Blink and you might miss it! This lovely, tiny, one-street medieval village of West Wycombe is a real Chilterns gem.
Some of the original timber framing, sourced from local Chiltern woodland, can be seen along this important coaching stop on the historic route to Oxford. No fewer than seven inns and alehouses thrived in a village that had only 67 houses! Today there are three, and notably the George and Dragon offers good ales and pub meals to weary visitors. They might also tell you a ghost story if you didn’t get your fill at the caves.
What to see in West Wycombe
Rake and reprobate Sir Francis, 2nd baronet of the Dashwood family, puts the modern ‘gap year’ to shame, having returned from his grand tour of Continental Europe with an insatiable taste for expensive art, sumptuous architecture and mysterious drinking rituals.
Regularly used as a location for lavish period films and TV productions including Downton Abbey, West Wycombe Park and its Palladian mansion belonging to the Dashwoods are often described as one of the most theatrical estates in England. Both the park and house are managed by the National Trust.
On the imposing Church Hill, junction of the Wye and Saunderton valleys and once home to an Iron Age settlement, stands the striking if not flamboyant Dashwood Mausoleum and Golden Ball. The impressive hexagonal structure of the mausoleum is open to the skies and its design was based on the Constantine Arch in Rome.
Formerly a medieval church, St. Lawrence Church received the Sir Francis makeover including a hollow golden ball atop the tower which could seat 8-10. It was described by author John Wilkes as ‘the best globe tavern I was ever in’.
Down below, the Hell Fire Caves were dug out by hand in the 1750s and funded by Sir Francis Dashwood to provide employment for out-of-work farmhands. The caves became a meeting place for his Hell-Fire Club (boasting members such as the Earl of Sandwich and Benjamin Franklin), which was legendary for its debauchery and ritualistic antics. Said to be haunted, the chalk passages of the caves plunge deep into the hillside and lead to the scene of the former revels in the Banqueting Hall and Inner Temple.
In the Countryside
Walk through the countryside estates of West Wycombe, Bradenham, Naphill Common and Hughenden – these easy walks deliver the seasonal colour of the beech woods and bluebells, and fantastic views. A children's quiz accompanies the Hughenden and Downley Walk and there is also a downloadable sheet on its historic, geological and archaeological features. This walk can be reached by train, from Saunderton on the Chiltern Line.
Winter visitors can enjoy Snowdrop Walks on the West Wycombe estate, whilst spring brings the popular Lambing Days at nearby Ham Farm over the Easter weekend. The summer season features a village fete on the hill and open air performances in music and theatre in the park.
What to see Further Afield
Pann Mill Watermill – 3 miles from West Wycombe. Set in a beautiful water and wildlife garden on The Rye in High Wycombe’s town centre, Pann Mill is the last operating watermill on the River Wye, with history dating back to the Domesday census of 1086. Preserving the original machinery, the present-day mill was restored by the High Wycombe Society, a volunteer-run charity. Open Days occur three times per year (May, July, September) when visitors can see the watermill in action and buy the stoneground wholemeal flour milled from local wheat.
Wycombe Museum – 3 miles from West Wycombe. This is the place to learn about High Wycombe, and the Chilterns, as the 19th-century chair making capital of the world. So-called 'bodgers' worked in the beechwoods and crafted parts for the famous Windsor chair, one of several different styles of regional chairs on display. The collection also displays tools used by the bodgers and in local factories and workshops, together with documents and catalogues illustrating Ercol, G-Plan and other well-known ranges of furniture.
Hughenden Manor and Park – 4 miles from West Wycombe. The country home of Victorian Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli offers a vivid and entertaining insight into his colourful personal and political life. There's added interest in the Second World War room in the cellars and there are plenty of hands-on activities for children, including a hands-on tour of the working Victorian walled garden.
The 4-mile Hughenden Disraeli Walk explores the beech woods, ancient coffin parth and pastures of the surrounding estate. Access to the main park is free, and a popular spot among locals for casual walking in any season.