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West Wycombe History


Early history
The hill above West Wycombe (now the site of St Lawrence's Church and the Mausoleum) has been continuously inhabited for centuries. A Bronze Age settlement is widely believed to have existed here, and research suggests there was a pagan temple in a similar style to Stonehenge. A Roman settlement later occupied West Wycombe Hill, and local historians believe a temple was constructed here (though the exact site remains unknown).


The lost village of Haveringdon
The next major influence on West Wycombe was the Saxons. The hillside was once again occupied, and the newly established settlement was named Hæferingdune (Hill of Haefer's people in Old English). The name later evolved into Haveringdon. The site retained religious importance: a church is said to have been erected by St Birinus (who later became the bishop of the West Saxons in AD 635).

A Norman watch tower is also said to have been built on top of the hill.

Haveringdon's population is believed to have been greatly reduced by the Bubonic Plague (Black Death) in the 1340s.

By the 18th century the village had been resited in the valley along the Oxford Road, and renamed due to its geographical features and position: "West" because it was west of High Wycombe.

Both settlements are in the Wye Valley and the word "Combe" derives from the Old English/Brythonic word for "valley". According to local records there were just two ratepayers left in Haveringdon in the 19th century.


Georgian Era
In the mid 18th century Sir Francis Dashwood commissioned an ambitious project to supply chalk for a three-mile straight road between West Wycombe and High Wycombe, now part of the A40 road, then a prominent trade route between London, Oxford, and Gloucester and onward to South Wales. The local chalk cave which had been in the village since prehistoric times was expanded into an elaborate network of tunnels and passages. The design of the caves was mostly inspired by Dashwood's Grand Tour of Italy, Greece and the Ottoman Empire. Local villagers, impoverished after a series of harvest failures, were paid a shilling per day to tunnel underground to mine chalk. The caves were all excavated by hand and even today they are viewed as an incredible feat of engineering.

Dashwood's family home, West Wycombe House, also underwent major alterations at this time. Although Haveringdon had all but disappeared by then, the church and tower had remained and a centre section was built to join the two together.

The Mausoleum was also constructed, based on the design of the Constantine Arch in Rome. The new church was named Saint Lawrence's, as it was common for churches built on Pagan sites to have this name. The church and Mausoleum were also built using chalk and flint from the caves.

During this time, Dashwood and other high-powered politicians and society members formed a club then known as The Knights of St. Francis (which was later named as the Hellfire Club by a London newspaper). They first used Medmenham Abbey, eight miles away from West Wycombe on the River Thames, but the caves were later used for the club's meetings. The club was notorious in its day for orgies and black magic, but had disbanded by 1763 (according to church records). The caves fell into disuse and disrepair.


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Copyright © 2019-2020 Mike Henson and West Wycombe Parish Council

Carousel and Banner Photographs Courtesy Hugh Mothersole - National Trust Volunteer Photographer, London and South East