Hellfire Holidays

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Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Dec. 15 2009 11:41 AM

Hellfire Holidays

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West Wycombe, 30 miles up the Thames from London, is typical of a thousand quaint English villages, except for one intriguing twist: It was also home to the most notorious Hellfire Club of the 18th century, a cultlike society accused of blasphemous orgies and devil worship. The most terrifying thing about planning a visit today is the Travelocity.com reviews of West Wycombe's only hotel, a 300-year-old carriage inn called the George and Dragon, a rich litany of abuse that makes Fawlty Towers look classy.

"Oh, dear!" reads one subject line above a one-star review. "A real let-down!" complains another. "Skip it." "Never again." "One to avoid."

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Knowing I was destined to stay there anyway, I scrolled down to the detailed comments:

"The first thing I noticed was the smell on the stairway …"

"Our hearts sank …"

"The real shame was the staff …"

"Food and service was a joke."

"Boy, how disappointing."

"Take earplugs!"

Actually, I was delighted. I wanted sordid Georgian history, not a Holiday Inn with kitchenettes. So I set off into Buckinghamshire, a bucolic landscape of rolling green pastures, in search of the rollicking sex club that had blossomed under the care of Britain's most colorful rake, Sir Francis Dashwood.

The scion of a fabulously wealthy aristocratic family, Dashwood is a mass of contradictions—connoisseur, intellectual, humanitarian landowner, and shameless debauchee. ("Rapist, sodomite," condemns one writer. "Gentleman, scholar," notes another.) Dashwood's true gift was for performance art, and he turned his life into a provocative piece of theater. As a young reprobate, he "fornicated his way across Europe" on two Grand Tours, causing scandals from St. Petersburg to Constantinople. Then he returned to London to help found the famous Society of Dilettanti, to promote classical studies, and the Divan Club, for Ottoman culture. Both clubs mixed their scholarly meetings with exuberant bouts of drinking, whoring, and wearing of fancy dress: The Dilettanti swanned about in red togas with an MC done up as Machiavelli, while members of the Divan Club wore sultanlike outfits and were attended by harems of pink-cheeked lovelies. Although Dashwood was by now a member of parliament, the era was marked by a bracing indifference to the private behavior of politicians. But his irreligious Hellfire Club—officially known as the Order of the Friars of St. Francis of Wycombe—would be his most subversive achievement, whose rites he preferred to conduct in secret.

In 1750, Dashwood gathered his friends and concocted a fake religious sect, renovated the abandoned medieval abbey of Medmenham near his family estate, and began to use it as a private rumpus room for carnal misbehavior. In this isolated setting, beneath old stained-glass windows and new erotic frescos, a dozen randy "apostles" would gather in monks robes for twice-weekly bacchanals. Aristocratic women would travel from London to join the frolics dressed as nuns, and comely local "nymphs" were hired, allegedly to lie naked on his altar so the monks could lick holy wine from their navels—an exciting aperitif before the real festivities began. To crank up the eerie atmosphere, revelries were also held inside purpose-built caves dug on Dashwood's estate, in torch-lit chambers that evoked the pagan catacombs of ancient Rome.

What exactly transpired in these inventive club settings has been a matter of feverish speculation by historians ever since, with rumors of sacrilegious sex games, pagan fertility rituals, and, of course, a spicy dash of Satanism. We do know that club members included high-level figures from the British government, including the Earl of Sandwich and radical John Wilkes, plus celebrities like the writer Laurence Sterne, artist William Hogarth, and Benjamin Franklin, who became Dashwood's close friend.

Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut (1999), directed by Stanley Kubrick.
Tom Cruise inEyes Wide Shut (1999), directed by Stanley Kubrick

Tales about Dashwood's debauches have been passed on through the generations, inspiring a string of Victorian pornographic novels, not to mention the 1961 Peter Cushing movie The Hellfire Club and certain saucy episodes of The Avengers. A version even turns up in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, when Tom Cruise stumbles onto a remote rural manor filled with masked aristocrats indulging in unspeakable acts.

No sooner had I decided to research the club than I learned that Sir Francis' 10th-generation descendent, Sir Edward Dashwood, 12th baronet, was still going strong at his family estate. He was even running his ancestor's old tunnels as a tourist attraction called the "Hellfire Caves." The George and Dragon could be as Fawlty as it liked.

A summer drizzle was falling as I made my way along West Wycombe's narrow High Street, only 100 yards from end to end and comprising a few village shops selling boiled sweets and sausages. Despite the town's proximity to London, renovations have yet to begin on most of the sagging historic buildings, which are all owned by the National Trust. The infamous George and Dragon looked innocent enough at first sight, with whitewash thatch walls and exposed beams that survive from its days as a coaching inn and a cobbled driveway worn with ruts. I stooped under the low doorway and entered the darkened pub, where I eagerly savored the whiff of ancient beer soaked into the decaying carpet. Every angle was slightly askew, like a German Expressionist film set. A couple of orange bulbs gave off less light than candles.

"Hello," croaked a voice from the gloom. "Fancy a pint, mate?"

Two figures were hunched at the bar like gargoyles, with tobacco-yellow skin, greasy long hair, and 18th-century dentistry. Nobody can say that traveling in rural England isn't exotic. Just a few miles from modern London, and the Hogarthian stock seemed quite undiluted. On the wall, I spotted an engraving of a monk trying to ravish a local maiden. A half-dozen beers later, I lurched up the zig-zagging stairs as the building creaked and groaned, as if it were alive, and finally found my attic room—a bit frayed, perhaps, but hardly the terrifying rat hole I expected from the reviews.

The next day, after my black pudding and tea, I passed beneath a Tudor arch and hiked the leafy lanes to the Hellfire Caves. Sir Francis had ordered them built in the 1750s, converting a chalk mine into elaborate tunnels and grottoes going down 300 feet. A bridge was built over a subterranean river, dubbed the Styx, and an elaborate entrance added with a Gothic flint-work façade to evoke the nave of a church. Ben Franklin was reportedly impressed with the effect when he visited the caves in 1772: "His Lordship's imagery, puzzling and whimsical as it may seem, is as much evident below the earth as it is above it," he wrote. We know from the club's cellar book that parties were held there in the 1750s. And when Medmenham Abbey was abandoned in 1765, after members fell out over politics, and stories of its rites spread, a persistent local legend holds that the monks reconvened their secret meetings here.

In later Victorian times, tourists would clamor with candles over fallen chunks of chalk to visit this fantastical underworld. Then, in 1951, inspired by a visit to Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, the current Sir Edward Dashwood's father, the 11th baronet, realized the caves could be a genuine money-spinner. He cleared the fallen debris and opened the tunnels as the Hellfire Caves. Publicity was unwittingly provided by the local vicar, who denounced the unholy project from his pulpit and complained to the Daily Mirror that "my tummy wobbles like a jelly every time I pass the entrance." Today, the Hellfire Caves are a local fixture, rented out for singular functions—popular at Halloween and with ghost-hunter TV shows.

I paid my entrance fee at the gift store, where Devonshire teas and Hellfire Nachos were available, and ventured into the cave's dark maw. A sign soberly warns that "sufferers of dizzy spells, faints, blackouts and loss of balance should not enter." The clammy air seeped down my collar as I followed the sepulchral corridors and peered at niches that had been decorated with mannequins in period dress. Along the way, an audio commentary was piped in, recorded in the 1980s by the 11th baronet Dashwood. (Despite their religious habits, he chortled in avuncular tones, the monks who met here "weren't at all saintly.") Even though this was a family-friendly attraction, it seems the Dashwoods still can't resist a little mischief. One plaque recounts the juicy "Nun's Poem," in which a young initiate confesses to a ménage à trois with a lecherous abbot, an induced abortion, and various "Sapphic pleasures" with her fellow convent girls. With an eye to American visitors, a famous dirty ditty by Ben Franklin is also offered, advising young men to seduce older women rather than younger. (The "corporeal enjoyment … is at least equal and frequently superior … and they are so grateful for the attention.") But these hokey flourishes can't detract from the genuine weirdness of the space, where the tunnels seem laid out for anything but mining.

The highlight is a cavernous banqueting hall, with four cozy little "monks cells" radiating from the walls. They now contain moss-covered statues. The ghostly commentary advised me that these cells were once furnished to be "used by the club members for privacy with their ladies." It then added that the Hellfire Caves are once again available to the public for hire—"a unique and atmospheric venue for any dinner party or disco."

The chill air made this prospect seem dubious, but an attendant, who was fixing a light, assured me that they'd just had 220 people here for a birthday party. "There are some amazing sound effects in the tunnels," he said. "Security is excellent: You don't get gatecrashers down here, and no matter how much noise you make, you can't disturb the neighbors. It even gets warm during parties. It's amazing what body heat can do!"

I tried to imagine one of Sir Francis' wicked fiestas based on the rare surviving accounts. Wide-eyed guests would have been led to this candle-lit chamber, where a table glistened with polished silver, crystal, and "food of a most exquisite kind and in gargantuan proportions." They would be met by the 12 apostles wearing long white monks habits, and the chief voluptuary, Sir Francis, corpulent and red-faced in middle age, dressed in a red robe trimmed with rabbit fur. According to a 1779 account called Nocturnal Revels, which purports to be the work of a former member, each friar was allowed to invite "a Lady of cheerful, lively disposition, to improve the general hilarity." The aristocratic "nuns" wore ornate masks until all the males had arrived so that they could leave unrecognized if an acquaintance—or even a husband—was among the guests.

It seems that a mock grace was recited in Latin, and fine claret was drunk from cups made from human skulls. Pornography was read from volumes bound as sermon books. Scraps of food were tossed to the club mascot, a baboon dressed as a priest.

Further details will always be vague. Many years later, a Buckinghamshire historian named Thomas Langley tracked down Sir Francis' elderly housekeeper and quizzed her on the specifics of club meetings. Apparently, he was so horrified by her stories that he decided the information "might as well be buried in oblivion."

The killjoy.

A contributing writer at Smithsonian Magazine, Tony Perrottet is the author of The Naked Olympics:The True Story of the Ancient Games.

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