Sample Book Chapter: Rochester and Canterbury

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Dear readers, here is a another sample chapter from the cathedral-licking book! It tells the tale of my experiences in Rochester and Canterbury, from very early on in the adventure. Please do let me know your thoughts.

Lawrence

 

Kent was alive with colour. The early morning light gave its green and mustard coloured fields a healthy, fertile glow and great cathedral-like barns shone with a glossy red. Church spires dotted the landscape far into the distance, their weather vanes radiating a burning gold in the dawn sunlight, shining like beacons over the rolling hills. Curiously shaped Kentish Oast houses, their conical roofs pointing at jaunty angles, were just as numerous and were decorated in bright, lurid shades that only increased the colourful hysteria. If ever there was a picture of England then this was it.

Watching it all from the comfort of the train, I was glad that I had forced myself out of bed so early to begin this journey. The carriages were all but empty going eastwards, yet swarms of unhappy commuters were crammed into others going the opposite direction, fighting with each other for space as they hurtled towards the dirt and stress of London. I loved the capital, yet it had still been wearing me down for years and now I felt like a prisoner on day-release – happy to escape, even for just a few hours.

As the train trundled on there was ample time to begin drawing up a mental list of Anglican cathedrals. I was still under the assumption that only a handful of them existed, and by licking the one in the Kentish capital of Canterbury first, the rest would surely follow easily. Quite why I thought this should be the case is unclear, but it made sense at the time. Perhaps I envisaged that, given its exulted status as the Anglican mother-ship, Canterbury Cathedral would prove the greatest challenge in terms of licking. It would undoubtedly have extensive security features and guards galore, who would not look kindly upon those trying to lick the cathedral’s walls. Before long these paranoid thoughts had transformed the place into some sort of Anglican Death Star in my mind, with the kindly archbishop I had encountered the previous day now an Anglican Darth Vader figure, slaying would-be cathedral-lickers with a crosier-shaped light sabre.

The sudden and unexpected appearance of Rochester Castle snapped me from my troubled musings. Its great keep – one of the finest and most intact anywhere in England – was a stirring sight, recalling the tale of King John’s great siege there. Kent ever was a hotbed of unrest and rebellion, with two of the largest revolts of the Middle Ages sparking into life within its borders. What was it that made Kentishmen so unruly? The county itself, shaped like the appendix of the British Isles, has always had something different about it. The name Kent isn’t even English (that is to say, Anglo-Saxon) but is Celtic in origin, making it unique amongst English counties. Even the language used to be different, with medieval Kentish folk reportedly confusing Londoners for Frenchmen by their speech. Still, it seemed an agreeable sort of place compared to many other counties I had visited.

“If Kent is the garden of England,” a friend had once said “then Essex is the patio.”

Just as I was beginning to get all dewy-eyed over the castle, the winding progress of the train revealed another noble pile behind it, the sight of which made me swear out loud in a mixture of joy and alarm. The fact that I had forgotten all about Rochester Cathedral was shameful, especially because I had been within its walls only months previously. Gazing longingly at its grand spire, a sensible voice within me spoke of patience and caution, urging me to leave this place for another day and to continue on to Canterbury as planned. But by the time such rational thoughts had had any affect it was too late, and I found myself on the platform watching the train disappear without me.

Rochester is a charming little city that thankfully has not been too badly spoiled by the overspill of some unspeakably grim neighbours. On the map it appears to have been swamped by the urban sprawl of Gillingham and Chatham to the east, yet still it has retained something of its original character, thank goodness. Even the noise and smoke of the nearby shipyards cannot diminish its charm. The lengthy high street is continuously bedecked with colourful bunting and Union flags, like one continuous street party that everyone is invited to. Shop bells tinkled merrily as locals went about their business, and elderly couples nibbled on cream scones in the numerous chintzy teashops, reaffirming Kent as the most English corner of these islands. Around the cathedral close and castle (by far the handsomest part of town) something of the Victorian Age still lingers in the air, and you half expect to see a horse and carriage come clattering over the cobbled stones, scattering groups of ragged Dickensian urchins in its wake. Indeed, Dickens grew up close by and gained considerable inspiration here for the characters and settings of his novels, many wrapped up in a characteristic Medway fog, which even now had begun to wrap itself eerily around the cathedral, towards which I made my way nervously.

My attempts at entering the building were thwarted by a succession of burly security guards. Underneath the gorgeous doorway of the western entrance I was gruffly informed by two of these charming gentlemen, both examining me as one does a turd, that the cathedral was closed due to filming. Their story was confirmed by a stream of actors in period costume passing through the doorway behind them. One was a beautiful bonneted woman, who glided past in mid 19th century garb, her purple dress rustling as she went. From the look of her she could have been a ghost, but sadly this thrilling prospect was crushed the moment she retrieved a packet of fags from her bodice, lit up and hocked up a gob of phlegm upon the pavement. My enquiries about the filming were met with more hard stares from the guards before one of them finally relented,

“Some Dickens bollocks, mate. Now piss off, yeah?”

Well, really. My cathedral-licking career had hardly got off to the best of starts, and it was all the fault of Charles Dickens.

Dejected and a little angry, I retreated from the view of these vile men. It was hugely disappointing not to get inside this gorgeous and under-celebrated building, as I had decided that if I was going to the great trouble of travelling to and licking all of these cathedrals, then I might as well see what they had to offer. I had been to Rochester before, and would have loved to have gazed upon the medieval graffiti inside once more, as well as the traces of an intriguing wall painting named “The Wheel of Fortune”.

Re-thinking my strategy, I retreated around the corner and away from the film set. The city was abuzz with the drone of tourists, all congregating in the cathedral close under the shadow of the castle. They too had been turned away at the cathedral doors but were happy enough to soak up the misty Dickensian atmosphere. Joining their happy throng I stood a while and observed them, and before long could distinguish three distinct groups. Firstly, there were legions of old ladies, clad it condomesque rainmacks and sipping flasks of tea; then there were hoards of jolly Dutch people, all blonde, ruddy-cheeked and guffawing; the final group unnerved me somewhat, being a large collection of vicars and priests, all in deep discussion and looking grave. For obvious reasons their presence gave me particular cause for concern. What made things even more awkward was the fact that someone (maybe even a priest) would have to help me by taking a photo of the deed itself.

Up until that moment I had not even considered how I would manage to provide proof of the all important lick, working alone as I was. True, this did not prevent me from actually licking a section of cathedral wall and capturing the scene with camera held at arm’s length, but without proof (either an official cathedral sign or a recognisable feature of the building in shot) I might as well have been licking the wall of a quirky toilet block in Milton Keynes. Adam had demanded conclusive evidence after all, which could not be obtained without some help from a stranger, I realised grimly. So it was that I began considering whom to ask to help me in a challenge I was rapidly losing enthusiasm for.

Obviously the vicars and priests were instantly ruled out as potential photographers; that left the old ladies and the Dutch. It was a simple choice: if there is one nationality that will wholeheartedly consent to taking a photo of someone licking an ecclesiastical building, it’s the Dutch. I have long been a fan of these great people and their seemingly relaxed attitude to everything in life, but still I waited nervously in a carefully chosen spot well away from the guards. Before long a sea of Hollanders came my way and I chose one with the friendliest demeanour to be my accomplice. This was a kindly middle-aged man, who smiled broadly when asked if he could take my photo, unaware of what was to come.

            “Just to let you know” I muttered shyly “I am going to lick the cathedral.”

His face dropped. “You’re doing what?”

“I have to lick the cathedral for a bet and need photographic proof. It’s weird, I know. Sorry.”

He began to look uneasy and backed off slightly, looking to his friends for support. A short conversation followed between them and they looked at me aghast. By now a small crowd had gathered, including some of the old ladies and vicars, and whispers of disapproval were soon spreading. Maybe the Dutch were not as relaxed as I had previously believed.

Before they could lynch me I asked my accomplice to make sure of capturing both the cathedral sign and myself in the photo. Then, handing him my camera, I slid down the grassy bank by the cathedral wall, tripping and muddying myself in the process. Getting into position, I pressed my tongue firmly against the sandy stone. My first taste of cathedral was not the finest (an unsurprising fact) but it struck me there and then that I had not yet considered just how foul an activity this actually was. The thought that this was only the first of potentially many such licks darkened my mood further.

In the middle of these gloomy thoughts my attention returned to the Dutchman, who seemed to be taking an awfully long time taking the photo. Perhaps he wanted me to suffer and allow more muttering onlookers to congregate and block my escape. Indeed, a quick glance revealed that the crowd of spectators had grown considerably. They watched on opened-mouthed and in head-shaking disbelief. One man in particular gave me an icy, calculated stare, as if he were thinking of where he could get hold of some tar and feathers to daub me in.

“What on earth do you think are you doing, young man?” another man roared. A quick sideways glance revealed the voice to be that of a vicar. A friend of the Dutchman could be heard explaining to him the purpose of this unusual homage, while he watched on aghast. Closing my eyes in shame, I willed it all to be over quickly.

After what seemed like an eternity the Dutchman – now red-faced and visibly sweating -announced that the photo was taken. He handed back the camera brusquely and stormed off with an odd whimper, his worried friends following him and throwing glances of loathing back at me as they went. The crowd of onlookers remained however, muttering angrily and regarding me as some sort of church-licking pervert.

Trying my best to ignore their stares, I made my way through the muttering crowds and checked the photo. My heart lurched in horror. The swine had completely ignored my simple instructions! Not only was the photo blurred, but he had missed out the all-important Welcome to Rochester Cathedral sign, which I had specifically asked him to include! Clearly he had been keen to get away and had put little care into the job. Cursing him and his entire nation, I considered giving up and returning at a future date, when there were sure to be less people around to spoil things. Pretty soon I realised that this was a foolish notion; bets are not won by giving in so easily. So with some reluctance I turned on my heels and returned to the scene of the crime.

Back in the cathedral close the search began for another, more able and less judgemental photographer. This was easier said than done, as word of the licking had soon spread and now people were giving me a particularly wide berth. It was like being the worm-eating kid at school – shunned and looked upon with disgust by all. The roaring vicar’s words returned to me at that dark moment – What on earth do you think you’re doing? What was I doing? Was this all really so important that I should have to go through this humiliation? Maybe Adam would take sufficient amusement from this episode and call the bet off.

Thankfully, in the midst of despair, a friend was soon found in the form of another Dutchman. Not only was he more technologically gifted than the previous boob, he also seemed far less appalled at my unusual request. This was greatly heartening and he guffawed loudly at my tale of woe, slapping my back in mirth, which actually kind of hurt but his enthusiasm excused him.

“Hey, don’t feel bad” he said “there are much worse things you could do. Licking shows appreciation for the cathedral, not disrespect.”

His wise words lifted my spirits no end, and in a happy mood we began our work. Maarten (my new best friend) even suggested a better angle for the shot and corrected the settings the camera settings to give a sharper image. Best of all, he took an excellent photo that fulfilled all my requirements, with the cathedral sign and myself (tongue and all) clearly visible. He took three pictures, just to be safe, and my faith in the Dutch had been restored.

Walking down to the station together Maarten encouraged me to visit him in Holland, where he claimed he could help me lick even more cathedrals. Having only licked one cathedral so far this plan seemed rather ambitious, but his enthusiasm was infectious.

“We could even go to Germany too, and France, anywhere! Think of Aachen, Cologne, Notre Dames!”

This was a thrilling prospect. “What about Belgium?” I suggested eagerly.

“No” he said firmly, coming to a halt and giving me a cold stare. “I will not take you there.”

Despite the early difficulties I had licked my first cathedral, and even made a friend into the bargain. It was not a bad start, Maarten said, biding me farewell. Boarding the next train to Canterbury I thanked him for his help while he scrawled his email address onto an old train ticket, telling me to contact him when I was ready to start licking Europe. My word, what was I doing? I had no idea, but so far it was proving fun.

 

 

 

XXX

After a thankfully brief change at Gillingham the train continued lethargically eastwards, closely hugging the north Kentish coast. Damp, muddy islands and misty marshes were faintly visible in the distance, the midday sun illuminating great white veins of innumerable tributary streams and rivulets. There was something starkly beautiful about this landscape, despite the grief and frequent bouts of malaria it has given locals over the centuries. In the far distance, a dark forbidding mass dominated the horizon like a great storm-cloud approaching from the sea.

“The Isle of Sheppey” the man opposite announced from behind his newspaper, having obviously noticed my curiosity. The name rang a bell and I recalled out loud the island’s role as a base for Viking raiders long ago.

Vikings?” the man said with distaste, fixing me with a look rich with loathing. “More bloody foreigners” he huffed before returning to his paper, eyeing me suspiciously every few minutes the rest of the way to Canterbury.

People had forever been telling me that Canterbury is the southern cousin of York, and walking its charming streets of medieval buildings and curious winding lanes it did not take long to agree. Just like York, however, there were hoards of slow-walking, slack-jawed please-knee-me-in-the-groin tourists clogging every available space. Fighting my way down the narrow Mercery Lane, the main approach to the cathedral, it was still possible gain a sense of the teeming medieval city through which Chaucer’s pilgrims made their merry way. It is tempting to imagine them stopping here to buy a few religious nick-nacks at the many booths from which this street takes its name. Here the buildings lean at pleasingly jaunty angles, which cast the narrow street into gloom despite the glorious afternoon sunshine, and beyond, the imposing great tower of the cathedral reared up, perfectly framed by its surroundings. It was a sight to stir the heart and induce such a sense of awe that I positively skipped towards it.

Standing agog before the cathedral’s grand gateway, with its enormous figure of Christ sat upon it, my enthusiasm quickly died as I watched a steady stream of folk hand over over eye-watering sums of money at a ticket booth. Given the travel expense that this quest would undoubtedly involve I had rather hoped that admission to the cathedral would be free, and the friendly lady at the ticket booth had some difficulty in prising a crisp £10 note from my hand before issuing me with a ticket and offering an apologetic smile.

Once inside the cathedral close, my mood was darkened further by the presence of yet more crowds of tourists, all competing to be the first through the doors. They jostled one another with the help of their ample girths and filled the air with an unsettling din.  What this all meant of course was that a discreet lick of the building was almost certainly out of the question. The very public experience at Rochester had been harrowing enough and a repeat here was not an enticing prospect. That embarrassment had taught me that it was probably best to keep the whole licking business to myself, though this would mean that the all-important photo would have to be a self-portrait, produced without the help of a passerby. The logistics of this were deeply vexing and blackened my mood further as I fought my way through the cathedral’s doors.

Once inside, morbid fascination took me straight to the site of Thomas Becket’s murder. In the north transept a simple monument of three sword blades marks the spot where four of Henry II’s knights spilled the famous archbishop’s brains onto the flagstones, thus spoiling his evening somewhat . On the stone floor beneath is graven THOMAS, coloured in a chillingly poignant blood red.  It is a simple and well-crafted memorial, yet somehow it was difficult to take in the enormity of the events that had taken place there, and the power of the cult which grew from it. I stood for a moment and tried to imagine it all – the swords, the blood, the spilled brains – but the enormity of the events still seemed so remote and difficult to grasp. In literature the tale comes to life on the page, but on the actual spot the murder took place I felt strangely empty. This was odd, especially as the development of this glorious building is linked inextricably with perhaps history’s most famous martyrdom.

It is fair to say that Becket dominates the cathedral, the fortunes of which were transformed by his murder. But what was it about Becket that made the monks here want to honour him in such style, I wondered? After all, he was the only Archbishop of Canterbury to be horribly done in over the years: firstly there was poor old St. Alphege, who in 1011 was kidnapped by Vikings and battered to death with animal bones; and not forgetting the unfortunate Archbishop Sudbury, who fell foul of an angry mob during the Peasant’s Revolt, who saw fit to separate his head from his neck with a rusty farm implement. Both men were later buried inside the cathedral, but neither achieved the same status as their illustrious colleague Becket. Their rather unglamorous ends are in stark contrast to his own dramatic murder and subsequent canonisation, which played into the hands of the Church by strengthening their position against the monarchy. So pleased was I with this realisation that I found myself emitting a few loud and self-satisfied guffaws, much to the alarm of those around me.

This awkward scene was unexpectedly interrupted by God’s greatest mistake: French teenagers. They could be heard coming from a fair distance off and were instantly recognisable by their infuriating insistence for wearing rucksacks the wrong way round. I can see the sense in this from a security point of view, but were I a thief this would only inflame my desire to rob them.  They poured into the cramped space of the north transept in a tsunami of noise and Gallic indifference, sending worshippers and visitors scattering like bowling pins. One particularly obnoxious garcon roughly jostled me as he swept past, and when challenged gave me one of those shrugs his countrymen have spent centuries perfecting, namely the one that says “I can do what I like; I am French.” Once they had all assembled, a poor guide tried his best to entertain them with a vivid account of Becket’s murder, but they rolled their eyes, shouted or sang amongst themselves and engaged in passionate kissing, often all at the same time. How I longed for a sword of my own at that moment with which to repeat the bloody scenes of 1170 on a far grander scale. Instead I took my leave, making sure to catch young Didier in the face with my own (correctly worn) rucksack as I went.

To escape them I walked down some nearby steps into the Norman crypt, where Canterbury’s monks had first hastily buried the much battered Becket. Eventually he was moved to a shrine above this peaceful spot, which proved more befitting the saint he had soon become. A very convenient fire in 1174 had been an excellent excuse to rebuild the cathedral in a far grander fashion, a fashion that would prove ground-breaking. With the help of an enthusiastic and far-sighted French master mason, William of Sens, the old cathedral walls were replaced with something less harsh and more delicate. Gone was the austere Romanesque bulk of the Norman church, to be replaced with something that seemed to defy explanation – great soaring arches pointing up the Heaven, thinner and more delicate columns to support the great weight of the newly vaulted roof, and windows, hundreds of large windows filled with glorious stained glass to allow light to flood in like never before. What William was doing was bringing the Gothic style to English shores, and before long almost everyone was copying its lavishness with furious energy. It seemed fitting that England’s mother church had set the standard, funded by copious amounts of pilgrims’ silver offered at Becket’s shrine.

I had great trouble locating the shrine itself and crisscrossed the east end of the cathedral for some time before realising that what I sought had been smashed and dismantled long ago, its treasures melted down or carted off. Now a solitary candle burns where England’s religious heart had once stood, a sad reminder of what has been lost thanks to that Tudor berk, Henry VIII and his destructive Reformation of the 1530s. I have never understood the appeal of the man, nor of the entire Tudor dynasty for that matter. It was on their watc, after all, that England suffered some of its greatest political turbulence, not to mention religious strife, raging warfare, economic catastrophe, social disorder and bloody rebellion. Added to this was disease, famine and a life expectancy of only fifty years for a lucky few, yet still many people today look back on the era as England’s golden age. The genius of Shakespeare redeems the era to some extent, but otherwise bollocks to the lot of them I say, especially Henry VIII, who at Canterbury added insult to injury by ordering Becket’s body to be exhumed and burned on a bonfire. What a wonderful man.

Having exhausted all the imagination one can muster from a largely empty space and feeling a little depressed at the sense of artistic and cultural loss, my feet led me on an aimless amble. Close to the site of the former shrine stood the resplendent tomb of Edward the Black Prince, eldest son of Edward III and hero of the Hundred Years War. A note next to the tomb revealed that during the 19th century some oaf had taken the prince’s nickname a little too literally and coated the shining brass effigy in thick, black lacquer. Thankfully the powers that be eventually saw sense and cleaned it up, restoring the prince more or less to his former glory. The perpetrator, I’d like to think, was tarred and feathered for his crime. Gazing upon the prince’s noble features it was tempting to imagine how different history could have been had he not died before his father in 1376. Few could have imagined that his miserable death at the hands of dysentery would lead to a civil war, whose victors would eventually carve up the English church so ruthlessly.

 I wandered some more, admiring the fine alabaster tomb of Henry IV and his wife, as well as the bishop’s throne (or cathedra) known as “St. Augustine’s Chair”, that vital piece of furniture denoting cathedral status upon a church, so I came to learn in a happy moment of enlightenment. Standing in the nave with hands on hips, neck craned at all angles and mouth agape, I had to admit that although this exploration of the cathedral was proving jolly fascinating, I still had yet to actually lick the building. Perhaps it was the freshly haunting memories of Rochester but I was definitely putting off this embarrassing but all important task. It had been tempting to lick a part of Becket’s former shrine, but this would have obviously been in poor taste, and anyway, there had been too many people around to witness the deed.

The reappearance of the French group forced my hand. Not wanting to linger in their presence once again I fled to less hysterical climes and ended up in the cloister. Here peace reigned once more, and I spent a happy quarter of an hour pacing around, gazing up at the great towers of the cathedral and enjoying the quiet. It was so quiet, in fact, that it seemed the best place in which the get the licking job done. Luckily it was free of crowds and potential disapproving on-lookers so, with camera held at arm’s length and tongue in contact with a column, a challenging yet excellent photo was captured. I took another on my phone and sent it to Adam immediately. It was grainy and less accomplished than the official photo, but it had captured the scene well enough, I hoped, to severely spoil Adam’s day.

It was a strange yet oddly satisfying feeling I had upon leaving, safe in the knowledge that by having licked two cathedrals my life had grown marginally easier. Striding happily through the streets of the city, I wondered whether people would notice my buoyant, cocksure mood and say to each other “boy, he must have licked two cathedrals for a bet or something!” but this seemed highly unlikely. Still, the knowledge that I had licked two cathedrals and thereby begun the quest was enough for me. I celebrated with a drink in a sunny beer garden, which was good not only for the soul but also the taste buds, which were scoured clean of cathedral grit by a fine Kentish ale.

Just as I was starting to think that my mood could not be bettered, a buzz from my phone brought news of Adam’s thoughts on my endeavours. Needless to say, he was not in favour of them, as his repeated use of the word ‘twat’ clearly indicated. Taking another sip of ale I toasted my early success, praying that all such cathedral-licking days would prove so fulfilling.

 

             

           

 

 

 

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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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