The caves run deep into the hillside above West Wycombe village and directly beneath St Lawrence’s Church and Mausoleum (which were also constructed by Sir Francis Dashwood around the same time the caves were excavated). West Wycombe Park, ancestral seat of the Dashwood family and also a National Trust property, lies directly across the valley. The caves’ striking entrance, designed as the façade of a mock gothic church and built from flint and chalk mortar, which was erected in around 1752, can be viewed directly from West Wycombe House.
The unusual design of the caves was much inspired by Sir Francis Dashwood’s visits to Italy, Greece, Turkey, Syria and other areas of the Ottoman Empire during his Grand Tour. The caves extend a quarter of a mile (400 metres) underground, with the individual caves or “chambers” connected by a series of long, narrow tunnels and passageways.
A route through the underground chambers proceeds, from the Entrance Hall, to the Steward’s Chamber and Whitehead’s Cave, through Lord Sandwich’s Circle (named after John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich), Franklin’s Cave (named after Benjamin Franklin, a friend of Dashwood who visited West Wycombe), the Banqueting Hall (allegedly the largest man-made chalk cavern in the world), the Triangle, to the Miner’s Cave; and finally, across a subterranean river named the Styx, lies the final cave, the Inner Temple, where the meetings of the Hellfire Club were held, and which is said to lie 300 feet (90 metres) directly beneath the church on top of West Wycombe hill. In Greek mythology, the River Styx separated the mortal world from Hades, and the subterranean position of the Inner Temple directly beneath St Lawrence’s Church was supposed to signify Heaven and Hell.
An alternative viewpoint was advanced by Daniel P. Mannix in his book about The Hellfire Club. This theory suggests that the caves had been intentionally created by Dashwood according to a sexual design. The design begins at the ‘womb’ of the Banqueting Hall, leading to rebirth through the female triangle, followed by baptism in the River Styx and the pleasures thereafter of the Inner Temple. This theory is not mentioned in National Trust literature and is allegedly refuted by the Dashwood family. The theory that the caves resulted from flint mining is also questionable because the Chiltern Hills flint bed overlays the chalk escarpment and does not have to be mined, except by means of small open flint dells, of which there are many in the area.
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