the local skyline. Its flint-covered walls stand open to the sky, supported by twelve Tuscan columns, while inside can be seen statues, urns and a classical mini-temple. It's a shame that the public are locked out these days, but you can quite understand why Sir Francis wanted to be buried up here on this Chiltern ridge looking out over his estate.

What to see (2): Hellfire Caves
entrance to the Hellfire CavesAh, now this is what West Wycombe is most famous for, a quarter-mile-long cave with a devilish reputation. Sir Francis had this system of passages and chambers dug into the chalk hillside beneath the church so that he and his upper crust mates had somewhere private in which to misbehave. Dashwood's Hellfire Club met here to indulge in "sex, drink, food, dressing up, politics, blasphemy and the occult". There's no evidence that any actual Satanic worship took place, although it's a fair guess that several buxom maidens were invited down here during some of the more drunken celebrations. Today the caves are open to the public, which explains the non-period umbrellas lined up inelegantly in the café area outside the church-like entrance. Four quid gets you inside into the caves proper, a strange subterranean tourist attraction whose 1970s rebirth is still painfully evident. alcove in Banqueting HallA few not-quite convincing waxworks are scattered throughout the caves (that's Benjamin Franklin, isn't it, and that's, erm, some old greasy lord-type bloke). Dated loudspeakers pump music and stilted commentary into the caves. Detailed information boards seem to repeat the same few stories, facts and anecdotes throughout the caverns whilst never quite admitting that anything wicked ever happened. But, if you can ignore the rampaging children wielding cheap green glowsticks, the weird artificial passages are well worth a visit [see photos]. The Banqueting Hall must have been a mighty impressive spot for a meal, and probably the odd orgy too. And once you finally cross the gloomy 'River Styx' to reach the Inner Temple at the very foot of the tunnels, you can easily imagine just how much fun a bunch of drunken old toffs and their mistresses could have had down here in the dark.

What to see (3): West Wycombe Park
The Dashwoods still live in the village, in the large yellow-painted stately home on the opposite side of the valley. The National Trust own this Palladian property and much of the surrounding land, and the gardens (and sometimes even the house) are open to the public during the summer. The main gate is guarded by a gaggle of earnest Trust matrons, but a few pounds or a quick flash of the membership card should see them off. The well-tended grounds are littered with fake classical follies, stone bridges and a polo pitch. There's also a central landscaped lake - or at least there should be except that it's almost completely dried up at the moment with a few bemused swans swimming in ever decreasing circles in the remaining puddle.

What to see (4): West Wycombe village
And then there's the village to enjoy. It must be special because the National Trust owns most of it. There are characterful cottages and crooked pubs (of the real ale persuasion). There are more shops than a settlement of 2000 people probably deserves, although cane furniture, handmade greetings cards and jars of ye olde sweets aren't your usual village staples. And there's only one main street, which ought to be utterly charming except that it's the main A40 and so there's usually a queue of traffic crawling through here most days. Never mind, you can always go hide up at the top of the hill again or, even better, underneath it.

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