West Wycombe Trail
The history and landscape of West Wycombe are interlaced with the interests and exploits of the Dashwood family who have occupied West Wycombe House for over 300 years. West Wycombe Park, Caves, Mausoleum and St Lawrence's Church were all constructed in the mid-18th century by Sir Francis Dashwood, 2nd Baronet, and founder of the Dilettanti Society and co-founder of the notorious Hellfire Club.
St Lawrence’s Church on West Wycombe Hill
From the carpark, head towards the Church, entering the church yard from the carpark via a gate on the right. The Church is open to the public from May until September on Sundays from 12.30pm until 5pm. There is a small fee if you wish to climb the tower.
West Wycombe Hill and St. Lawrence’s Church
West Wycombe Hill has commanding views over the surrounding countryside, including the historic landscape of West Wycombe Park. There are 55 acres of grassland, scrub and woodland. West Wycombe Hill has been continuously inhabited for many centuries. The earliest settlement at West Wycombe survives in the form of an Iron Age ditch and rampart contour camp on Church Hill, dating from the 4th or 5th Century BC. The original Church medieval church was remodelled by Francis Dashwood in the 18th century and renamed Saint Lawrence's. The tower was raised to make it more visible from afar, and it was crowned with the wooden golden ball that was reputed to be a meeting place for the Hellfire Club. The golden ball could seat 10, and was described by the author John Wilkes as “the best globe tavern I was ever in”. The design of the nave is said to have been derived from Robert Wood’s prints of the ancient Temple of the Sun in Palmyra. The painted ceiling is by Giovanni Borgnis, and there is spectacular Rococo plasterwork, on the ceiling, frieze and walls.
As you face the church door, follow a concrete path that curves to the left of the church, through the churchyard, and then head downhill, passing the village war memorial on your left. When the concrete path ends and you reach an open meadow, continue straight ahead and downhill towards an isolated dark green yew tree. As you approach the tree, the path becomes more obvious as it passes the tree on the right. Shortly after the yew tree, and before you reach a set of bollards, turn right off the main path, following a level path between two areas of yew trees. You will soon see West Wycombe House ahead of you. On reaching a wooden signpost saying ‘Caves’, head down some rough earth steps to reach the entrance to the Hellfire Caves. Take particular care on this path in wet or icy conditions.
Sir Francis Dashwood (2nd Baronet), had the caves built to relieve serious local unemployment caused by three successive harvest failures between 1748 and 1750, and to provide material for a new main road between West Wycombe and High Wycombe. Dashwood was co-founder of the notorious Hellfire Club, which held meetings in the caves. The caves consist of a long winding tunnel running a quarter of a mile into the hill with numerous chambers and divided passages leading off it, including a huge Banqueting Hall, allegedly the largest man-made chalk cavern in the world. The design is clearly symbolic and is thought to have been influenced by the Eleusinian mysteries of ancient Greece, which Dashwood would have learned about on his Grand Tour. Since 1951 the Caves have been open to the public (not NT - there is an entrance charge).
From the entrance to the Hellfire Caves, walk through the small car park to reach Church Lane. Turn left onto the lane and when the lane curves left, take a footpath to the right by a telegraph pole and pass an old-fashioned street lamp. You will soon re-join another branch of Church Lane. Here turn right downhill.
West Wycombe Village – Church Lane
There has been a village at West Wycombe for at least 1000 years and many of the cottages date back to the 16th and 17th centuries. Whilst some buildings were altered in the 18th century, they still retain much of their original timber-framed structure. There are many things to look out for in Church Lane, including the village pump by the old vicarage. Number 43 is a typical house built for a craftsman, tradesman or professional person. The entrance is raised over a semi-basement service area. It has vertical sash windows with curved and straight lintels. At the bottom of Church Lane on the left is a traditional 19th Chiltern furniture factory which would once have been a common site in nearby High Wycombe. The workshops are located on the upper floors, with the timber store and saws at ground level. The earliest surviving building in West Wycombe is the Church Loft, which bridges Church Lane as it meets the High Street. The building dates from the 15th century when it was a rest house for pilgrims. Just below the Church Loft, look out for the village lockup on your right.
When you reach the bottom of Church Lane, pass under the Church Loft and turn left onto the High Street. You can cross the road safely at the pedestrian crossing outside the Village Hall. From here, turn left to explore further up the High Street where you reach the entrance to Crown Court. (Please do not enter the courtyard which is private). From Crown Court, retrace your steps to the zebra crossing and continue (west) along the High Street.
West Wycombe Village – High Street
West Wycombe pre-dates nearby High Wycombe, and developed as an important 18th century staging post along the old coaching route from London to Oxford. West Wycombe was the halfway point for the London to Oxford stagecoaches and the High Street contained many coaching inns. In 1767 there were 17 public houses listed in the village. The village retains much of its historical charm and the High Street has a number of traditional shops as well as pubs and tea rooms. In the late 16th century, timber-framed houses were built in the village. Later, in the 18th century, there was some remodelling done and some new buildings appeared using Queen Anne and Georgian architecture. Nos. 57 and 58 were once the village poor house. The George and Dragon pub was a coaching inn dating from 1720. Steps House, across the street, reflects Queen Anne or early Georgian style, popular at the beginning of the 18th century. Further west, Aston house has modern door and window frames, but its lintels are 18th century. The Swan Inn has 18th century brick fronts, although its extension only dates from 1932. Across from Aston house is a former Methodist chapel, dating from 1894. To find out more about the village architecture, ask for a copy of the National Trust’s West Wycombe Village Architectural Trail in the village shop.
There are several public houses, unusual shops and a tea room in the High Street. When you are ready to move on, continue west along the High Street until you reach the entrance to West Wycombe Park on your left at the far end of the High Street.
West Wycombe House and Park
There is an entrance fee to West Wycombe Park (free for National Trust members). The Park and House are open from April to August, Sundays to Thursdays between 2.00 pm and 06.00 pm. Last admission is 45 minutes before closing. Entry to West Wycombe House on Monday to Thursday is by guided tour with timed tickets. Free-flow access operates on Sundays and Bank Holidays. West Wycombe House has been occupied by successive members of the Dashwood family. Set in 45 acres of landscaped park, the Palladian House at West Wycombe is the 18th-century creation of Sir Francis Dashwood, the 2nd Baronet. Soon after Sir Francis inherited the property in 1724, when he was 16, he was sent on a Grand Tour of Europe, which aroused in him a passion for classical Italian art and architecture, as well as an appetite for high living and extreme devotional practices of the Roman Church. Dashwood co-founded the Dilettanti Society, with the aim of promoting knowledge and understanding of classical art and taste in England. The society’s activities strongly influenced Sir Francis’s vision for the development of West Wycombe Park and House in the neo-classical style. He married Sarah Ellys, a wealthy widow, and Sarah’s money funded many of Sir Francis’s developments at the park.
Taking great care on this relatively blind corner, cross the road. (You may wish to back-track along the High Street so you have a better view of approaching traffic). Head up Chorley Road and then, about halfway between the first and second lampposts, branch half right on a grassy footpath. Ignore the first crossing path and then, after about 90 metres turn right up some steps onto a well-trodden crossing path signposted to the Hilltop. The path climbs gradually at first and then steepens at some rough steps. At the top of the steps turn left onto a well-used, wide, grassy path that leads uphill to the Dashwood Mausoleum.
Views across West Wycombe Park
As you climb the hill, take the opportunity to look back across West Wycombe Park and West Wycombe House. The hill is covered in a rich chalk grassland; an ancient and colourful habitat, which is not entirely natural. As long ago as the Bronze Age, the land in the Chilterns was cleared of trees for grazing animals, so for over two thousand years, the cattle, sheep and rabbits introduced by people have helped to stop scrub species, such as hawthorn, bramble, dogwood and birch, from re-growing, and from shading out the sun-loving flowering plants that the butterflies enjoy. West Wycombe Hill is common land and as such it has probably be subject to continuous grazing for many centuries. However, the reduction in rabbit numbers, and the impracticality of grazing sheep and cattle on West Wycombe Hill means the National Trust rangers and volunteers have to lend a timely hand, cutting the grass in the later summer.
On reaching the Mausoleum, take a moment to catch your breath. From this excellent vantage point, take the opportunity to look back to West Wycombe Park and to reflect on the landscape around you and beneath you. (The artificial Hellfire Cave ends directly below the Mausoleum.) Turn left following a level path around the structure. Where the path divides, take the right fork, which will lead you through the churchyard to the front of St Lawrence’s Church. From here, retrace your steps to the car park.
The mausoleum is an unroofed hexagonal structure, formed by a series of linked triumphal arches, which was built from local flint in 1765. The Mausoleum’s design is based on the Constantine Arch in Rome. In the centre stands a pedestal and an urn dedicated to the wife of Sir Francis Dashwood, Lady le Despenser (d.1769); a wall plaque commemorates his mother (d.1710) and stepmother (d.1719); and three inscriptions in the frieze refer to Dashwood himself, his friend, Dodington, and his uncle, the 7th Earl of Westmorland. There is also an urn containing the heart of the poet, Paul Whitehead, who was also steward of the Hellfire Club.
St Lawrence’s Church on West Wycombe Hill
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