Last weekend was busy.

On Friday, I went, with Bro and Little Sis, to the V & A, to see the Shoes: Pleasure and Pain Exhibition. I’d finished my other jobs early, so had about an hour before they arrived to sit in the garden, relax with a cup of tea and read my book.

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We had planned to meet at 1pm so that we could have lunch before we went to the exhibition. I’ve never eaten there before and was pleasantly surprised at how beautiful the Garden Café is. The windows are stained glass and there are patterned tiles depicting the months of the year and the seasons on the walls. Surprisingly, the V & A website makes little mention of the architecture and design of the café. (There is information about the design of the building, but it does take a little searching for. Maybe that’s not what most people are interested in when they visit the V & A but I would like to see more information about it.)

The food in the Garden Café is reasonably priced, so we thought we’d made a good choice eating there. It’s one of those places that also does an afternoon tea deal (but check, it may not apply every day) so when you consider that entry to the museum is free, it can be a very really reasonably priced day out. We were all happy with our choice of venue.

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We finished lunch with plenty of time to spare so looked around on the ground floor before going into the Shoe exhibition. I wanted to go to this exhibition because, like so many women, shoes are my big passion. My tastes have changed over the years, they are more diverse now, but I still love them all. I saw some that were very similar to shoes I used to own, it was like being in seventh heaven. I didn’t take any photographs at the exhibition because I thought they said that we weren’t allowed to, but I did see other people snapping away. It probably didn’t matter, I was drooling too much most of the time to have been able to hold the camera steady.

There were shoes from ancient Chinese cultures, Iraq, Egypt; more recent history and the modern day. I learned something very interesting about pole dancing shoes… Even my brother enjoyed this exhibition, which is going some for a man.

Then I went to stay with the boys, Paul and Paul, on Saturday night. One of the Paul’s is a very good cook, so Saturday night dinner was at home. Very relaxing for me but maybe not so much for Paul. Delightful meal though, Indian themed, which is a big favourite with me. On Sunday, we all slept late, but had decided that we were going out for the day, and the Hellfire Caves at West Wycombe were the chosen destination.

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The caves extend for about a quarter of a mile underground, excavated between 1748 and 1752. They are below St Lawrence’s Church and Mausoleum; all of these were excavated or built by Sir Francis Dashwood (I always thought when Jane Austen referred to the Dashwood’s in Sense and Sensibility it was a fictional name, but maybe not).

The local area had been used for open-cast quarrying since way back, the chalk being used for roads and the foundations of houses. Sir Francis decided that he would extend the quarry to ease the local unemployment problem, caused by three years of successive harvest failures. It also doubled as a way of obtaining materials for a new road between High Wycombe and West Wycombe. What is not clear is why Dashwood did not just extend the existing quarry, as opposed to having the excavations done as caves… Perhaps there was an ulterior motive…

The Hellfire Club was not an exclusive name, it was used by a number of clubs frequented by upper class gents in the 18th century. The one in question here was more commonly known by the catchy little title of the Order of the Friars of St Francis of Wycombe! Members of the club dressed up as monks and addressed each other as brother. Female guests dressed as nuns. Word spread that satanic rituals took place, I suspect it was far less sinister than that, just somewhere that the well-heeled could enjoy some undisturbed drinking, feasting and whoring, not necessarily in that order.

After the death of Sir Francis, and the demise of these Hellfire clubs (I guess everything goes out of fashion), the caves were not maintained and started to become dangerous. It wasn’t until 1951 that they were opened to the public for a small fee (one shilling a visit, along with a candle to light the way, which, I think would be about £1.50 in today’s money. It’s £6 to get in today.)

The caves have been cleaned up (and shored up in places) and electric lights have been installed – but don’t run away with the idea that the caves are lit up like the Blackpool illuminations, there are places where a torch would be very useful. There have been reported sightings of bats in the caves, although fortunately, I didn’t see any (I’m not great with anything flying close to my head); there are also reports that the caves are haunted. I have to be honest, I didn’t get any sense of that either but don’t let that stop you from visiting.

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We walked up to the church and mausoleum afterwards – what a fantastic view, and good exercise. The church (St Lawrence) is beautiful and definitely worth a visit. They do afternoon teas there too, on a Sunday.

All in all, a lovely day, and lovely weekend.

© Susan Shirley 2015

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