Instead of Hell Fire, dragonflies

I arrived at West Wycombe Park looking for Hell Fire, and I was told another story.

The reputation of the 18th century owner, Sir Francis Dashwood, is a colourful one. His notorious club, whether or not it actually carried out Satanic rituals, certainly puts the Bullingdon club into perspective. The members met for drinking, orgies, parodic rituals and fancy dress partying in a series of purpose-built caves below the church at West Wycombe. They also met at Medmenham Abbey, further away, from which the group took their satirical name, the ‘Medmenham Friars’ (the Hell Fire club was a retrospective appellation).

The Temple of Venus stands on a mound in West Wycombe Park, and the mount is entered through a suggestively oval door. The idea of a woman’s body as territory to be explored may or may not have been the motif of the park’s design, but it was certainly the subject of a parodic poem, Essay on Woman, written in the 1850s by club member Thomas Potter and later revised by member John Wilkes (and the engine of his later downfall) (Lord 2008:118).

Dashwood was one of the ‘Leicester House’ Whigs, loyal to the Prince of Wales, and in opposition to Walpole, pro-war in the American colonies and advocate for a private militia, as opposed to professional navy (Kinkel 2011:14). The lake was the site for a miniature galleon and mock naval battles, which allied Dashwood’s determined misogyny with determined imperialism, taking the club motto ‘Do what you want’ to international levels.

The Hell Fire caves on the hillside are deeper, colder, and more coldly elaborate than one would think necessary, were they not built for some pretty unorthodox uses.







But enough of that, because I was told a different narrative, with different protagonists. These protagonists were the trees, plants, stones and waters of West Wycombe park. For I arrived just in time to stumble on the start of conservation manager Neil Harris’ tour of the grounds.

Neil told us how, at the same time that Dashwood was building his temples and bridges and cascade, trees were growing from new seed. Some of them still remain. They, too, have their mechanics. He cites Claus Mattheck’s theories of Visual Tree Assessment, which works with the mechanics of tree shapes to assist pruning decisions (Tilley 2012). The huge branch of a horse chestnut, parallel to the ground, is counter-weighted beneath the earth: ‘Trees want to remain stable’. They lose branches; they gather moisture in their crevices; they hollow out; they seed the ground. Ash trees have grown up, too, ‘weeds, really’, between the sweet chestnut, horse chestnut and hornbeams, and the tree cover, now too dense, has to be managed.

Neil’s job is one of checks and balances, or choices and decisions to be monitored and agreed with a range of agencies and the remaining Dashwood family. Reducing the height of the Yew trees near what was once an Orangerie. Working on plans to secure the cascade from subsidence – steel piles will be driven down into the chalk. Checking the water level and opening the sluice when necessary. Working with a ‘fountaineer’ to create a water feature in a Roman sarcophagus. Debating pheromone traps for the moths which may be damaging the horse chestnuts. Even, on occasion, stunning fish to rescue them from low water.

He pointed out to us some of the garden’s best features: bluetail dragonflies ‘yawling up and down’; the space where the last tree from the old avenue once grew; a trout in the water; shrimps in the chalk stream; mistletoe in the ash trees; a water wheel in a space beneath the (now fibreglass replica) reclining statues of Cleopatra and Ariadne (‘I can’t remember which is which’).

Trees, too, have their secrets. At the end of our tour, we crept between nettles and branches, to the site of a fallen ash. As it had uprooted, it had turned up a brick wall, possibly part of a 15th century garden. Once, perhaps, the medieval manor was not on the hill, but in the village, with its gardens here, close by the west wall. Thus, a history pre-dating Sir Francis and his palladian house.

This has been a week in which white, colonial history has been playing out in the present, and in the worst of ways. I don’t think it is escapist, and certainly not ameliorating, to remember that this isn’t the whole story. Rather, it could be helpful for the future to remember that there are other, and better ways to live in a world that is teeming with other lives, each with their own, unique trajectories. Even to notice them is a beginning, in shifting the emphasis.

Many thanks to Neil Harris, Conservation Manager and Chiltern Countryside Ranger, National Trust, West Wycombe Park.

Kinkel, Sarah (2011), ‘Saving Admiral Byng: imperial debates, military governance and popular politics at the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War’, Journal for Maritime Research Vol. 13, No. 1.
Lord, Evelyn (2008), The Hell Fire Clubs: Sex, Satanism and Secret Societies. Yale University Press: New Haven and London.
Tilley, Jonathan (2012), ‘Tree Mechanic’, interview with Claus Mattheck, Horticulture Weekly, May 25th, p.17.