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


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More Welsh licks – Brecon


The journey east to Brecon was long but not without its charms. Back in Haverfordwest I caught the train to Carmarthen through gorgeous green countryside and over many an old railway bridge topped with merry people waving. At times it was like being part of a very large model railway. The experience would have been all the more enjoyable were it not for the train guard. The ticket office at Haverfordwest had been deserted and the prospect of a free trip was a distinct possibility. This bet had been crippling me financially since the start, so any chance of a freebie had to be seized with both hands. Things were looking good until the penultimate stop, when the dreaded guard caught me day-dreaming and yanked a £10 note from my reluctant grasp.

From Carmarthen I caught another bus, having first had a brief look at what remains of the castle there. Wales is absolutely teeming with these things, thanks partly to the efforts of the Normans and later King Edward I, who saw fit to knock up a good few fortresses to keep the locals under his boot. Standing amidst the ruins, I reflected on the imperialist nature of the English throughout history and wondered quite why we have gone to such lengths to extend our borders and generally piss off the rest of the World. Before this trip a Welshman in a pub had warned me about opening my mouth in certain regions of this homeland. He was adamant that colourful language would ensue and a few other choice words that would leave me in no doubt whatsoever that they really were not keen on me. So far though everyone had been kindness itself, and I began to think his words had been little more than scaremongering. And in any case, it is difficult to be intimidated by the Welsh, who of all the people on Earth possess the least threatening accent.

My penultimate stop was in the small town of Llandovery, where the ruins of yet another castle can be seen atop a grassy mound. There was a half hour wait for my next bus, so to kill some time I explored yet another noble fort. Here a rather unusual mounument to Owain Glyndŵr, the famous hero of Welsh nationalism, can be seen. Even in the afternoon’s dull weather its metallic sheen was blinding. The statue (I’m guessing) is not supposed to be 100% realistic, otherwise the English army would have been dealing with some sort of Johnny 5-like robot during the Welsh uprisings of the early 15th-century.

I was the only passenger on the bus to Brecon and the driver was at liberty to talk. He winced at my pronunciation of the towns and villages we passed through but was friendly enough. He gave a snort when the purpose of my trip was revealed and heartily gave his approval for the venture. Once we arrived in Brecon it was too late to visit the cathedral, so I asked him if he knew the way to the Youth Hostel, where I had planned to spend the night. He looked at me as if I had just asked the way to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and said that he didn’t think there actually was a hostel in Brecon. This was worrying news as it was getting dark and my meagre budget would see me laughed out of all the other hotels in town. Most of these I trudged past on my way down to the canal, which the driver thought was roughly in the right direction of the hostel. The hotels all looked warm and inviting of course, as most places do when you know you can’t afford them. Inside jolly, red-cheeked folk were sat down to dinner in the bar, tucking into steak and quaffing pints of ale, while I pressed my nose against the windows with a sigh, like some pathetic Victorian urchin.

Downtown Brecon

Feeling mournful and suddenly very lonely I began the long walk along the canal path. The bus driver had called it a “pleasant stroll”. If by “pleasant” he meant a laborious trudge through puddles, thick mud and goose crap, resulting in total despair and general dark thoughts then his description was spot on. The path went on for quite some way and I began to question the accuracy of the directions I had been given.

As the sun began to sink behind the nearby Brecon Beacons I had a good mind to retrace my steps, go and find the bus driver and do him some horrible injury; that or ask someone else the way. Eventually a kind soul appeared on the path and confirmed that I was on the right track, but warned that the hostel was inside a deep, dark wood where it was likely that I would be shot with a poisoned dart and wake up inside a burning wicker man surrounded by locals chanting pagan songs of sacrifice. He didn’t actually say that, but those were the images running through my head as I entered the dark wood in question.

Eventually the hostel appeared amongst the trees and so ended a long and exhausting journey. The building itself was rather drab and depressing, but the staff were friendly and the prices low and the dinner excellent. Sleep came very easily that night.

Over breakfast the following morning I got talking to the hostel’s only other guest – a fellow Englishman on a gloriously aimless jaunt through Wales. He had been driving around with no particular destination in mind and seeing where his fancy took him. This seemed a splendid attitude to travel and it was worthy of praise. He had also passed through St. David’s and agreed that it was a “fine spot”, and recommended a number of other charming towns and villages in the locality. He had yet to go to the north and I toyed with the idea of asking hum for a lift to the cathedrals in Bangor and St. Asaph, before reality reminded me that work awaited me the following day. He did though offer me a lift into town, which I gladly accepted.

Brecon Cathedral

It was fine summer morning and Brecon was at its very best. In a happy state of mind  I made a leisurely route up to the cathedral, which sits in the quiet backstreets of the town, on top of a hill almost entirely obscured by trees. It is a lonely spot but a wonderfully peaceful one. A modest doorway serves as the entrance here and in I slipped. Just as I got inside my phone rang:

“Hello, this is BBC Radio Coventry. We’ve heard all about your, err, hobby and wondered if you’d like to do a live interview with us this coming Sunday?

Yes, why not? I told them I would be delighted to and hung up.

Oh no. Just then I remembered all the mean things I’d written about Coventry on my blog, not about the cathedral but the ugliness of the city itself. Making a mental note to think of some nice things to say about the place I delved into my fourth Welsh cathedral.

Brecon Cathedral exudes an air of calmness. The building and its interior is certainly charming but cannot be called stunning, having a relatively modest layout that is simple to explore. The beauty of a cathedral (or any building, in fact) does not always have to lie in its appearance but in the feeling it gives you, and here it was an aura of calm that was most striking. This is not to say that the building is ugly, far from it, but that for perhaps the first time on this licking trip it was the atmosphere of the place that had the greater hold on me, rather than the architecture. I sat for a while to drink in this serenity and then began exploring.

Although modest by design and layout, the cathedral contains several eye-catching treasures, most notably an ancient baptismal font decorated with the heads of horned, ugly beasts with enormous tusks. These date to the Dark Ages and have no doubt been frightening pre-baptised babies and other young children for centuries. Carvings such as these were, it is believed, a hark back to pagan myths, which were still well-known even after the arrival of Christianity on these shores. Religious faith could be altered, but even as late as the 15th-century Western Europe still clung onto some remnants of its pagan past. This is evident in churches and cathedrals up and down the land, where the unsettling faces of grinning creatures look down on us with menace from lofty heights.

Brecon’s other main highlight is its association with the British army. Brecon men have served and died in numerous conflicts over the years, most notably the Zulu War of 1879 when a good number saw action at Isandhwala and Rourke’s Drift. Their colours can be seen in St. Lawrence’s chapel here, and include one that was captured by the Zulus.  Another hero lies in the churchyard: one Charles Henry Lumley, who won the Victoria Cross during the Crimean War for leading a near-suicidal charge at Sebastobol. Although not a local to these parts, this proud Scot later achieved the rank of major before being laid to rest here in 1858. His other claim to fame is being an ancestor of the actress Joanna Lumley.

I’m sorry to say that pretty soon I had exhausted all there is to see at Brecon Cathedral, though the beasts’ heads on the font were given another thorough examination, and if anything, they get uglier the more you look at them. Now it was time to get licking.

There had been no decent signs anywhere inside the cathedral, and it’s very generic interior would not be sufficient proof of its location, so I turned my attention to the exterior. A suitable sign was found near the main door and I licked away, being very pleased with the result. I recorded the lick on film as well, just for good measure. Having traveled huge distances I was paranoid of losing a camera so decided to get as many copies of the deed as possible. The loss of such evidence would be catastrophic.

My mood was buoyant post lick; I had achieved what I had set out to do and now the rest of the day was before me. Strolling back into town I nodded good morning to the good folk of Brecon, who all returned the greeting with a smile. What a jolly fine place this was. Passing two old gentlemen with another nod, I overheard part of their conversation, which was delightfully baffling:

“So yes, in that respect the fish and I are in agreement.”

After a couple of drinks in a friendly pub it was time to start heading back to London, a fact that did little to cheer my heart. It had barely been 48 hours since I’d left and already the travel lust was alive in me again. At the bus station I spotted buses heading north, up to St. Asaph and Bangor, and once more the temptation to cast my responsibilities to the wind and continue my Welsh licking journey was overpowering. I could always call in sick and tell work that I was far too ill to come that day, tomorrow or however long it would take to get back from some, as yet, unknown destination. In the end I decided to be sensible and climbed aboard the bus home, a choice I soon came to regret. The journey back my mind was plagued with thoughts of “what if” and where I might have ended up had I taken the chance. Sensible is so overrated.

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A few licks in Wales

The very mention of St. David’s had been making me shudder for months. This was ever since the unwelcome discovery that the cathedral there is a proud member of the Anglican club, and would therefore require a lick. Yet another arduous journey would have to be endured, this time to a remote tip of west Wales I was totally unfamiliar with.

I had made my first proper trip to Wales the previous month for an enjoyable if uneventful day-trip to Cardiff and Newport. Wales’s capital city is a true delight, as is its cathedral at Llandaff. Here I passed a happy afternoon in this semi-rural suburb, exploring (and licking) my first Welsh cathedral. The most pleasing discovery of that day was that a young Roald Dahl had grown up nearby and had attended the cathedral school. The famous sweet shop of dead mouse notoriety is still standing, and is now a chippie.

Llandaff Cathedral, Cardiff

St. Woolos’s Cathedral in Newport is another gem, sat on top of a hill overlooking the town. Here I met a friendly caretaker, who over a cup of tea told me of the financial difficulties unknown cathedrals like this suffer with. He showed me around the building and spoke eloquently about its treasures, chief of which is a beautiful Norman arch from the original, early Medieval church.  Over more tea and biscuits he told me, with some sadness in his voice, that  I had been the only visitor that day. If you ever find yourself in Newport, do stop by the cathedral and have a look. It’s a charming place and the biscuits are to die for.

A tasty wall at Newport Cathedral

The journey to St. David’s would be far less enjoyable – if anything it promised to be truly hellish. Sitting on the very western tip of Wales, the city (for that is what this tiny village has been since 1995) is a right royal pain to get to. The nearest railway station is 16 miles away, in the sleepy town of Haverfordwest. A train journey here would have been convenient were it not for the outrageous fare and total of 5 different changes, including a 3 hour wait in Swansea in the dead of night. The other, far cheaper option was to take a Megabus as far is it would go in a generally western direction. This would leave me in Pembroke Dock, only an hour or so from St. David’s by road. This seemed a splendid solution, the only drawback being that the coach would dump me there at one o’clock in the morning, six hours before the first bus. During my teenage years the prospect of ending up in some unknown town at such an hour had been thrilling; an adventure of boundless opportunity and character-building experiences. Now aged 27 and the recipient of one assault, two muggings and a nasty incident with a hungry stag I thought differently. As the bus edged ever closer to my destination the more scared I became. The now familiar feeling of foolishness returned: just what the hell was I was doing? The matter of where I would spend the night was another question that dogged my thoughts on that unhappy journey westwards.

I’d expected Pembroke Dock to be grim, and grim it was. The bus was a haven of comfort and warmth compared to the damp world of portakabins and dead seagulls outside, into which myself and four other wretched passengers were now unceremoniously dumped. I watched the coach disappear into the night and considered the options: either sleep in the ferry terminal or commit a crime to get a bench in a Police cell. There was also a hospital nearby – maybe if I inflicted an injury upon myself (which seemed a likely outcome given my state of mind at the time) there would be a place to rest my head. In the end I chose the ferry terminal, mainly because they sold cups of Bovril and had a TV.

The terminal was quite cosy it turned out, and virtually empty. Just as I was about the settle down for the night however, a smug sign informed me that the building would be closing at 2.45 am when the ferry from Ireland arrived. Drat. Surprisingly, the Bovril offered absolutely no comfort to this crushing news. Forming a new plan, it seemed wisest to get as much sleep as possible before being chucked out. I curled up on a hard bench therefore and indulged in self-pitying melancholy.

A lady’s soft voice woke me up:

“Are you getting the ferry, love?”

I swung off the bench with a start and made her yelp. She held a walkie-talkie and looked ready to call security, but thankfully she waited patiently and listened to my tale of woe. If I could just put my head down somewhere dry and warm until morning, I cried, then all would be well.

“There might be a place nearby where you can kip for tonight, just a minute darling” she said sympathetically, before speaking a few rapid Welsh sentences into the walkie-talkie. For all I knew she could have just sent an order to release a pack of wolves on me, but her smile betrayed a sweetness that raised my spirits.

A few minutes later a jeep pulled up outside and a hand beckoned me to jump in. Another kindly lady drove me to large portakabin in a distant corner of the dock. This, it turned out, was a rest stop for lorry drivers and was a veritable paradise. Inside were soft sofas, radiators and enough tea and coffee to swim in. Better still, a plasma screen TV provided some light entertainment as my eyes finally began to feel heavy.

I slept like a baby and was not even woken by the fierce rainstorm that lashed Wales that night, which would surely have washed me into the sea had I not been so lucky in finding this truckers’ palace. I emerged into the early morning refreshed and with a renewed faith in humankind. This feel-good factor increased when another port official offered me a lift all the way to Haverfordwest. The kindness and decency of the people of Pembroke Dock will never be forgotten.

From Haverfordwest I took the local bus to St. David’s. The route hugs the seashore in several places and offers a wonderful introduction to the famously beautiful Pembrokeshire coast. Coves of sandy beaches are plentiful here, and are a haunt for early morning surfers, who skimmed merrily along the tops of raging waves. The sun was returning too, and bathed the beaches in a romantic dawn glow.

St. David’s sits at the heart of all this beauty, almost on the tip of a peninsula jutting out into the Irish Sea. It’s a gorgeous little place full of charming cottages and old winding streets. It is difficult to believe, however, that this tiny collection of houses and shops constitutes a city.

The cathedral vs. city debate had been a popular one during conversations about the bet. There were those who maintained that any settlement that could boast a cathedral was, by law, a city and those who didn’t really give a damn either way. Although it is true that many places – such as Truro and Chelmsford – are cathedral cities, they did not gain their city status simply by having a bishop’s church within their limits. This had indeed been the law ever since Henry VIII had famously moved England’s religious goalposts so that he could bonk Anne Boleyn, but in 1888 this ruling was finally abolished.

If this was the case, what happened at St. David’s? It turns out the city council had been pretty miffed about their home being demoted, and in 1991 first mooted the idea of  joining the top table once more. The matter went before the Queen, who in 1994 granted both St. David’s and Armagh in Northern Ireland city status “In recognition of their important Christian heritage and their status as cities in the last century.” The theme continued this year when another Welsh cathedral town, St. Asaph (still to be licked), joined the club along with Chelmsford and Perth as part of the Diamond Jubilee feel-good factor.

I must sat that I rather enjoyed that fact that this tiny village, with a population of barely 1,600 is (officially speaking) a city. The likes of Reading (232,600), Dudley (195,000) and Luton (186,000) have all tried and failed in recent years, which is a jolly thought.

After a delicious breakfast in a friendly establishment on the High Street I made my way, burping, down to the cathedral. It sits in the sheltered valley of Glyn  Rhosyn, through which a little rivers runs, giving the area its luscious greenery and the calming sound of running water.

This is the site of the monastic community first founded by St. David himself back in the 6th-century, and is the beating heart of Welsh Christianity. Nearby are St. Non’s Well and the holy place, once “bathed in brilliant light” where Wales’s patron saint is said to have been born. The ruins of the bishop’s palace complete the splendid scene, that was now bathed in glorious morning sunshine.

Despite its peaceful air, the site has taken its fair share of batterings by raiders over the centuries.  Chief amongst  these were the Vikings, who even saw fit to murder two of the local bishops in 999 and 1080, the rotters. William the Conqueror (himself a descendant of a Viking warlord) later visited St. David’s to pray and was quite taken by the place. The same was true of his son, the future King Henry I, who called for a new stone cathedral to be built here in the early 12th-century. Under Bishop Bernard the monastic community flourished, and in 1123 a Papal Privilege was bestowed upon the cathedral, decreeing that “two pilgrimages to St. David’s is equal to one to Rome, and three pilgrimages to one to Jerusalem.” Quite an honour indeed.

As with the majority of cathedrals in the British Isles, further additions and modifications were made to the building over the following centuries, with a few collapsed towers, a tornado and even an earthquake providing their own special input into the design we see today. New raiders, this time in the form of Cromwell’s soldiers (not them again), also looted a great deal of the cathedrals treasures during the years of the Puritan Commonwealth of the mid 1600s, and so began a long period of decline.

It was not until the 1950s that new life was breathed into the cathedral, when the young and energetic Reverend Carl Witton-Davies was appointed as dean. His enthusiasm gave rise to the famous Welsh Youth Pilgrimages to St. David’s, which helped to inspire a whole new generation of clergy in the country. The much abused and neglected cathedral was thus reborn.

Given that St. David’s has been on the receiving end of so much grief in the past, the level of calmness and serenity surrounding the place is startling. I was just one of hundreds of visitors milling around that day, and we shuffled about in quiet awe at the beauty of it all. Even a group of French teenagers – notorious for their boisterous ways –  maintained a level of hushed respect that was admirable.

The beautiful ceiling of St. David’s main tower

The ornate vaulted ceiling of the main tower was one of many highlights and is well worth a painful crane of the neck to view in all its splendour. Nearby is is the 13th-century shrine of St. David, the focus of pilgrimages even today. Close to this another pilgrimage of sorts was being made at the tomb of Edmund Tudor, grandfather of (yes, you’ve guessed it) Henry VIII. Middle-Aged American women bustled around this with an air of reverence, trying to recall whether the man inside the lovely stone box had appeared on the TV series The Tudors. This famous royal dynasty have become quite popular over the last few years it seems, despite their strong penchant for killing and persecuting people in imaginative ways and displaying their heads on pikes; what times they were!

The Tudor-perverts went into spasm upon stepping foot into the Holy Trinity Chapel.  Here the coat of arms of the dynasty’s founder, Henry VII, are proudly displayed on the fine fan-vaulted ceiling. Henry had been born not too far from here in 1457, at the imposing Pembroke Castle, so the multitude of references to his family here were hardly surprising.

The nave

Increasing numbers of coach parties continued to arrive all morning and eventually the peace and quiet was lost. The general hubbub also made me uneasy, as it meant that the all-important lick might well be witnessed. I had come to realise now that no one was really offended if I licked a cathedral, it was just bloody embarrassing being spotted doing it. The memory of Rochester  – when an avid crowd had gathered to watch me do the deed – still haunted me, and I had made a vow to never ask a stranger to take a licking-photo again.

So, I spent a good hour retracing my steps through the cathedral looking for a quiet spot to get the job done, but everywhere was brimming with visitors. Even in the quieter corners some boob would suddenly appear just as I had got into position and ruin everything. Memories of Chichester returned and how I had prayed for a bottle of chloroform and a flannel to deal with these people.In the end I used the Birmingham Cathedral tactic and filmed the lick instead.  I do much prefer a photo of course, but it was not to be. I was pleased though to get the small statue of St. David in shot, however.

After so much anguish and trouble getting here it was a huge relief to get this one finally done. To celebrate I decided to stay the night in St. David’s and enjoy its many charms, including the fabulous coastline nearby. Unfortunately my enquiries revealed that there was not a bed to be had in the whole city for the next few days, so full was the place with holiday-makers. Indeed, the High Street was now alive with them, and suddenly it had resembled Padstow or Salcombe, both popular weekend retreats for wealthy London folk. A little dejected I caught the next bus out of town and began a long and uncomfortable journey east to go lick yet another cathedral.


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A mad summer of hurried licks

It’s been a hectic summer, during which there has been very little time to sit down and write about my cathedral adventures. Even these have been infrequent, but I am still well on track to complete the challenge before the December 16th deadline. Before that time my friend and bet-master Adam will be getting married, with me serving as bestman! In the unlikely event that I complete the challenge by the time of the wedding (September 28th) he is going to have one hell of an unwelcome surprise during the my bestman’s speech.

I am planning to write up the accounts of the remaining English cathedrals in greater detail when time becomes available, but for now a short description of each will have to suffice.

No. 38 – TRURO

After licking Exeter Cathedral I jumped onto the train and visited this Cornish    gem. Its relative isolation from other English cathedrals had been a thorn in my side for months, so it was a huge relief to finally get it done. The building is a real Victorian treasure and well worth a visit. The choir was in full song upon my arrival, which provided some welcome backing music for the lick.

No. 39 – CHESTER

I have the wonderful Mr. Mike Brimmage to thank for this photo: it was he that put me up for the night and drove me to Chester and Liverpool the following day. He quickly became a staunch supporter of the cause and encouraged me to ignore the strange looks from passersby when licking this sublime cathedral. This place is the epitome of a hidden gem – beautiful architecture, fascinating history and a wealth of treasures to be discovered inside. Top audio guide to boot. We even saw the Queen later that day!


Liverpool Cathedral is a monster! The sheer scale of the place is staggering, like some huge,  impregnable fortress from the future. The interiors are enough to make the knees grow weak and the view from the colossal central tower is well worth the punishing climb and trip in the face-meltingly fast lift. Also packed full of gorgeous artworks and ingenious architectural features that leave you in no doubt that this is one of the World’s finest. A must for all cathedral perverts.

Thanks again to Mike Brimmage – host, driver, photographer and local guide.


 The penultimate English lick took place on a sweltering day in Carlisle. Many thanks   must go to Marc and Rachel Barkman-Astles for driving me there from their home near Newcastle. Carlisle Cathedral is wonderfully odd, having seeminly been built in the dark to sets of different designs by blind (but incredibly gifted) builders. A hodge-podge of styles and eras all rolled into one. The collection of bawdy misericords was a real highlight as well. Further thanks must go to my great cathedral-licking companion, David Sleep, for showing me around Roman Vindolanda afterwards, before kindly offering a lift back to London. What wonderful friends I have.

No. 42 – YORK

 The big one – my home cathedral of York Minster. I had left the best until last purely for symbolic reasons, but also in the hope that Adam might be in town to witness his defeat. He wasn’t, but the photos in The Sun gave him a rude shock a few days later. It was marvellous fun confusing the hoardes of tourists outside, and meeting the delightful family from Norwich in this picture. If they are reading this, sorry for spoling your holiday. With this lick, every Anglican English cathedral had been done, and part 2 of the bet began. Oh God.

 I am delighted to say though that I have begun licking in Wales. There are many more miles to be covered and stone to be moistened, but I am confident and extremely excited about the adventures ahead. More to come soon!


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Exeter and the dark plans of Adam Drury

Adam was getting worried, very worried. The list of cathedrals stuck on our fridge door made him groan every time he went to retrieve some milk, as it seemed that each time he looked another one had been crossed off. The collection of cathedral fridge magnets did little to ease his nerves either, and these too only seemed to grow in number as the weeks went by.

Still, he was showing great interest in my progress, which struck me as a little odd considering it was all contributing to his eventual doom. This confidence of his was a little disconcerting, as if he had some ace up his sleeve that would only be revealed at the very last minute. He had long joked about secretly championing the cause of some obscure, isolated church and convincing the Anglican authorities to promote it to full cathedral status, just in time for the very last day of the bet. I did not relish the prospect of making a mad dash to the Orkney Islands or Anglesey, like a cathedral-licking Phileas Fogg.

There was one as yet un-licked cathedral that had us both on edge: Exeter. Although Adam and I are flatmates in London he spends his weekends in the aforementioned Devonshire city, where he shares a flat with his fiancée, Charlotte. Naturally the subject of my trip there was a common topic of conversation, not least because it would be my first visit after repeated invitations over the years. I felt terrible that I hadn’t been to see them there in all that time, but now there was a genuine (and pretty unusual) excuse for going. In addition, as part of the revised terms we had recently negotiated, Adam had agreed to give up a weekend to drive me wherever I wished to go on a cathedral-licking foray. Despite his concerns that I would actually win this bet and force him into naked shame, it was obvious that he wanted to join me for at least one of the licking trips to see what all the fuss was about. That, or drive me off a cliff.

We envisaged a blissful weekend of pootling around the South-West, stopping in cosy country pubs and indulging in other such manly pursuits. I had originally toyed with the idea of forcing him to convey me to another un-licked location – Carlisle Cathedral- partly because I was desperate to get it done, also just to piss him off. I had once banned him from using the letter E for a whole day for just such a purpose, and it had been splendid fun. I’m sure he would enjoy our northern jaunt even more.

In the end none of it came to pass, and not just because I had no idea where to get a gun from. Dates were suggested, routes were planned and even pubs were earmarked, but due to our own busy lives we couldn’t quite fit it in. This was an awful shame of course. The idea of having my nemesis accompany me on a cathedral-lick was thrilling to say the least, mainly because we each expected some form of sculduggery off the other. Given the fact that Adam and I have both nearly killed each other in the past the chance of this was highly likely, and I would expect nothing less from him.

All was not lost however: Charlotte was in town for my visit, and as Adam’s accomplice I could fully expect some kind of devious act to prevent me from getting the job done. In fact, as soon as she met me off the bus her intentions were very clear:

“Pub?” was all she said, and so it was.

We headed to a cosy establishment nearby, where we were joined by Tobias, an extremely likable Dutchman and friend of Charlotte’s. He had no doubt been recruited to help dispose of my body, but his first act was to buy me a drink, which was jolly nice of him given the circumstances.

As the evening progressed and the drinks flowed, it dawned on me that this was exactly how I had got myself into this mess in the first place. I made a mental note to go easy on the ciders therefore, but no sooner had this thought crossed my mind than another drink was placed before me. It began to feel like I was to be press-ganged, and that the next morning I would be waking up on board a creaking man-of-war bound for the East Indies, surrounded by grinning salty dogs and with a very sore bottom.

The cider we were guzzling was fiercely strong and the room soon began to spin. Thankfully its effects had done far more damage to Charlotte, whose tongue was loosened by the local brew:

“Adam gave me strict orders to get you too wasted to go cathedral-licking tomorrow! I think I’ve failed” she said mournfully, staring into her empty glass. Tobias had been given the same instructions but was still relatively sober, enough to do me in down some dark alleyway at any rate, so he assured me. Apparently Adam had become some sort of mob boss during his weekends in Devon, or do it seemed at that moment. He had employed his cohorts to befuddle me with drink and leave me bruised and bleeding on the streets of Exeter, the monster!

As we walked back to the flat through dark streets and a torrential downpour, Charlotte and Tobias made one last attempt to thwart me.

“Well, we should at least show you where the cathedral is, now that we’ve failed to kill you” sighed Charlotte. Tobias nodded in sad agreement and led the way. Their dejected faces suggested that Adam was to have them shot at dawn for their failure.

We stopped outside a queer-looking construction that was clearly not the cathedral. It was a Christian building alright – it had all the pointy bits and other appropriate anatomy- but the fact that it was painted bright pink was an indication that my friends’ story was, quite bluntly, total bollocks. This I told them in a roundabout sort of way, adding that if Exeter Cathedral was painted pink then why was it not the World’s most famous house of God? This they couldn’t answer and off we went again, staggering through the dark streets soaked to the bone.

I awoke the next morning in a daze. The rain was still lashing down and the prospect of going outside to lick two cathedrals was far from appealing (I had forgotten all about Truro). But such defeatist thoughts would have warmed Adam’s heart so up I got. My head and legs seemed to be full of cement, and gravity did its cruel work by dragging them onto every sharp edge in the living room. Bruised and wild-eyed I bade my hostess farewell. She was even worse off than me and in a great deal of discomfort. Poor Charlotte, she had well and truly taken the cider-bullet for her soon-to-be husband, and all in vain. With a smirk of triumph I hit the streets.

Exeter is pleasant little city, much like York with its ancient heritage and attractive buildings. I soon stumbled across an imposing section of Roman wall and the remains of a Norman castle, both of which I thought very fine, in a tumbled down sort of way. The city has taken its fair share of batterings over the years, with Vikings, Normans, Royalists and even the Prayer Book Rebels throwing themselves against its walls. Luftwaffe bombs proved more effective than prayer books during the Second World War when a whole host of historic buildings were destroyed in the city centre. Incredibly, little effort was made to preserve these treasures and in came the wrecking balls in the 1950s, for shame! Now downtown Exeter boasts the country’s most generic high street, with only a smattering of eye-catching buildings left. “It’s not a beautiful city” Adam once told me, “just a city with a few beautiful buildings.”

Thank goodness the cathedral was left relatively untouched. It was not difficult to find and was (to my great relief) not painted pink. During the night I had woken with a start and panicked that Adam and his minions had actually gone to the trouble of painting the whole cathedral in that lurid shade, just to confuse me.

The west front looked particularly delicious (architecturally speaking, of course), with its collection of carved figures much in the styles of Wells and Lichfield. These would have once been painted in bright colours, making for a splendid scene, especially on a dull day like the one I found myself in.

I got the lick done early because a superb sign was to be found by the entrance. Who knew if it would still be there after my tour? The harrowing events at Guildford still haunted me, as did the thought that Adam might try something monstrous and slay me before the job could be done.

The choir was in full song when I entered, which made for a memorable and atmospheric arrival. Their gorgeous voices drifted upwards to the cathedral’s greatest glory: the gigantic vaulted ceiling above the nave. A nearby verger whispered that it is the longest and perhaps finest Gothic vista in the world, and it was hard to disagree. Somewhere up there also was a roof boss depicting the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, and I took a moment to reflect on the many miles traveled since that visit to Canterbury months before, when I had stood on the spot where he had died. That had been a wonderful day; there made been many wonderful days on this quest so far, and there would hopefully be many more to come. The simple joy of travel had been re-awoken in me and I was very happy.

In this buoyant mood the rest of this magnificent cathedral was thoroughly explored. Every nook was peeped into and every curiosity examined. I discovered exquisite misericords, one depicting an elephant with hooves (fancy!); an impressive astronomical clock similar to the one in Wells; a 14th-century minstrels’ gallery decorated with images of musicians and their bizarre instruments; a gigantic kathedra (bishop’s throne) and a multitude of grinning, grotesque carved heads.

My favourite discovery however was a simple hole cut into the bottom of an old, creaking door. This hole, another kindly verger explained, had been made for and used by the cathedral’s resident cats. These felines had first been introduced to combat the legion of mice that had been nibbling away at the ropes attached to the bells, out of which the nursery rhyme “Hickory Dickery Dock” was born. The mice are long gone (they must use shotguns now) but the cats remain, and the current custodian showed his face through the hole and gave me one of those withering looks that cats do so well.

Having fully explored the building I got chatting to two delightful old ladies at the gift shop. They were kindness itself and greeted me with heart-warming west country ‘ello-moi-dearrr tones. One spotted my York pin-badge and asked me if I had really come all that way to see their cathedral.

“Yes, that I have” I exaggerated.

“Croikey!” she exclaimed “You on ‘oliday then?”

“Yes, and I’m visiting all of the Anglican cathedrals in the country as well.”

At this the look on their faces suggested that I had just pulled. Did I dare drop the L-word?

“And I’m licking them all, too.”

Oh no, what did I say that for?

“Licking them?” one of them gasped, while the other stared at me open-mouthed. “But… why?”

I gave them a hurried and bashful explanation of the bet – the licking, Adam, nakedness, the lot- expecting at any moment to have their sticks render me senseless. They might even tear off the jolly I’VE VISITED EXETER CATHEDRAL! sticker they had just issued me with, which was a mortifying thought. Thankfully their dumbstruck faces soon lit up:

“That’s bloody brilliant!” one of them gasped, before checking herself for the curse she had just uttered.

“It is!” the other chirped “Well done, young man, well done!”

Despite their evident enthusiasm they were visibly crushed to learn that I had already licked their cathedral and said they would have very much liked to have seen me in action, for what they called “an historic moment.” They were full of questions: how did Exeter taste? Which one tastes the best? How many more were left to lick? I could have happily spent all morning nattering away with them, but my mention of Truro got them all in a fluster.

“Oooo, there ain’t many trains going there today, you’d best hurry!” one of them cried.

So, with sounds of encouragement ringing in my ears and a new faith in humanity gained – not to mention another FREE cathedral sticker (I think I pulled) –  I departed like a hero into the rain once more and jumped aboard the Truro train. If you ever visit Exeter Cathedral do look out for these two lick-supporting ladies, they truly made my day.


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Lincoln Cathedral: the fairest of them all

Lincoln has the most beautiful cathedral in England, of that there can be no doubt. Up until the moment I stood before its stunning west front I had favoured other beauties – the sumptuous Norwich Cathedral, the jaw-dropping Durham and the frankly arousing Wells – but Lincoln made my mind up once and for all. Throughout history many others have agreed, from the genius madman Augustus Pugin to Lord Cormack, who in a recent House of Lord’s debate called it “the fairest cathedral of them all.”

There’s little I can say about the place without sounding clichéd and possibly a little creepy, so here are some photos from our trip that will hopefully convey its glory.

Carvings of mythical beasts and biblical scenes on the west front. The Romanesque frieze shows souls suffering in Hell, a visible depiction of the consequences of sin and supporting Luton Town FC.

Near the shrine of  St. Hugh of Lincoln,  a former bishop much-loved by the citizens. He was known for kissing lepers and once bit a mouthful from the arm of St. Mary Magdalene. And you thought cathedral-licking was bad for the health.

Listening to the bells ring the time in the cloister, where a lick took place against damp stone. 


The lick itself was uneventful but very satisfying. The stone was damp from the copious rain that had fallen that day, which probably gave it a very refreshing and mossy taste, though I cannot recall exactly. I can only speak from experience in this case as my mind was focused more on the building than the lick. Either way, the taste could have only been enhanced by the beauty of this cathedral. All I can really say is to just go there – drive, cycle, hijack a plane –  whatever you must to see it for yourself. It will be one the best things you will ever do.

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Caught licking: Leicester Cathedral and Southwell Minster

I had promised myself to never set foot in Victoria Coach Station again, yet here I was once more. Sadly the buses from this dreadful place have been the cheapest and most convenient means of getting to many of the cathedrals on my list, so it has been necessary to endure it far more than is healthy. Being there at 7 a.m. does little to lift the spirits either, the same time the drunks and other local personalities hold their morning briefing. Perhaps they had merely got stuck here while waiting for a bus sometime in the 1970s and the evil of the place had driven them to drink, poor souls. Thankfully my Megabus ride arrived promptly and was largely empty, meaning a chance to reclaim some hours of lost sleep. By the time my eyes opened again I was far away from that ghastly place, at least until the next journey.

Dad met me in Leicester, fresh from a good night’s rest in a nearby hotel and ready for a big day of cathedral-licking. We found a greasy spoon cafe and fuelled up with a full English Breakfast. I always go for this option when a big day of activity is ahead, though quite how it would aid in the licking of three cathedrals was a mystery, but it seemed to make sense.

Leicester is an ancient city (almost 2000 years old) but you wouldn’t know it. Surviving remnants of its Roman and Medieval history are few and far between: knocked down or smothered by the concrete of the modern world as if they were never there. This had once been the site of a Roman town and later part of the “Five Boroughs”, which along with Derby,  Stamford, Lincoln and Nottingham  formed an alliance of powerful towns under Viking control in the 9th-century.

The cathedral is really a large parish church and only gained its elevated status in 1927, much like its Midland cousins at Birmingham and Derby. Victorian architecture forms a shell around more ancient foundations and its 220 foot spire is its greatest glory. It was the ramshackle collection of ageing, mossy gravestones in the churchyard that warmed my heart however, in a slightly macabre way. These had clearly been removed from their original locations and arranged in a more pleasing manner at some point. In places some had been arranged in domino fashion, as if to tempt an idle passer-by into give them a gentle nudge.

A kindly old man in a cardigan greeted us inside and showed genuine surprise at our arrival.

“You’ve come to see the cathedral, have you?”

The tone of his question was as if we had come to see some sort of freak show. This was unnerving, but also a little exciting. He gestured that we should follow him (towards the Spider Baby, hopefully ) and he led us to the nave. Here he gave us a brief history of the building but was almost apologetic for the cathedral’s modest nature. The news that we were from York increased his sense of embarrassment further.

“Well, this is rather pathetic compared to your Minster” he sighed “sorry about that, ho hum.”

He obviously thought we were cathedral snobs, come here to sneer at the place. You got the impression that had we been on such a mission he would be the first to hand us rocks and burning torches, which was awfully sad. We tried to explain that we saw beauty in the smaller, un-celebrated cathedrals such as this, but he remained unmoved.

“There is one thing that we have that you do not!” he suddenly piped up, a smug grin taking form on his lips.

“A memorial to king of England! Did you know that?”

He did not wait for an answer and beckoned us over to a plaque in the stone floor. The inscription read:





22ND AUGUST 1485

Buried in the

Church of the Grey Friars

In this Parish

I was positively giddy with glee at the sight of this. Now, I have a lot of time for the Richard III, despite the fact he may have murdered his two young nephews, and committed plenty of other skulduggery in his time. “Rick the Dick” is much maligned but almost certainly the victim of Tudor propaganda following his death. My admiration for the man stems from his connections with York, my hometown, where he was much beloved by the citizens. Indeed, there is even a museum dedicated to him inside Monk Bar, one of the old gateways to the city. It is well worth a visit, both for the exhibition and for its collection of frightening mannequins.

Richard was the last of the Plantagenet kings, before another powerful family came to power. Now, if anyone reading this is getting all dewy-eyed about the dynasty in question, let me remind you that watching The Tudors box set does not pass for historical research. In short, the Tudors were usurping scoundrels, or more accurately, Henry Tudor was. His claim to the throne was flimsy to say the least, yet he took the crown from our dear Richard not far from this spot at Bosworth, and in doing so effectively brought an end to the Middle Ages.

“Of course, he’s not actually under our feet sadly” the old man sighed, as if proximity to a corpse was something to get excited about. “He was buried at another church in the city, then dug up and chucked in the river, poor man.”

Even though it’s quite likely that Richard didn’t mind this too much (what with being dead and all) I was beginning to despise the Tudors even more. Memories of dressing up as one (involving flamboyant velvet knickerbockers and an outrageous ruff) for a school assembly aged 8 made me feel sick. Had Henry VIII walked by just then I’m certain I would have shot the bastard.

It would have been great to have had longer to explore Leicester Cathedral, but there were two more to reach that day and time was already passing fast. We thanked the elderly gentleman and made our way out, almost forgetting the reason we had come: the lick. A suitable spot was chosen by the main entrance and soon the job was done to a very satisfactory level. Sorry Leicester, I do plan to return one day soon to have a proper look around your wonderful (and quite tasty) cathedral.

Southwell is a gorgeous town. Embarrassingly, until this bet began I had never even heard of it. At first I genuinely believed that Adam had invented a fictitious cathedral in order to send me on a fruitless journey (he would do that, the bastard), but no, a quick look at the map revealed just such a place does exist, in the rolling countryside of Nottinghamshire. Its size is reminiscent of Wells and shares the same atmosphere or jolly Englishness in its old, winding streets and charming timber-framed and Georgian houses.

Southwell’s Minster is the best surviving example of a Norman cathedral in England and is an absolute triumph. It is commonly known as “village cathedral” and basks in the glory of being perhaps the best-kept secret in the land. It can also boast to be the mother-church of its larger neighbours – Nottingham and Derby. Expensively built from around 1108 but frequently neglected by its leading holy men, it has survived almost completely in its original form, with the occasional tweak here and there over the centuries. In its heyday it served as a proxy church to York Minster and is still within its jurisdiction to this day. The ruins of the Archbishop of York’s old palace are close by, where a centre of theological learning was once found, thus giving the place the elevated “minster” title.

We parked the car and did a circuit of the cathedral before entering. The west front, with its twin Romanesque “pepperpot” towers was particularly striking, as were the multitude of grotesque carvings and gargoyles. I am a huge fan of such carvings, mainly for their often brazen and unnerving quality. My dad had to almost drag me inside, so enamoured was I the exterior of the place. It was going to be a true honour to lick it.

Once inside, it was not long before a problem presented itself. From within came the sound of merry voices in full song, accompanied by a jolly accordion and guitar. A quick look revealed that a lunchtime concert was in full swing, watched on by a huge congregation of locals nodding along happily to the music.

“Best to get a photo done now” my dad advised “who knows if we’ll get a chance again?”

How right he was. The potential to get caught licking was far greater with such a multitude in the vicinity, so it was wise to get the job done while they were still distracted. I got into position by a huge sign and licked away, and it was delicious. Perhaps it was the gorgeous Chevron carvings nearby that had got me all excited, but the stone was actually quite agreeable to the palate. Thank goodness my dad spotted this sign when we did; things would not be so easy later.

We stepped inside gingerly and found a seat amongst the happy throng. A group of primary school children were dancing around a Maypole in the nave and yelping out praise for God, Jesus and various farm animals. A bespectacled man in a loud woolly jumper massaged an accordion and sang along with the youngsters, who were now belting out a chorus of “I want to be near you, you’re the one, the one for me!”

It was toe-tapping stuff, all right. The audience clapped and sang along and I began to think how wonderful it was to see a place of worship so alive, not echoing with distant footsteps and stifled whispers. Soon my dad and I were swept up with it all as well, and began clapping and whooping with the rest of them. It was splendid stuff.

Before a full-blown moshpit could break out dad once more advised me to get exploring. He was happy where he was in a comfy seat watching the performance. So, to the sound of children’s happy song I stepped softly around this hidden gem of a cathedral. I stopped briefly to take photos of the kids prancing about, but was soon given a stern glare by an elderly couple, no doubt grandparents to one of the jigging youngsters. This seemed a trifle unfair, seeing as many other people were doing the same thing, until it dawned on me that I was hidden behind some sort of fake shrubbery backdrop. Point taken.

Retreating into the South Transept I stumbled (literally) upon part of Southwell’s ancient past in the form of Roman paving, in a spot charmingly named the Bread Pews. A villa or possibly a temple once stood on this site, before the Saxons built their first church here at some point in the early 7th-century. When the Normans came onto the scene they saw fit to knock this down (they seemed to enjoy doing that) and rebuild in far grander scale. And good on them; if the result of their destruction is a building as beautiful as this then who can argue?

The interior is just as mouth-watering as the exterior and is a feast for the eyes: imposing Romanesque arches, yet more carved grotesque heads and a collection of weird and wonderful misericords are enough to make the knees grow weak. It is impossible not to gawp at it all in dumb fashion. Some might say that places like this put you under a spell, a description I find rather sickly. Rather, it puts you into more of a zombie-like trance: shuffling about with mouth wide open, crashing into pews and pulpits while emitting a low groan at the sight of each new glory.

The cathedral’s greatest treasures lie within the 13th-century Chapter House: the famous Leaves of Southwell. These intricate carvings offer a view into a world long-gone, one in which nature held a stronger sway on everyday life. In between stone leaves of oak, maple and countless other trees, dogs chase rabbits and snuffling pigs hunt out acorns in the earth, depicting scenes that would have been familiar to the men who created and used this space centuries ago. Indeed, the faces of these very people may well the ones carved here, which is a poignant thought. Green Men also make their inevitable if mysterious appearance, vomiting forth foliage from their grinning mouths and generally unsettling the onlooker, as they do in churches all over the country. I ran my fingers carefully over their smooth, leafy faces and expected at any moment for one of them to take a bite of my finger. The stonework was almost alive.

Feeling a little cathedral-drunk with all the beauty on show I staggered back to where my dad was sitting. The concert was still in full swing and now a small choir was energetically imitating the sound of a rainstorm. The audience sat in quiet awe: some with heads tilted in fascination, others with their eyes shut tight to block out everything but the bewitching music. It was wonderfully soothing, that was until some swine with cymbals saw fit to add thunder to the performance right next to my head.

This was the climax to an otherwise highly enjoyable concert, and with my head still ringing the audience began filing out of the main entrance. I still wanted to get another photo of me licking the same spot as earlier, merely for safety’s sake. The thought of losing all important evidence is a hellish one, particularly because it would involve spending more time in Victoria Bus Station making return journeys to far-off cities. It is wise, therefore, to get at least two photographs done to guard against such disasters.

So, following a brief chat with a friendly verger we returned to the spot of the earlier lick. Thankfully the building and grounds were now all but empty – or so we thought. I positioned myself in the previously chosen location and made good contact with the stone, while dad played photographer once more.

Just as we were celebrating yet another cathedral triumph, something moved from in the corner of my eye. With tongue still pressed against the wall I turned my head to face the sight of a red-faced verger behind a glass door. He looked at me; I looked at him. He mouthed something that left me in no doubt that he was not a supporter of my venture. I tried to fashion a reassuring smile, one I hoped would transmit to him the terrible burden that had been placed on my shoulders, that this was something than needed to be done to prevent an unthinkable punishment. From the reflection in the glass door, however, it was evident that my attempt at a friendly smile had failed dramatically. What was meant to be reassuring gesture was in fact a ghastly grimace, not unlike the grotesque heads adorning the minster itself. It would have probably been wise to remove my tongue at some point during this curious episode because this only made things worse. At this point it seemed best to leave immediately, as the verger was already waving his arms about frantically for backup from his colleagues. Not waiting to reason with them, we fled the scene and found safety in a nearby pub.

For the first time on this journey I felt genuine guilt. What the hell was I doing? I had been observed before of course (at Rochester and Chichester) but on those occasions my actions had only provoked mild confusion from onlookers. I guess it was inevitable that someone would rise in anger eventually and I thought I would be prepared for it, but this really stung. Southwell Minster was lovely and so were its staff. Somehow it felt like I had betrayed them all. There was the added feeling of self-mortification: I was 26-years-old and I was travelling the country licking cathedrals; licking cathedrals! This was no way for a supposedly grown man to act.

I shared my thoughts with my dad who gave (as ever) sterling words of encouragement:

“So what if you licked the cathedral? There are a lot of worse things you could have done to it.”

There was no argument there.

“What about Henry VIII then?” he continued “He ripped the heart out of places like that!”

“Yeah!” I piped up, suddenly encouraged. “And Oliver Cromwell did a fair bit of church-smashing in his time. Licking a building, if anything, shows ones appreciation for it!”

“Precisely. And if that bloke had caught us then what would really have happened? He was never going to call the Police was he?”

At that very moment two policemen stepped into the bar. We both choked on our Guinness while they gave the room a friendly nod. They spoke in low voices to the barman and we expected their gaze to fall upon us at any moment. My heart raced. There was a rusty blunderbuss on the wall, along with similarly ancient but deadly farm implements should we need them to make a dramatic escape. Oh god, had it really come to this- thinking about how I would use a scythe against a pair of police officers? Things had got out of control.

Luckily the officers were in good spirits and had obviously just dropped in for a chat with the landlord. We sat in silence, not daring to move in case a fragment of incriminating Southwell Minster stone should fall from my lips and into my drink with a plop! They took an age to leave, and offered us another friendly nod on their departure. Downing the rest of our drinks we hit the road to Lincoln, not daring to look back in case the whole population of Southwell was in hot pursuit, with pitchforks and blunderbusses in hand.


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