St. Albans Extract

ST. ALBANS

ST. ALBANS

Hello dear friends.

Thank you all for your supportive messages over the last few months. Many of you have been asking how many more cathedrals I plan to lick, now that the challenge has been won. The answer is absolutely none! Well, for the moment anyway. Ever since the final, victorious lick at St. Asaph in December I have rather enjoyed having my life back and being able to sleep in past 5 a.m., which was often the dreaded hour at which I had to arise to catch a bus or train to some distant corner of the country.

Many of you have also been asking how the book has been coming along. Well, it is taking some time, mainly because I want to get it right so am not rushing it. It is quite a daunting task telling the tale of all 64 of our mighty Anglican cathedrals, as well as the grueling story of how I reached them, but it’s a task that I am thoroughly enjoying.

I have decided to include a sample chapter on the blog for people to read and comment on.  It is by no means the finished article but merely a rough outline of the kind of content and tone I am aiming for. Some of you may remember the original blog post about St. Albans Abbey; much of this has been re-used here and I have added a few anecdotes about the building and its history. Ideally I’d like to find a good balance between the story of the bet and the histories of each cathedral. Please feel free to comment and criticise, I would really value some feedback. Happy reading!

Lawrence

St. Albans has always had a special place in my heart. It is the city in which my dear grandmother lives and where I have spent a good deal of my life on holidays and breaks away from London. When younger, idyllic summers were spent in the peacefulness of Verulamium Park (site of the old Roman town of the same name), in the very shadow of the Abbey, little knowing that one day I would be forced to lick that mighty Norman building. During those innocent days the historical significance of the Abbey (and indeed St. Albans as a whole) was largely lost on me; it is no exaggeration to say that it is one of the most important historical and religious sites in these islands.

            To this day my family and I will often struggle up the thigh-bursting hill on which the abbey cathedral sits, and delve into the gloom of this mighty structure to light a candle at the shrine of St. Alban. Here was once an elderly verger, who used to tell my sister and I the story of the Roman saint’s martyrdom on that very spot. His grisly account on the beheading held me in morbid fascination every time, as did the story of the executioner’s eyeballs falling out when the dreadful deed had been done, an event which must have spoiled his day somewhat. Afterwards, it is said that Alban’s severed head rolled down the hill of his execution, and where it stopped a spring of holy water had appeared miraculously. This too was related with relish by the shrine’s verger, who one day happened to witness me losing a football down the very same hill where Alban’s head had once tumbled.

            “It brings to mind the story of our man Alban” he sighed happily, watching the ball bounce and roll downhill before ending up in the lake.

            Given my obvious connections with St. Albans, it was with some trepidation that I approached this very personal cathedral-lick. I had been planning to put it off for as long as possible, mainly because I feared my grandmother’s stern disapproval. A walk through the park and up to the abbey has always been a sacred tradition of ours, and one that I felt would be sullied by my selfish licking needs. Several trips had been made there since the beginning of the bet and I had not summoned up enough courage to ask her to be my accomplice and photographer, so It was a painful experience seeing the walls and great Norman tower crying out to be licked, but all the while knowing that I risked family ostracization by heading its call. It was though, I realised grimly, a risk that would have to be taken.

            Another opportunity presented itself quite unexpectedly one Sunday morning, when a panicked phone call had me on the very next train to Hertfordshire. What at first had sounded like news of a break-in or a nasty fall turned out to be a shocking announcement that my Grandmother had baked a cake and could find no one to eat it. To my grandmother, everyone is on the verge of starvation and should be fed copiously, preferably until they are half dead, at which point they should be fed more to revive them. During my university years in London her concern for my welfare was a constant worry, and she routinely rang to announce great tidings of a leg of lamb or a sponge cake, as if in fear that the big, bad city had turned me to cannibalism.

Shortly after waking up from the latest food-coma, the question was raised of how best to spend the rest of the day together. My grandmother immediately piped up and insisted on a walk up to the Abbey: “It’s our tradition, after all” she said to me, smiling sweetly. I felt both ecstatic and sick at this idea, knowing that there was a shot at getting my tenth cathedral licked, although potentially at a great cost. Not only was this pilgrimage a treat for my grandma, but the Abbey is a treasured place for her. This could all go very badly.

            My nervous nausea continued during the short car journey, with a constant worry of how best to evade my poor grandma to get this damned licking job done and finally set my mind at rest. These troubled musings continued upon reaching Verulamium Park, where we made our way past sleeping ducks and herons in the gentle river Ver, and up the familiar winding path up to the Abbey.  For those new to these parts, this route is by far the most appealing route into the city, as almost everything beyond the abbey and market square is intensely grey, dull and best avoided. Queen Boudicca once famously put the old Roman city to the torch, and walking the streets of modern St. Albans today you can’t help but wish for a repeat performance. Small reminders of the small medieval city do remain in a few streets of gorgeous timber-framed houses and peaceful, semi-rural lanes. Given such heart-melting surroundings, it is hard to imagine Boudicca’s army burning and killing on this spot, or that another two bloody battles took place here during the Wars of the Roses. A famously villainous victim of the first battle of 1455, the Earl of Somerset, lies buried in the Abbey today. He met his end in fierce combat outside a long since vanished inn named The Castle, something a soothsayer had once warned him to avoid.

            Half way up the cruel hill a welcome rest-stop is found at the Old Fighting Cocks, a charming pub of low ceilings and many a crooked beam. There is something strangely satisfying about drinking inside a listed building such as this, where you fully expect to be referred to as “stout yeoman” by all who dwell within. It is a jolly place and one worthy of the title of Britain’s Oldest Pub, with origins dating back as far as the 8th-century, so a well-bearded and red-nosed man once told me over a pint in there. Even the drunks are charming.

            Resisting the strong temptation of a drink by a warm fire, we continued to climb the hill, smiling and pretending that we really were having a nice time. It was a bitterly cold and misty November afternoon and the great Norman tower was all we could see of the cathedral, which was almost entirely wrapped up in thick fog. Though mostly hidden from us, it was still possible to sense the building’s brooding and austere presence.  Austere it certainly is, and a bit rough-looking in comparison with such stunners as Wells, Salisbury and Ely, the true pin-ups of the cathedral world.  Sadly St. Albans will never adorn the locker door of any cathedral enthusiast. This is due to a serious the lack of decent local stone to beautify it with, something that forced its Norman builders to raid the decaying Roman ghost town at the bottom of the hill. This recycled stone was troublesome to carve into any attractive shape and instead was used solely to beef-up the walls of the great brick monster seen today. Many of these Roman bricks found their way to the gigantic, castle-like tower.

            As we approached the southern entrance I was already checking out for good lick-spots. With nine cathedrals already under my belt I felt I had got this licking lark sussed, but now the fog was likely to complicate matters. It was so thick that from a distance it appeared as if the abbey was swallowing people up whole. This would not make for an especially clear photo and would not be approved by Adam under the terms of the bet. Even if a suitable location were to be found and a decent picture taken, there was still the difficulty of explaining the deed to my Grandmother. I quietly hoped to snare some passerby, ask them to take the photo and then disappear back into the fog before they could ask any further questions.

            Inside was little better, with no signs anywhere proving the location and a positive throng of potential cathedral-licking condemners, mainly in the form of nice old ladies. It was like Rochester all over again, except without the legions of priests and Dutch people. They were everywhere! In the nave, in the refectory, up by the altar and causing a general hubbub in the gift shop. Not all were visitors, with a healthy number of those volunteer do-gooder types making up a vast army of knitted cardigans that stood in my way of getting the lick done. I would have said damn the lot of them there and then, were in not for the fact that they were all so lovely, giving me a cheery “hello” and a warm smile. What made it worse was that my Grandma was now one of them. Recognising some friends from her Bridge group, she walked over and introduced me to them.

“And what brings you to the Abbey, my dear?” one of them asked with an angelic smile.

            The question had me in a sweat, and fearful that they should discover the awful truth I awkwardly sang the praises of building, its long history and fascinating architecture, anything to divert them away from the true purpose of my visit. Although these sentiments were indeed genuine, I still felt like some sort of devilish beast come to despoil the place.

            While Grandma gossiped with her friends I took the opportunity to sneak off to find a good spot of cathedral wall to lick. Something drew me straight to the shrine of St. Alban, though I knew that this would not be the most advisable place to do the job. Here was (and still is, to some degree) the heart and focus of the cathedral. In its heyday pilgrims flocked here in search of spiritual and physical healing, with often four at a time kneeling inside the specially cut alcoves within the shrine itself, hoping to soak up some of the saint’s holy aura to cure whatever malady they suffered from. With this in mind I decided to do the same, but given the fact that my greatest affliction was a bad knee (partly the fault of Adam), the process of kneeling on hard, cold stone only made the pain worse, and I was forced to my feet once more.

             Overlooking the now heavily restored shrine is a curious feature: a 15th-century “watching loft.” What first appears at first to be a balcony for pilgrims was in fact a viewing platform for medieval security guard monks, who would have kept a close eye out for any thieves planning to steal offerings of money and jewels left on the shrine’s pedestal. The whole thing looks remarkably unsafe and on the point of collapse, with chunky and uneven steps leading up to the balcony. Despite the obvious dangers the desire to creep inside and explore the thing is overwhelming, but by the look of it merely breathing on the 600-year-old woodwork would bring it crashing to earth. There was no question, therefore, of licking it.

            Without a spot to lick in the Shrine I bought a candle instead, which was promptly lit and placed amongst the already numerous and happily burning collection. Despite my atheist leanings I quietly prayed to the saint himself, apologising for the imminent licking of his church and asking for a lightning bolt or something suitably nasty to spite Adam down with. Whether that was within his saintly powers was unknown, but I like to think it worked as not long afterwards Adam contracted a nasty case of Gout.

            Moving on, I made my way to the north transept, where can be found an excellent example of gaudy indulgence and typically Victorian “I know best, you bloody savages” interference. The enormous rose window that dominates this part of the cathedral is the work of the amateur architect Lord Grimthorpe, whose bust sits nearby with an arrogant smirk. Although a successful barrister and millionaire, sadly his money could not buy him and ounce of architectural skill or taste.  Through an alarming lack of know-how and loathing for medieval stonework he took a wrecking ball to the place and, much to the horror of the locals, altered the building’s original character forever. In addition to this new window Grimthorpe also saw fit to tear down and replace the old west front and sections of the old roof. Such was his heavy-handedness a new verb was created, “to grimthorpe”, meaning to carry out unsympathetic restorations of ancient buildings. Even though the death penalty was still in force at this time, remarkably no one thought to have this great vandal strung up for his crimes. Were it not for the fact that he designed the mechanism for the world-famous clock of Big Ben he may well have been the most famous criminal of English architecture.

            So lost was I in the midst of my explorations that the little old lady had to raise her voice to get my attention, with those dreaded two words of  “Hello dear.”

Where did she come from? I span around in surprise to see a little old lady sporting a huge badge with the word “GUIDE” proudly emblazoned upon it.

“Would you like to know a little about the cathedral?” she asked with a sweet smile. Getting the impression she had been there all day, through gritted teeth I said that I would. So there I stood, whilst she merrily reeled off lists of dates and names, obviously delighted to have someone to impart her knowledge with, while I suffered in silence. My smiles and frequent nods, which had worked a treat in Guildford for getting people to kindly bugger off were useless here. Clearly this woman was a pro and was going to give me every tiny detail before releasing me. To be fair she knew her stuff and told me many interesting tales about the place, most of which I sadly forgot almost instantly, so great was my wish to get the lick done and over with.

            Just when I thought I would never get away, she mentioned the length of the nave.
“Ah” I said, interjecting for the first time “the second longest nave in England after the one at Winchester, if I’m not mistaken?” I thought this little nugget would impress her no end, but regrettably it had rather the opposite effect.

“Winchester”, she said, as if the very name were poison, “Those Winchester folk like to think they have the longest nave, but it’s all lies! Ours is longer!” Her voice had risen to a fearful pitch and she regarded me with sudden distaste.

“They told you that rubbish, I presume?” she asked, but before I could answer she bade me good day and disappeared in a cloud of huffs.

            So, having thoroughly pissed off the guide (who was now no doubt calling security) I decided it was probably best to get out of the place before they could release the hounds. This was getting nasty. Is there really such rivalry in the cathedral community? You’d think they would get along perfectly well and possibly even bake cakes for one another (in the shape of each other’s cathedrals, I’d like to think). Images of football hooligan style confrontations came to mind – bishops’ crosiers cracking skulls, font drownings and hymn sheets ablaze in the cloister. On my way out I cast a wary glance at the kindly ladies pottering about the shop, convinced that they would soon learn of my recent Winchester outburst and pursue me with bloodthirsty zeal in defence of their beloved Abbey. One wished me farewell by the door and I let out a very unmanly squeal before fleeing into the welcoming fog outside, where my guilt and shame could be hidden.

Safely outside I began pacing the car park in despair. Having noted my sudden absence Grandma came out to find me, wearing a concerned expression. Guilt flooded through me at the realisation that I had selfishly abandoned her. What kind of a monster had this bet turned me into?

“What are you sneaking around for, dear? Is something wrong?” she asked, with genuine concern in her voice.

I couldn’t lie any longer so, taking a deep breath, I told her everything – the bet, the licking and the dreaded forfeit- expecting at any moment for a handbag to be swung forcefully into my face and to be dragged back down the hill by the ear. For a couple of seconds her expression was completely blank, sinking my spirits further, but slowly it transformed into a warm smile that emitted loud and glorious laughter. Such was her mirth that she brought out a hanky to dab the tears from her eyes. Her laughter was infectious and soon I too was roaring away. The sense of relief was immense.

            Once we had recovered Grandma gave me a soft and reassuring pat on the cheek. Then, with a glint in her eye she said “you’re as mad as your grandpa was, you lunatic.” He would have heartily approved of the venture she said, and would probably have joined me in this most poignant of licks. Such words were bittersweet, and I felt a pang of sadness that I had never known him.

            We were having such a good time that the lick was quite forgotten, but then, as if by a miracle, an official cathedral sign appeared around the next corner we turned. This strange but very convenient phenomenon was becoming a regular feature of these cathedral-licking trips and was surely proof that a higher being was on my side. My grandma agreed, and didn’t need to be asked to take the all important photo

            So, with my grandmother’s approval she happily took hold of my camera and ushered me into position, and I did finally lick St. Albans Abbey. The welcome taste of relief was truly wonderful; the taste of the stone, however, was bloody awful, and before long the hideous crunch of grit between my teeth and the sour, mossy taste of stonework had become unbearable. Grandma reproachfully clucked at my discomfort,

“Well you’d better get used to it my lad, there’s plenty more to do.”

Nodding in agreement at this all to true and intimidating fact, I took her arm as we headed back down the hill.

“How about a pint at the Fighting Cocks to wash away all that gritty nastiness?” she chirped. My response could not have been more positive, and I couldn’t help but wish that all future cathedral licks would end the same way.

 

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Nowhere left to lick

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Westminster Abbey: not a cathedral but still worth a lick.

So, my cathedral-licking days are over. In the previous post you will have seen evidence of the 64th and final lick at the lovely St. Asaph cathedral in Wales, which brought to and end a grueling, fascinating, stressful, eye-opening and bizarre couple of years.

With that victorious lick the burden shifted from my shoulders onto Adam’s, and now it is all down to him to uphold his end of the bargain! I saw him and his wife Charlotte in York just after Christmas and he was surprisingly upbeat about the whole thing, which was a trifle galling to be honest. He even offered to do the streak there and then! Quite what our fellow drinkers in the Snickleway Inn would have thought of that, I can only imagine. Sadly the great event did not take place that night, mainly due to lack of a good camera to record it all. I have been inundated with messages lately calling for proof of the dreaded forfeit, some of which have been rather alarming! Clearly a lot of people want to see Mr. Drury’s bare behind and other hidden equipment.

As enjoyable as it was visiting 64 wonderful cathedrals, it is a great relief not having to rush off around the country on a series of panicked journeys anymore. Now that it’s done though, I have been reading through this blog and remembering some truly great trips and stunning buildings, which I was lucky enough to share with some of the very best people. With these positive thoughts in mind I started writing the Introduction and first chapter of the cathedral-licking book about two weeks ago. It is coming along slowly but well, and I have decided not to rush it. I want to include all the best bits about each trip and every cathedral, which will take a  good deal of time and research. I am hopeful that it will be near completion by the end of 2013 and may even post a few excerpts on here to gauge people’s reactions.

With this project on the go it is unlikely that I will post any more accounts of my trips on this blog. I wish I had been a little more diligent in updating it, especially the final few English and Irish cathedrals (plus the Scottish ones), but rest assured they will all appear in the book when it is completed. I do still plan to write on the blog occasionally and already have a few ideas in mind, including my Top 10 cathedrals and Top 10 tastiest cathedrals.

Other than writing, back in January I also had the honour of giving a lecture on the cathedral quest at the University of Westminster (big thanks to Samir Pandya for organising this). It was the final talk of a 3-day course for architecture students and it seemed to go down fairly well. Looking at the faces of my audience there was a range of emotions on show: confusion, merriment, disbelief and incredulity mostly! I do hope they enjoyed it and forgave me for a few nerves and a dodgy Powerpoint presentation.

The BBC also invited me to do a number of radio interviews back in December. I did 10 in total for various regional stations and had a thoroughly good time. The one with BBC Leicester was particularly fun, as was the one with Radio York, both of which I am hoping to post on here soon. Apologies to BBC Leeds though, who seemed a bit upset when I told them that Wakefield Cathedral tasted the worst of the lot!

Hopefully the true message of this blog will have been understood through my posts, and you will know that the challenge was not just about some fool licking buildings! Certainly that’s how things started when the bet was created, but it didn’t take long for me to realise that I actually rather liked visiting these cathedrals and learning their secrets. A lot can be discovered by trying something new and exploring something you previously ignored, so I urge you, go and see your local cathedral and enjoy its treasures. Whether you lick it or not  is entirely up to you, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

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Victory!

As many of my readers will know, yesterday was the final deadline for the cathedral-licking bet. It was a date I had long feared, as back in September 2011 when Adam adjusted the terms it seemed like there would hardly be any time at all to finish this gargantuan and nerve-shredding task. What a great joy it is then to announce that on December 5th the last two cathedrals (those in Bangor and St. Asaph) were finally licked!!

Adam has been in touch and has gracefully conceded defeat, and word on his forfeit will be appearing on here soon! He should be very worried, unless he has somehow managed to raise a remote and obscure parish church to cathedral status, an achievement I would not put past him!

Obviously I am hugely relieved not to be in Adam’s shoes right now, but also a little sad that the adventure has come to an end. 2012 was truly the year of the lick and I was lucky enough to visit some incredibly beautiful and intriguing cathedrals over the last 12 months. I’ve also had the pleasure of meeting some truly wonderful people, many of whom have helped me along the way, so a huge thank you goes to them for their kindness and sense of humour.

The plan now is to turn this blog into a book, which will hopefully give a good account of the whole adventure, as well as an overview of the superb collection of cathedrals that we have in the United Kingdom. I never expected to get so hooked on these places when the bet began, but by visiting and exploring them I’ve gained a new-found passion that will be with me for life.

The blog itself is in need of a serious update, as there is still nothing on the last few licks in England and Northern Ireland, nor anything on the triumphant tour around Scotland. This will all be done after Christmas hopefully, but a more detailed account will appear in the book, of course.

So, although the adventure has come to and end there is still a lot more to come. But for now it is a simple case of basking in VICTORY!

Lawrence

 

 

 

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Northern Ireland Part 2 – Dromore, Down and Lisburn

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The grave of St. Patrick, Down Cathedral

With the first Northern Irish cathedral licked at Armagh and a good breakfast inside us we hit the road once more. We had ambitious plans for the day ahead and wanted to get three more done before nightfall, which would be breaking all previous cathedral-licking records. The three triple licking jobs with David had been tiring enough, but this would be a whole new experience.

The next two stops were in across the county border in Down, and on the way an eerie sense of familiarity appeared at every turn. It wasn’t just the fact that all the road signs were British, but also the rolling countryside, which at times resembled Yorkshire in all its greenery and earthy character. It was disorientating to say the least, like an old friend who has changed their name. Instead of signs for Harrogate, Whitby and Leeds we encountered Ballynabragget, Tandragee and the curiously-named Blackskull.

Our first stop, Dromore Cathedral, was a great surprise. When thinking of cathedral cities the tendency is to picture great beasts of churches dominating the view for miles around, in the way that the likes of Lincoln and Durham do so impressively. Their overbearing Norman aura leaves you in no doubt that they were meant to be seen. At Dromore it is a different story, so much so that we actually had trouble locating the cathedral and drove past it several times before realising that the modest-looking church by the River Lagan was in fact our intended goal. It seemed strange to think that this unassuming little building was a member of the cathedral club, but the signs outside confirmed its identity.

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Dromore Cathedral

By the entrance we found a   fine, ancient cross of stone, just one of many we would see on our journey.  The sight of it gave me the feeling that Irish Christianity is as old as the stones themselves, and Dromore and its various cathedrals have certainly witnessed a great deal since  St. Colman first put wattle to daub here early in the 6th-century.  Since these early beginnings the building has gone through several makeovers thanks to a series of destructive mobs and battles nearby. The Normans were once such mob and it was they that saw fit to knock up a castle in Dromore during the 13th-century, which helped to hold the Irish population here under their sway, much like they had done in England 200 years previously. All that remains of their once formidable fort today is a great cone of grassy earth known locally as “the Mound”, from which unsurpassed views of the town and upper Lagan Valley can be had.

Annoyingly the cathedral doors were locked, leaving us cursing our bad luck. This really was a blow, as the prospect of stepping foot inside every Northern Irish cathedral had been an appealing one. We gave the door a good shake or two, in the hope that a kindly curate would unbolt the locks and welcome us in with a smiling apology, and maybe even a cup of tea and a biscuit. In hindsight we probably looked like two desperate men seeking sanctuary. It was all to no avail and all we could do now was lick the place and continue our journey.

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Thankfully we had more luck at out next stop, Downpatrick. This place had irked Christopher somewhat, as it is a difficult place to get to by road, but its connection with Ireland’s famous patron saint drove him on with such zeal that we were within sight of the incredibly spiky cathedral in next to no time.

Downpatrick (from the Irish “Dún Pádraig” meaning “Patrick’s Stronghold”) is the county town of Down. The city oozes history and can boast the last resting place of St. Patrick himself, which can be found next to the cathedral on top of yet another hill. Up this now we huffed and puffed and were eventually met with a splendid sight. Looking at its copious spiky stonework I once again pondered the question of the World’s  most dangerous cathedral, in terms of its shape when copied into mini models for sale in gift shops. This had been on my mind ever since Silvio Berlusconi had been attacked with a reconstruction of the viciously pointy Milan cathedral in 2009. Had his assailant chosen to wield Down Cathedral, we agreed, that naughty Italian’s woe would have been far greater.

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The very spiky Down Cathedral

The cathedral is dedicated to the Holy Trinity and is certainly one of Ireland’s great churches. In true Armagh style it has been destroyed and rebuilt many times over, by a mixture of Vikings, other scallywags and even an earthquake! For great stretches of its history it stood as a ruin remained a venerated and holy site. John Wesley was one of its many admirers and he once preached underneath its crumbling walls in 1778, dubbing it a “noble ruin” in his diary. Indeed, the church here was held in such high esteem that Henry VIII had one of its many destroyers – Lord Leonard Grey, Lord Deputy of Ireland – put to death in 1541. If only we could have done the same to other famous church-smashers throughout history, of which sadly there is a depressingly long list.

Although undoubtedly an attractive building, it is the St. Patrick connection that draws most people here of course, ever since the burial of Ireland’s famous snake-botherer somewhere on Cathedral Hill long ago in the year 461. His exact resting place is a mystery but the presence of such holy bones is still celebrated with a great block of stone inscribed with his name. I spent a memorable few minutes here in the company of an enthusiastic tabby cat, who showed its pleasure at meeting me by sinking its claws deep into my thighs. I tried to explain to it that such behavior was not conducive to peaceful, religious reflection, but obviously it thought otherwise and stuck me again and again.

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St. Patrick’s puss was much friendlier to Christopher.

Inside the cathedral we were met with the booming sound of the organ in full voice, which in a gloomier, less welcoming church such as this would have easily filled us with dread. The interior was light, airy and a pleasure to behold. Hints of its medieval past can be found here and there, but most of the present building shows signs of recent renovation, which is no bad thing. While working in Westminster tourists would often complain to me (why, I do not know) about the ongoing renovation work at the Abbey: “It should have been left as it was” they would parp, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Westminster Abbey is a working church and not actually a museum. While on this subject, one woman even declared pompously that only English people should be allowed within its precincts (!), but that is a tale for another time. No, as lovely as medieval architecture is, it is far better to have a building to worship in and enjoy than a crumbling one that sheds masonry onto your skull.

When we made to leave we experienced an awkward moment. A middle-aged lady walked ahead of us and tried in vain to open the door by pressing on a large silver button marked EXIT on the wall. After several fruitless attempts she turned to us and in a soft English accent chortled “Oh, that’s very Irish, you know!” Unsure at how to react I stood frozen to the spot, watching her go as the door finally yielded to her push. “Very Irish, yes” she tittered as she  went on her way, giving me a cheeky wink.

I turned to Christopher looking for support, but he was just as dumbfounded as me. The only other person in sight was a kindly old lady in the cathedral shop, who judging by the redness of her face had heard every word and was a now a highly offended local, ready to defend her national honour with a Down Cathedral letter-opener, or anything else that might do the rude Englishwoman some harm.  No doubt she had heard me talking to Christopher in my London-cum-Yorkshire accent and identified me as comrade in arms on these foreign shores. Well honestly! I have rarely been so embarrassed by one of my own.

Soon after we made our own way out and got down to the all important job in hand: the 49th cathedral-lick. The prospect of victory was starting to taste better and better.

 
Downpatrick looked like a good place to spend some time, with charming winding streets and cosy-looking pubs galore, but we were on a mission and time was ticking. For our next stop we took the road north to Belfast, stopping at the bustling suburb of Lisburn for the next lick. It was now late afternoon and we were both beginning to tire and were slipping into that cruel lethargy that creeps up after time spent on the road. The prospect of a good meal and a few jars of ale in Belfast dulled our wits and it is probably for that reason that I remember very little of our time in Lisburn.

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Lisburn

As in Dromore the cathedral was closed, this time because of a funeral going on inside. This made us a little uneasy so we got the job done quickly. Once finished we got chatting to to a young, friendly vicar who presumably was on his way inside to conduct the service. This sad occasion blurred my mind further, so much so that the significance of this particular lick bypassed me entirely. Only when we were heading out of town did it occur to me that a huge milestone had just been reached: 50 cathedrals had now been licked! This realisation made me want to hug Christopher with joy, but he rightly suggested that a pint would be a far better way to show my appreciation, so off to Belfast we headed to celebrate this bizarre achievement.

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The 50th lick! Lisburn Cathedral

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Cathedral-licks of England video

Here, finally, is a complete record of all the cathedral licks in England in the form of a YouTube video. Enjoy!

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Northern Ireland Part 1 – Armagh

The great Christopher Power and his van, which brought us to all 8 Anglican cathedrals in Northern Ireland.

It’s fair to say that this licking odyssey has caused a great deal of stress and general misery. Of course, it can be argued that this was largely self-inflicted when I uttered the words “go on then” to Adam that night in the pub, thereby burdening myself with a gruelling task that would prove costly, both financially and mentally. There have been many low points on the quest and none more so than sleeping on that cold, hard bench in Manchester Airport one freezing October night, whiling away melancholy hours before a 6am flight to Ireland.

During that night of fitful sleep and waking snorts I once again questioned my own sanity and tried in vain to think why on earth I had thought all of this was such a good idea.  Barely six hours earlier I had left London for good, having handed in the keys to my flat and given notice on my job, using the last of my leave to get through as many cathedrals as possible before the December 16th deadline, which was now rapidly approaching. How I would do this on only a shoestring budget remained a mystery and one that would have to be worked out on the road. This was all madness, utter madness, and now I wanted no part of it. Thankfully such dark thoughts began to evaporate once on board the aeroplane, and were replaced with a reassuring sense that perhaps the greatest challenge of the whole cathedral-licking bet, namely the licking of the eight Anglican cathedrals of Northern Ireland, was about to be removed forever.

I was met at Dublin airport by a smiling and jolly Christopher (the brother of Lisa, my girlfriend), still fresh from a lengthy early morning drive from County Wexford. It was wonderfully cosy inside his red van and after a quick look at the map we began the journey north with much boyish enthusiasm. The simple pleasure of having a companion again gladdened my heart after the  lonely hours spent in Manchester. Christopher quickly proved to be excellent company, as I had known he would be, and I was provided with a wealth of knowledge on the towns and villages we passed through on our journey. He also related how the cathedral-licking story had been greeted in Ireland since it made the news back in June. It had appeared in Love It, a glossy magazine full of tales of lunatics, into whose bosom I had now been inadvertently welcomed. Lisa had done an interview for the feature, which included a mocked up image of me tonguing the ample spire of Salisbury, and apparently it had caused quite a stir in her home town.

So engrossed we were in conversation that I did not even notice when we crossed the border.  It seemed strange to be back in the United Kingdom so quickly, especially on a different landmass from the one I called home. I was uneasy about calling it British soil given the history here, and soon it became clear that this question was one that continues to divide people today. Just over the border we passed through a small down bedecked in the red, white and blue; not only flags but paving stones and the very curbs of the road. A few miles on, sometimes even a few hundred yards, this was replaced with green, white and orange. My ignorance of the history was embarrassing but Christopher did a fine job filling in the gaps before we arrived at our first stop of the trip.

It was perhaps fitting that we started the licking tour in Armagh, which is Ireland’s religious capital and a city of great historical importance. An acquaintance of Christopher’s had given the place a pretty damning review and had not offered much in the way of praise for it. Taking a stroll around its sunny streets however, we agreed that this assessment had been harsh to say the least.  Certainly there are fairer cities in the World, but that morning Armagh had nothing but charming streets and friendly nods of greeting from locals a plenty.

The city is famous for its two cathedrals, which can be found atop two equally noble hills, both dedicated to St. Patrick and dominating the skyline for miles around.  The Roman Catholic cathedral is perhaps the more attractive of the two but (luckily for me and my already burdensome quest) would not require a lick. It really was magnificent to behold, with its twin towers glowing white in the morning sun and the sight of it raised my spirits once more.

My mood soon dampened somewhat as we struggled up Ard Macha, the steep hill that gives Armagh its name and upon which the Anglican cathedral proudly sits. This lofty spot has seen plenty of action and upheavals in its time and has been fittingly dubbed “the Canterbury of Ireland.” Here also was a famous site of pagan worship, as well as a stronghold for the kings of Ulster in days long since passed.

When Christianity first spread to Ireland during the mid 5th-century Armagh became the island’s ecclesiastical capital, following the foundation of a church here by St. Patrick himself. This would not only be a place of Christian worship, the saint decreed, but also one of learning. Soon he was declaring that only those educated at Armagh could spread the gospel, and that is exactly what they did.  Soon Irish monks began crossing the sea to northern England full of Christian zeal and determined to convert the newly arrived Anglo-Saxons. During what some have described as “some of the darkest years in English history” it was the Irish that were saving Greek and Latin culture for Europe.

The cathedral itself is a modest affair but exudes an air of peace and tranquillity, something this hilltop has had little experience of in its time. No less than seventeen different churches have stood on this site since St. Patrick first huffed and puffed his way up here. This is thanks largely to the efforts of Viking raiders, who had such a fabulous time trashing it in A.D. 832 that they returned to do it further damage on nine separate occasions. The carnage finally ceased in 1014, when a Danish army was comprehensively defeated at Clontarf by the forces of Brian Boru, High King of Ireland. This celebrated Irish hero is now buried somewhere within the cathedral grounds, having been cut down at the battle by some brute while thanking God for his great victory.

When the Vikings weren’t around to cause mischief the weather put saw fit to put the boot in, or more precisely a lightning bolt, which caused such terrible damage in 995 that the building was left largely in ruins for almost two centuries. Two further incarnations were put to the flames during the troubled 16th and 17th centuries, making Armagh one of the most patched up and punch-drunk cathedrals in the World. Now it sits in a peaceful glow, surrounded by trees and enjoying its lofty perch over the city.

The cathedral seen today has been heavily restored during the 19th-century but still retains some delicious medieval features, but it is the collection of older, Iron Age treasures that most captures the imagination. In the south aisle can be found six stone carvings, which serve as a reminder of the old Celtic religion that once thrived on this site.  Principal amongst these is the Tanderagee Idol, a comical yet sinister effigy of a grinning creature believed to represent another of Ireland’s greatest kings, Nuadha. He is famous for possessing an arm of pure silver, a wonderfully garish gesture following the loss of the original limb in battle. Another carving shows yet another legendary ruler, one Labhraidh Loingseach, who would have been glad of a silver appendage but instead was cursed with a pair of horse’s ears.

Having had our fill of the place it was time to get moving. With seven other cathedrals to get to we could not afford to linger too long. As we made our way out and down to the van I shrieked at the realisation that I had forgotten to lick the cathedral! This was a disturbing thought given the fact that I had gone to such pains to get there in the first place, so back up the hill we trudged and captured the following video.

Of its taste I remember nothing, but it can only have been tinged with a sense of relief on having licked my first Northern Irish cathedral. Whatever flavour was left on my tongue was soon vanquished by a hearty breakfast in a nearby establishment, where we planned the next licks with great excitement. Slowly but surely the bet was being won.

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York Minster Fund

As readers of this blog will know I am a proud man of York, a beautiful city in the north of England and home to the world-famous York Minster.  Since an early age I have attended services here with my family and have often popped my head inside just to gawp at its splendour. The sound of its bells in the morning is, for me, the sound of home and for the people of this city the Minster is York.

Despite all of the wonder, this stunning cathedral is in dire need of help. It may come as a shock to learn that it costs around £20,000 a day to keep the Minster operating. Visitors often grumble at having to pay for admission to the building but their money directly supports the future of this holy and historic building. The funds raised from admission charges are not always enough, however, making other sources of income vitally important.

The York Minster Fund was originally founded in the 1960s in order to raise money for the restoration of the Minster’s Central Tower, which was in danger of collapse. Since then it has continued to generate funds for the work of conservation and restoration of the fabric of the building. We should all be able to enjoy this stunning building and help to preserve it for future generations but, to put it bluntly, York Minster cannot survive without your help.

To aid the work of the Fund I have set up an account with the online charity website Just Giving. If you have enjoyed reading this blog and would like to help support one of the World’s greatest cathedrals then please do make a donation. It’s quick and easy to do and your help is greatly appreciated. You can also aid many other cathedrals, churches and Anglican charities on Just Giving, so please do spend some time exploring their website.

Thank you for your support

Lawrence

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