Ain't Afraid of No Ghost

By Paul Gannon

The Hellfire Caves

Situated above the village of West Wycombe, buried into a hillside, directly below St Thomas’ Church lie the Hellfire Caves. Out of all the haunted locations I have the privilege to run around, I can safely say that the HFC (as I will now call it to give my fingers a break once in a while) is possibly my favourite place to get over excited about visiting. It’s a fascinating location and ticks all of my boxes. Just in case you were wondering what my boxes are, let me tell you now. Does the place have a weird and wonderful history? If so, go ahead and tick that box. Has it got a decent ghost story attached (because most of the time it’s usually just a monk bricked up in a wall or a proud home owner who just can’t let go)? If it’s spooky enough, tick that box too. Is the location foreboding or unusual? Bosh, tick that box. Is there something rude or childishly amusing about it? Bang. That’s another one.

The HFC ticks all those boxes.

The HFC was the brainchild of Sir Francis Dashwood in around 1748. To be blunt, Sir Francis was “a proper cheeky sod” with a profane reputation. It was a reputation that didn’t prevent him from becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1762 and going on to create what became known as “The Hellfire Club”. Although the Hellfire Club would be rumoured to be playing around with all kinds of dark magiks and conspiracy, it was more likely your average collection of rich knobs, drinking and mucking about in their elaborate tree house (that you can’t come in). It was this reputation of debauchery and mystery that began to paint the location itself as sinful. It probably didn’t help that Francis had designed his assortment of tunnels and chambers to resemble the male and female reproductive organs. Small areas off to the side of passage ways were called “The Ovaries”, the large banquet hall was known as “The Womb” and as you headed down to the river Styx and on towards the Inner Temple, you would journey past “The Scrotum” caves and down along “The Shaft”. It was not subtle. Where some people may be content to just scrawl a big penis on a bathroom wall, Sir Francis practically carved a massive cock into the ground. There is no beating that.

Over the years, after the Hellfire Club had long since been dissolved, legends began to pop up about the location. Local ghost stories kept the mystery of the caves going, long after the sex parties and spit roasts (not always unrelated things) had gone. There is a tragic tale of a young maid called Sukie who was lured to the caves for the sake of a practical joke. Predictably, it all goes badly for Sukie and now she sadly roams the passages of the Hellfire Caves. There is also the slightly more jovial tale of Paul Whitehead, who was a former steward at The Hellfire Club. He obviously liked it enough to want to hang around after his death. Which frankly doesn’t say much about his life. Of course, the place was also coated with tales of black magic, sacrifices, demon summoning and probably baby eating (I can’t confirm this). Those tales alone, whispered from villager to villager was already enough to paint The Hellfire Caves as a dark place to investigate… But now, for around £50 for the evening, you can join a merry band of amateur ghost hunters and join a team of professionals on a hunt for the existence of ghosts. It’s not a bad deal when you think about it.

My first trip to the HFC was in 2009. I’d been hanging out at other locations with Compass Paranormal for a few months and I’d been looking forward to this venue more than any other. The entrance to the caves is a strikingly odd piece of architecture. It was designed to resemble an old Gothic church and gives the impression that, just by walking through it and into Dashwood’s tunnel of love, that you are involved with a perversion. It’s a fake church that hid a dirty secret. This, obviously, amused me greatly. When you’re standing outside, at night, with only a few spotlights to highlight the mock facade, it emits a genuine feeling of “Oooh, spooky”. It’s like standing in front an incredibly lavish Ghost Train. Even before the event began, the atmosphere was charged with anticipation and foreboding. It was a foam tombstone away from being the set of “Thriller”. As it was my first time, I was in what I call my “way too eager to help” mode, where I channel my nervous energy into being overly productive. As I assisted the event organisers set up the location for the evening, I got the chance to have a proper nose around before any of the guests showed up. Despite being specifically asked to put up some lights and recording equipment, I’d decided instead to waste 45 minutes trying to try count the skulls that had been carved into the chalk walls of the cave. After my long investigation, I’d counted five. Productive.

Although it’s impossible to get lost in the caves, it’s easy to get distracted. This is especially true as you explore deeper into the caves. By the time you have made your way down the Shaft and towards the Inner Temple, you have gone 300 feet underground. It’s noticeably colder at that depth and when he lights go out, it is also one of the most utterly dark places I’ve ever been. There is the old saying that “You can’t see your hand in front of your face” when in such darkness, but it’s so intense that it feels more like all your senses are being deprived. There is no warmth, no sound and at 300ft below the ground, your brain begins to panic over compensating for the lack of sensation.

In fact, it was because of this pitch black nothingness, that I was about to get one of the biggest frights of my life…

 

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