Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Hell-Fire and Francis Dashwood




Novelist L.P. Hartley coined the famous saying, “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” There is a lot of truth in that – not least in the case of Sir Francis Dashwood, 11th Baron Despancer, who somehow managed to be Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1762-63 despite being a notorious rake and founder of the infamous Hellfire Club. They certainly did things differently in the 18th century! However much we may despise the antics of some of today’s politicians, their misdemeanours pale into insignificance when presented alongside those of Sir Francis.

Born in 1708, Francis Dashwood was educated at Eton and became elected Tory MP for New Romney in 1741 – a position he held for 20 years though what he did for the good people of New Romney is up for debate.  Over the years he was also Postmaster General, Treasurer of the Chamber and eventually Master of the Great Wardrobe (a largely symbolic post).

He spent his youth travelling across Europe and gaining a reputation for his outrageous behaviour. In Russia, he impersonated Charles XII of Sweden and made an attempt to seduce the Tsarina. He also managed to get himself expelled from the Papal States.

By 1736, he was a leading light of the Dilettante Society – whose name has passed into the English language to describe a person who dabbles in the arts without any serious commitment. And members of the Dilettante Society certainly did a lot of dabbling. Horace Walpole described it as "a club for which the nominal qualification is having been to Italy, and the real one, being drunk.” Aside from the frivolities though, Dashwood did manage to get himself elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society and also involved himself in charitable work – an increasingly fashionable pursuit amongst the upper classes – as vice president of the Foundling Hospital and also of the General Medical Asylum.
But it is for his involvement in the Hell-Fire Club that Sir Francis Dashwood’s name has passed into history, and fable. There had already been one short-lived Hellfire Club, begun in 1719 by the Duke of Wharton, but disbanded two years later. In the 1730s, another Hellfire Club was started at the George and Vulture pub and Dashwood was one of its active members. While in Italy, he had become enthralled by the practice of naming clubs in direct opposition to the principles for which they stood. As a result, he decided that it would be fun to create a burlesque society dedicated to St Francis. Here frivolity, gaiety, debauchery and plenty of alcohol would fuel the proceedings. Irony in its most extreme form.

This resulted in the creation of the Brotherhood of St Francis, otherwise known as the Order of the Knights of West Wycombe who held their first –somewhat lacklustre – meeting at Dashwood’s home, West Wycombe Park.  Dashwood searched for a more ironic location for their ‘meetings’ and found it at nearby Medmenham Abbey, whereupon the group renamed themselves the Monks of Medmenham. This former Cistercian Abbey lay on the banks of the Thames in an idyllic setting. Dashwood rented it, renovated it and by 1755 the ‘monks’ had gained their more recognisable name of the Hell-Fire Club – not of their choosing, it would seem. This was a name imposed on them by their critics. 

 So what went on there? As with any ‘secret’ society, such as the Freemasons, its lack of transparency led to all sorts of rumours. Some, no doubt, well-founded. There was certainly plenty of alcohol and female company to keep the gentlemen entertained. There may or may not have been orgies but evidence indicates that each gentleman had his own ‘cell’ where he could privately entertain his female guests. This comprised of little more than a bed but that would have surely been enough for the purposes of the ‘brothers’.

It would appear that Dashwood himself led in every possible way, shape and form. He was the High Priest of this band of debauched ‘Franciscans’ and performed ceremonies where he would celebrate heathen deities and conduct mock communions. It was rumoured that Black Masses took place and all manner of depraved and lewd behaviour, including the summoning of demons.

Between 1748 and 1754, Dashwood excavated and renovated ancient chalk caves at his home in West Wycombe and to achieve this, the anachronistic Dashwood created his own job creation scheme by employing far more labour than he actually needed. Paying the labourers one shilling per day would certainly have helped alleviate the sufferings caused by failed harvests. Another ‘good work’ of this irrepressible eccentric?

By 1754, work was completed. It was said that so much evil was summoned at the Society’s ‘meetings’ that an attempt to build a church near the entrance to the caves saw it demolished overnight by some unseen force. A spirit voice told the local priest where to build the church. He followed its instruction and St Lawrence’s Church is still at the designated site.

The ‘brothers’ held meetings in the caves during the 1750s and 1760s. Drinking, feasting, gambling, music, singing, carousing and sex with their mistresses seems to have been the order of the day for many members, but equally, Dashwood had long held a fascination for ancient and pagan religions such as druidism and the Celtic and Roman traditions. He and others appear to have wanted to revive these and worship of these deities, such as the Bona Dea (more familiar us now as The Goddess of the Wiccan religion) may well have ensued.


Dashwood did himself no favours by his behaviour. The satirist Charles Churchill called him ‘a disgrace to manhood’ and it was said he corrupted young men and boys. Yet through all this, he continued to conduct a political career and, in 1762, was created Chancellor of the Exchequer. He didn’t remain in post long. His budget speech was incomprehensible. He appeared to have no grasp of financial matters and it soon became clear he would have to make way for a more capable man. In order to save him too much embarrassment, he was created Master of the Great Wardrobe – a purely ceremonial role. - where he could do no damage.

For all his notoriety, the death of his uncle ensured that Dashwood was created 11th Baron Despencer – the premier baron in England - and in 1770, he was created joint Postmaster General.

He died, after a long illness, at his home in 1781.

What of the Hellfire Caves now? They are open to the public and play host to a range of activities – including ghost hunts. The site is now regarded as one of the most haunted in Britain. A former steward –Paul Whitehead – is believed to haunt the caves and ghostly sightings have been reported many times down the years. It is said he is searching for his heart. He left £50 to Dashwood so that, after his death, his heart would be placed in an urn in the caves. Dashwood honoured this, but around 150 years ago, his heart was stolen by an Australian soldier and has never been returned, although the urn remains. Apparently the restless spirit is dressed in eighteenth century fashion and causes poltergeist activity.

An even more commonly seen phantom is that of poor, murdered chambermaid, Sukie, who worked at the nearby pub. She had ideas well above her station and desired only to marry a wealthy gentleman (she doesn’t seem to have been particularly bothered who he might be.) Eventually, she got her wish and a wealthy local man proposed to her. Naturally, she accepted, One evening, a note arrived for her purporting to come from her fiancĂ©, asking her to meet him at the caves so they could elope. She put on her wedding dress and made her way down at dead of night. But poor Sukie had been duped. Local boys – angry at her repeated rebuttals – had sent it. A fight ensued, stones were thrown and Sukie was felled by a blow to her head. She died in the passages.



Now she haunts the banqueting hall, dressed in her white Victorian wedding gown, sometimes screaming, sometimes sobbing.

Needless to say, such a reputedly haunted location as the Hell-Fire Caves would not be missed by Yvette Fielding and Britain’s Most Haunted team, who mounted a night vigil there. Well worth watching:







Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Who Put The Hedgehog In My Knickers?


Radiotherapy. If you didn’t know what it meant, you might be forgiven for imagining it was some kind of restful treatment involving a comfy chair, headphones and a couple of hours of listening to the pleasing baritones of Richard Hawley and Liam McKahey, the soaring vocals of Adele, or whoever your favourite music artists may be. You certainly wouldn’t imagine it to be any form of cancer treatment.

If, however, I called it by its more usual American term – radiation therapy – I would lay odds that a completely different picture would instantly flash into your brain and Adele would vanish into a distant memory.


 I am quite sure that a number of you reading this will be all too familiar with the side – and after – effects of this particular form of treatment. In my case, following extensive cancer surgery last year, I was advised that, as a curative measure, I would need five weeks of radiation directed at my pelvic and groin area. 25 sessions in all delivered daily Monday to Friday, with weekends off – presumably for good behaviour.

I have written on social media about the wonderful hospitals that have treated me over the past year or so. All of them in the Merseyside and Wirral areas of England. All of them world-class in their specialist fields. I have nothing but good to say about the Liverpool Women’s Hospital and Broadgreen. Now it was the Clatterbridge Cancer Centre’s turn to show why they deserve their many accolades and international reputation for excellence. From the minute I first came into contact with the consultant who would oversee my treatment, I was kept fully informed of what to expect, right down to likely timescales for the effects of the radiation to kick in. As a result, so far, there have been no nasty shocks.

Every day, a friendly team of consummate professionals steered me through the process. The actual zapping only takes a few seconds. The amazing machine moves around the bed you are lying on and it doesn’t hurt in the slightest. Week One was pretty straightforward. I kept to the advised low residue (low fibre) diet, used the Aquamax moisturizer ahead of any side-effects and made sure I had Loperamide handy – just in case.


 By Week Three, certain delicate areas of my anatomy were beginning to feel as if I had left them lying exposed in the sunshine for too long. Aquamax required in larger doses – and a quirky, but effective, dressing called Polymem. This comes in a roll. You snip off the required length, wedge it in the required place and it will happily dispense regular amounts of soothing moisturizer to the broken skin. Lovely. If you can keep it in place that is. It does have a sneaky habit of trying to escape out of the edges of your knickers, so you need to teach it who is the boss. I persisted and we came to an arrangement. I wouldn’t keep wondering why the manufacturer had chosen to make it in that particularly lurid shade of pink, in return for its (mostly) full co-operation.

By Week Four, still sticking to the low residue diet and, by now, taking a couple of Loperamide per day, plus some codeine and paracetamol, I found the act of sitting down and standing up something of a trial. I was all right once I got to the required position, but it was the getting there that proved somewhat problematical.Apart from that - and wondering where my 'get up and go' had wandered off to - I was doing far better than I expected.


 Week Five finally arrived and on the last day, I duly rang the bell three times – a Clatterbridge tradition. Everyone applauded and, after thanking the amazing staff, I waddled home.

Yes, waddled. Remember John Wayne and how he always managed to walk as if he had been sitting astride a horse for two days solid? That was me. It continued to be me for over a week afterwards. Even with all the wonderful medications, there is no getting around the fact that with radiotherapy comes sore skin. It stung, burned, prickled and, when I walked, it felt for all the world as if a hedgehog – spines erect – had taken up residence between my legs. When I sat down, I kept looking for the cactus I was sure I must have sat on.

It is now just over two weeks since my final blast of radiation. The 'hedgehog' has departed, leaving only a few prickles behind, so Polymem is a thing of history. Aquamax is still my good friend, and anyone passing the bathroom when I am showering might hear some sounds which… well, remember that famous scene in When Harry Met Sally? You know the one. In my case, the moans of ecstasy come as a result of the shower soothing some remaining sore (and itchy) bits.

No, Radiotherapy is not a cake-walk but, hopefully, as a result of the short term discomfort, I shall be cancer-free. Is it worth it? You betcha!



With my everlasting thanks to Liverpool Women’s Hospital, Broadgreen Hospital and Clatterbridge Cancer Centre. You all do an amazing job.


Tuesday, 12 July 2016

The Japanese Willow Wife



My new novel – The Devil’s Serenade – features a most extraordinary willow tree, inspired by a real example of the species which grows (quite impossibly) by the river, near my home in North Wales.

I say ‘impossibly’ because this tree does not perform like your typical weeping willow. In fact it doesn’t ‘weep’ at all. It twists, turns, its branches jutting out at odd, serpentine angles. At some stage in its history, it appears to have been struck by lightning and, at certain times of the year, judging by the charred remains of burned out candles and various items of assorted bric-a-brac, appears to be the focus of some kind of ritual.


But then, willow trees have long been the subject of myth and legend from the stories of Orpheus in the Underworld to the present day. Willows are said to possess a heart. Maybe that can explain the strange sensation I experienced one day when I sat on one of the trailing branches of the willow near my home. Although there was no wind, the branch beneath me rippled. It felt as if it was breathing. I have only experienced this particular sensation once, but that was quite enough to inspire a story.

Who knows what provided the inspiration for the poignant tale of the Willow Wife which has passed into Japanese culture and tradition.

The story goes that, once upon a time, the inhabitants of a Japanese village were much enamoured of the magnificent and beautiful willow tree growing in the centre of their community. It not only charmed the people it also seemed to protect them from the worst of the winter elements.


 A young boy named Hiroshi could see the tree every time he looked out of his bedroom window. When he walked to school, he would often stop and breathe in its scent, marveling at its grace and beauty. Then some years later it seemed the willow’s life might be threatened. The elders of the village decided to build a bridge over the river and started to fell trees for their timber. Hiroshi was scared the willow might be next in line to face the axemen. He pleaded for it to be saved and even offered the men money so they would not cut it down. They agreed it should be spared.

Hiroshi now became more and more attached to the tree. He would whisper his secrets to it, stand underneath it and give thanks for all of nature around him. As he grew older, so he became more convinced than ever that the tree understood him and, in its own way, healed his soul.

One day, he came upon a beautiful young woman standing under the tree where he normally stood to say his prayers. 


 “Are you waiting for someone?” he asked.

She smiled. “He will not come.”

“But how terrible. What kind of man would not meet such a fair woman? How sad it is when love is not returned.”

“He loves me,” the woman said.

Hiroshi was now confused. “But why does he not come to you?”

Again, she smiled at him. “His heart has always been here, under the willow tree.”

To his dismay, the woman then disappeared. But she returned the next night and they talked – about the stars, the beauty of the peaceful night and the place where they were standing. The woman told Hiroshi that her name was Kaori, but she would say no more about her family or who she was.

They continued to meet, night after night, until Hiroshi was sure he had fallen in love with this mysterious and beautiful woman. He asked her to marry him and she agreed – with one proviso. “Don’t ask me anything about my past.”

Hiroshi readily agreed. He loved her as much as he loved the willow. Nothing else mattered.

The following year, now married, the couple had a soon they name Daiki. Their happiness shone around them. They were always smiling and laughing. But, as always, such happiness could not last.

The emperor of Japan wanted to build a temple to Kwannon, the goddess of mercy. He needed timber from all the villages – even the most sacred trees. The elders of the village decreed that the lovely willow should be their offering. None could compare with it. “It will be our most sacred gift for the most sacred of temples,” they said.


The next morning, Hiroshi and Kaori woke to the sound of the axes chopping down their beloved tree. In bed, beside Hiroshi Kaori shuddered. “My love, my hair is falling from my body. My limbs are shattering!”

Hiroshi held her close. “No, no, my love. You are having a bad dream,” he said and held her close.

Outside, a loud crash. The tree was felled. In that moment, Kaori disappeared, leaving Hiroshi holding a single branch of golden willow leaves.

Too late, Hiroshi realized his beloved wife was really the spirit of the willow.

For the rest of their lives, Hiroshi and Daiki continued to give thanks for their beautiful, gentle wife and mother.