History of West Wycombe Park, Village and Hill
West Wycombe’s history extends back far beyond the Domesday Book. The village still reflects its heyday as a coaching hub, while the house and grounds at West Wycombe Park have been through many different hands. There’s little doubt, however, that the man who left the most indelible mark is the 2nd Baronet Sir Francis Dashwood – not least by building the Hellfire Caves where his notorious club is said to have met, as well as other unique landmarks in and around West Wycombe.
The history of West Wycombe Park
Centred around a Palladian mansion house – and replete with eccentric ornamental features such as follies, fountains, temples and statues – West Wycombe Park is one of the finest surviving 18th-century landscape gardens. However, the history of the estate stretches back much further than that.
Domesday to the Dashwoods at West Wycombe Park
As far back as records go, the manor of West Wycombe belonged to the Bishops of Winchester. However, none of the bishops lived at the estate and at the time of the Domesday Book in 1086 it was being let to the Dormer family.
The English Civil War
A supporter of Charles I during the English Civil War, Robert Dormer was made Earl of Carnarvon in 1628. He was killed fighting for the King in 1643.
Finding himself deeply in debt, Robert’s son, the 2nd Earl, sold the estate to Thomas Lewis, a merchant and alderman of the City of London.
Introducing the Dashwoods
Lewis married Elizabeth, the daughter of his friend and fellow alderman, Francis Dashwood. As part of a family settlement in 1698, transferred the ownership of West Wycombe Park to his wife's brothers – Francis’s sons Samuel and Francis Dashwood.
Francis, the son, was knighted in 1702, and in 1707 received the first baronetcy granted by the crown after the union of England and Scotland.
West Wycombe Park's Palladian architecture
Francis bought his brother’s share of the estate for £15,000 in 1706. He had the original mansion demolished and a new one built – a relatively modest Queen Anne house with formal gardens. But it didn’t stay intact for long.
The Palladian conversion
Inspired by his travels to Italy, Francis’s son the 2nd Baronet, also named Sir Francis, spent his life converting the house into a Palladian villa. He redesigned the grounds, opting for more naturalistic landscaping, and added classically-inspired temples and follies.
Theatrics in the park
Delighting in the theatrical, Sir Francis even kept a frigate on the lake, using it to re-enact sea battles as entertainment for guests. Cannonballs that ere dredged from the lake can be seen on display in the house.
Later generations of the family continued to make changes to West Wycombe Park, but in recent years much work has been carried out to restore Sir Francis’s vision.
The park today
In 1943, Sir John Dashwood gifted West Wycombe Park to the National Trust. His son, the 11th Baronet, began a programme of work to conserve and protect its striking interiors and dramatic landscapes, which has been continued by the 12th Baronet, Sir Edward, and his family.
West Wycombe Park on TV and film
Even if you haven’t visited West Wycombe Park yet, it may seem familiar. The house and parkland have featured in TV dramas including Cranford, Sense and Sensibility (2008), Downton Abbey, Midsomer Murders and The Crown.
It's also starred in plenty of films, ranging from the 2017 Agatha Christie dramatisation Crooked House to the 1980s classic Labyrinth.
West Wycombe Village and Hill's history
People have lived on West Wycombe Hill for thousands of years. The earliest known settlement was Iron Age, dating from the 4th or 5th century BC.
Then, the Saxon village of Hæferingdune – later known as Haveringdon – subsequently existed there in some form for several hundred years.
After the Black Death
Sometime after its decimation by the Black Death in the 1340s, Haveringdon moved from its hilltop position to the site of the current village, where it was renamed West Wycombe due to its location relative to High Wycombe.
History of West Wycombe Village
Many of the cottages on the modern-day site of West Wycombe date back to the 16th and 17th centuries. This is when the timber for the frames came from the nearby Chiltern woods and bricks were baked in local kilns using clay dug from the hills.
In the 18th century, some buildings were updated – although much of their original brick and flint construction is still visible – while new examples of Queen Anne and Georgian architecture sprung up around them.
The village today
A stroll through the village offers examples of all this history, as well as reminders of West Wycombe’s importance as an 18th-century staging post on the coaching route from London to Oxford.
West Wycombe Village's High Street
As the halfway point between London and Oxford, the High Street was home to many coaching inns. In fact, in 1767 there were 17 public houses listed in the small village.
The George and Dragon was one of these, dating back to 1720, and still offers a pint, a meal and a bed for the night, (please don’t enter the courtyard unless you’re a customer).
Queen Anne architecture
Across the road, Steps House is a good example of Queen Anne or early Georgian architecture. And the houses now at No. 57 and 58 were once the village poor house.
Further west along the street, Aston House now has modern door and window frames, but its lintels are 18th-century.
A historic pub
Another pub, the Swan Inn, has brick fronts from the same period, although its extension was built in 1932. Across the road is a former Methodist chapel, dating from 1894.
Church Lane in West Wycombe
The earliest surviving building in West Wycombe is the Church Loft, which bridges Church Lane where it meets the High Street. It dates from the 15th century when it was a rest house for pilgrims.
At the bottom of Church Lane is a traditional 19th-century Chiltern furniture factory. The workshops are located on the upper floors, with the timber store and saws at ground level. Look out too for the village pump by the Old Vicarage.
St Paul's church
At the opposite end of the village is St Paul's church, locally known as the Winter Church. The church of St Lawrence on West Wycombe hill is known as the Summer Church as there was no road to it until 1928, making it difficult to access in bad weather.
To find out more about the architecture of West Wycombe, ask for a copy of the National Trust’s West Wycombe Village Architectural Trail in the village shop.
Sir Francis Dashwood’s legacy
Sir Francis Dashwood, the 2nd Baronet, did not restrict his love of theatrical architectural projects to the follies, fountains and Palladian styling of his family’s manor house.
He also imprinted his personality on West Wycombe itself, leaving behind several significant landmarks.
The Hellfire Caves at West Wycombe Hill
The Hellfire Caves, (which are not in the care of the National Trust), can be found at the top end of Church Lane, at the foot of West Wycombe Hill.
The caves were built by Sir Francis to tackle local unemployment caused by three successive harvest failures between 1748 and 1750. They were also built to provide material for a new main road between West Wycombe and High Wycombe.
The Hellfire Club
However, they get their current name from Sir Francis’s notorious Hellfire Club – rumoured to have held wild and extravagant parties in the caves.
Members of the club are thought to have included William Hogarth, John Wilkes, Thomas Potter and John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich. Benjamin Franklin, a close friend of Dashwood’s, also visited the caves on more than one occasion.
The Hellfire Caves consist of a long winding tunnel running a quarter of a mile into the hill. It has numerous passages and chambers leading off it, including a huge Banqueting Hall. It's said to be the largest man-made chalk cavern in the world.
St Lawrence’s Church at West Wycombe
Sir Francis made his mark on St Lawrence's Church. He had the tower of this medieval church raised so that it was more visible from far off. He also crowned it with the golden sphere that is thought to have been another meeting place for the Hellfire Club.
The space could seat up to 10 people and was described by the author John Wilkes as 'the best globe tavern I was ever in'.
The church today
The updated interior of the church includes the nave, thought to be based on Robert Wood’s prints of the ancient Temple of the Sun in Palmyra.
It has five arched windows on each side and is lined with Corinthian columns. The painted ceiling by Giovanni Borgnis is enhanced by Rococo plasterwork.
The Dashwood Mausoleum
On the edge of the hill is the imposing Dashwood Mausoleum, a hexagonal roofless structure formed from a series of linked triumphal arches and built from local flint.
Inside the mausoleum
In the centre stands a pedestal and urn dedicated to Sir Francis’s wife Lady le Despenser. A wall plaque commemorates his mother and step-mother. Inscriptions reference Sir Francis himself, his friend Dodington and his uncle, the 7th Earl of Westmorland.
In true macabre-yet-romantic Dashwood style, there’s also an urn containing the heart of the poet Paul Whitehead, steward of the Hellfire Club.
Explore eight opulently decorated rooms complete with painted ceilings, marble walls and ornate fireplaces, family heirlooms, portraits and hand-crafted furniture.
Explore these 18th-century landscape gardens, home to numerous classically inspired ornamental temples, statues and water features, each with a story to tell.
Find out about recent projects to preserve the landscape gardens of the West Wycombe estate, the village’s historic buildings and the rare habitats on the hill.