Wednesday, 28 March 2012

The God Of Hellfire

Vixen motors into West Wycombe, the children peer from the passenger seats and spot the church on the hill. The eldest recognises it from a previous visit, years since; the two younger children do not.
We park across the road and make our way up the steep hill. It is a historic spot, capped with a rampart built over 2000 years ago by our Celtic ancestors, I think the Catevellauni tribe that caused Julius Caesar so much trouble and whose greatest son, Caratacus, defied the legions of Claudius for seven years. The churchyard that crowns the hill is the site of a vanished village, Haveringdon, which had disappeared by the end of the eighteenth century. The building is surrounded by the lumps and bumps of graves, rather than the lumps and bumps of ancient  habitation such as I've seen at Hound Tor, Carwether and Cefnllys.
No surprise, really, that the Eldest recognised the building - it is somewhat noticeable, thanks mainly to the golden sphere that perches atop the tower. The sphere was added in the 1760's when the church was remodelled under the auspices of the nobleman Francis Dashwood, whose grand home at Wycombe Park is visible across the valley. A curious gentleman indeed, was Mr Dashwood, the founder of the group known as the Monks of Medmenham, the Order of St. Francis, and most popularly as the Hellfire Club. Half a dozen men could squeeze into the hollow globe above the church, the core members of the Club - but they were more likely to use the network of caves that wind through this hill, the chalk quarried out for the building of the road, the subterranean labyrinth now a tourist attraction with its own cafe and gift shop.
Clambering laboriously to the top of the Tower, we can see the stately home across the valley, we can see the red kites now soaring below us rather than above. We can see the Dashwood Mausoleum, that curious structure perched below the churchyard, and we can see High Wycombe stretching into the distance. In a tree beside the Mausoleum a family of Little Owls roost, and Eldest uses her camera on them a little later as we circle the Mausoleum, gazing through its iron gate at the names carved on the walls, the memory of Dashwoods past.  I try to imagine what debaucheries the rogueish Francis Dashwood and his friends got up to on this peak, with their female company, and their guests of honour such as Ben Franklin. The sacred and the profane sit side by side, the holy and the eccentric, and the owls call and the kite soars and the church looks down on us as if to defy us with its secrets.
Dashwood Mausoleum; church tower visible behind

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