Sorry for any delay over this, everyone, but Gareth and I were a little busy last week. Anyway, he’s here now, and I’ve asked him to give his own account of our trip to the ‘Hell Fire Caves’ and Berkhampstead Castle, that I wrote about here recently. So, over to you, Gareth:
Firstly, some background about the place: Sir Francis Dashwood was a leading politician of the mid-eighteenth century, and was Chancellor of the Exchequer for about a year (he made himself unpopular by putting a tax on cider, something modern politicians who are proposing to do the same should consider!). He also organised various clubs, one of which involved several of his fellow politicians: it was known as the ‘Monks of Medmenham’ or ‘The Franciscans’, but became nicknamed ‘The Hellfire Club’, because of their unconventional activities.
In 1748 there was high unemployment in the district (in those days you could not claim ‘job-seeker’s allowance’, you simply starved), and the nearby main road was in a very bad state of repair, so that coaches often overturned. So Dashwood, who was public spirited, hired some of the local jobless men to repair the road. (This was at his own expense, though this was no burden since he was very rich.) Chalk was needed for the road, but to quarry it would have left an unsightly hole in the hillside, so he got them to dig a long tunnel, with chambers here and there which were the main source of chalk, and was afterwards able to use it for parties – orgies, it is generally thought. Eventually it extended for quarter of a mile into the hillside. At the far end there are now some waxworks depicting club members and their ladyfriends, though not specifically engaging in immoral activities.
As I have remarked, ‘Hellfire Club’ was a nickname, and the ‘Hellfire Caves’ were so named to attract tourists. There is not much evidence that Dashwood was a devil-worshipper: he actually paid for the nearby church to be extended, and in later life published an ‘Abridgement of the Book of Common Prayer’, which influenced the liturgy of the Episcopalian Church of America. Nevertheless, various unseemly rumours went around. One was that John Wilkes dressed a baboon up as the devil, hid it in a chest, and let it out during a meeting, at which everyone fled, the baboon grabbing the Earl of Sandwich who pleaded to it that he had “only sinned through the vanity of being in the fashion”. This story, however, derives from a scurrilous novel entitled ‘Chrysal’, not from any factual account.
The Earl of Sandwich was addicted to gambling. Whereas his fellow gamesters at least took breaks for dinner, Sandwich would have two slices of bread with a piece of meat between them brought to his table, so that he could eat without putting his playing cards down. For this reason, such comestibles are now termed ‘sandwiches’. But he did find time to learn that John Wilkes was the author of an anonymous ‘Essay on Woman’, an obscene parody of Alexander Pope’s philosophical verse ‘Essay on Man’. So he accused Wilkes, in front of the House of Lords, of conduct unbecoming a Member of Parliament. In the heated debate that followed, Sandwich declared: “You will either die on the gallows or of the pox.” (By ‘the pox’ he meant syphilis.) To this Wilkes retorted: “That depends, sir, on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.” This and other fallings-out broke Dashwood’s club up.
Now, the notices around the cave assert that it is haunted by a young woman who was murdered there by three local youths. I did not see anything, but in the ‘Franklyn Chamber’ I had a strange dizzy attack, which I thought might have been caused by some kind of unnatural energy that was present. It was just above this that Patsy saw a white figure, and David heard footsteps from someone invisible.
Afterwards we visited the St Lawrence’s Church on the hilltop, dedicated to the patron saint of librarians, and as I said extended by Dashwood at his own expense, with a golden ball on top which is very impressive when seen from down in the valley below, including from the Chiltern Railways line. Far below I could see a cricket match, and though the ball was invisible someone did something that created a round of applause audible from the churchyard. Also, there were a number of light planes flying around, some of them doing ‘loop the loop’ aerobatics.
Next we went to Berkhampstead Castle, built just after the Norman Conquest around 1070, and occupied until the late fifteenth century, when changes in methods of warfare made castles obsolete. It is now very near to a railway line where modern electric trains pass every few minutes. I am reminded of the old ‘stupid tourist’ joke, about an American in Edinburgh (or wherever) who remarked: “It was nice of them to build the castle so near the railway station”.
Finally, we drove to Tring, which I was curious to see because it was the scene, in 1751, of the last known lynching in England of a supposed witch. Ruth Osbourne and her husband were seized by a mob there, dragged to a lake a little to the north of the town, and ‘swum’, the theory being that a witch would float, but a non-witch sink. (Those innocent of witchcraft often drowned.) Ruth Osbourne floated, so they beat her to death. Uniquely, one of the ringleaders, Thomas Colley, was arrested and hanged for this. Unfortunately, the town as it is now is largely nineteenth century, apart from the church that looks Elizabethan. Nevertheless, we went to ‘The Robin Hood’ (probably Victorian) and had a most excellent pub meal. On the way back, Patsy remarked several times how amazed she had been by the spirit appearing before her. It is a great pity that the camera failed to capture it.
Gareth J. Medway