West Wycombe, Buckinghamshire

St. Lawrence's Church, West Wycombe, Buckinghamshire

The ancient church of St. Lawrence was entirely remodelled by the notorious Sir Francis Dashwood in the mid 18th Century. The ball which sits atop the tower is one of the most unusual church accoutrements in the country. It seats up to eight people and gives a magnificent view of the surrounding lands.

Sir Francis was the leader of the notorious and now-legendary Hell Fire Club which initially met at nearby Medmenham Abbey, but then moved their base to the Caves at West Wycombe. There is some significance that the church is dedicated to St. Lawrence - patron saint of prostitutes - as the Hell Fire Club was known to employ prostitutes dressed as nuns as part of their entertainment evenings.

Members of the Hell Fire Club included not only Dashwood, but also a former Prime Minister, a First Lord of the Admiralty, numerous cabinet ministers and a Lord Mayor of London.

The Caves proved not entirely suitable for nights of wild abandon, gambling, prostitution and drug taking - they were damp and dark and unpleasant. The golden ball atop the church was known to be a place for members of the club to indulge in games of chance.

In the end, the Hell Fire Club hastened their own end when (depending on which version you read) either a real monkey or a member of the club dressed as a monkey burst forth into the church during a service and scared the parishoners so much they thought the Devil had risen. It proved to be one practical joke too many and the Hell Fire Club dwindled into legend thereafter.

Today, both the Caves and the Church play up a little to the legend and get themselves onto the tourist trail.

Photo - Andrew J. Müller

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