Lately I have had the pleasure of spending a great deal of time in my native Yorkshire, which boasts more Anglican cathedrals than any other English county. My head tells me that this is because Yorkshire is so vast (the largest shire in the country), but we all know it is because Yorkshire is so bloody brilliant.
It was surprising then that I had yet to lick a single one of the five glorious cathedrals (York Minster, Ripon, Bradford, Wakefield and Sheffield) at my disposal. I had intended to get them done whilst home over Christmas, but had instead been content to sit by the fire with a glass of port. Such slackness could not happen again, especially with the clock ticking down and the new licking-year well under way. So once more I found myself on public transport, bouncing along towards some distant location at a god awful hour in the morning, wondering what the hell I was doing.
From York, Ripon was over an hour away by bus. Without any form of entertainment there was only the view out of the window and the prospect of another lick to keep me going. To be fair it’s not a bad journey at all, weaving around narrow North Yorkshire country lanes and past dark-stoned churches sat in gorgeous settings. At one point the mysterious Marmion Tower became visible in the hazy distance, an old gatehouse to a medieval mansion which I had explored almost a year previously. Back then I had been on crutches after a knee operation and unwisely had decided to climb the tower’s spiral staircase in almost pitch blackness. My knee is still no better, probably as a result of this foolish curiosity.
On the same day we had driven past Ripon Cathedral and I had longed to hobble up to its walls and carry out the very first lick of the bet, but I had remained strangely complacent. Back then of course I still had five years in which to win the bet, according to the contract of the time. How things had changed and how I had rued that moment ever since. Something that made this failure worse was the fact that someone else had actually licked it before me! Not Adam but the brother of my friend Carol. He was well aware of the great burden I had undertaken and saw fit to smugly call us at work to announce his dreadful deed. Not being the first person to lick the place was a blow that had to be endured and one I hoped would never be repeated.
My second ever sight of the cathedral was its much altered main tower, floating above a blanket of mist that obscured its walls and the city below. I looked forward to stumbling through this fog, along Ripon’s ancient cobbled streets like some sort of Dickensian urchin.
Just off the main square and down a winding street the cathedral’s magnificent West Front suddenly appeared. It was a clean and wonderfully simple structure, with a secluded, melancholy air to it. By now the fog has mysteriously disappeared, I made my way in through an unassuming little doorway and into a great echoing space within. It was so dark it took my eyes a couple of minutes to adjust. While still half-blind the shape of robed attendant glided silently towards me and pressed a guide into my hand. A torch would have been better. Gradually my eyes adjusted to the gloom and I gasped at this little-known treasure of the Anglican world.
There has been a church on this site for almost 1,350 years, a mind-blowing amount of time during which the fortunes of Ripon have risen and fallen as the religious and political centre of the North. As old as it is, it is one of the country’s youngest cathedrals, only achieving that status in 1836. The current structure is the fourth to have occupied the site, owing to a mixture of Viking and Norman rampages in the area. It was a future Archbishop of York, St. Wilfrid (now buried somewhere beneath the Ripon flagstones), who brought continental workmen here in the 7th-century to construct England’s first ever stone church, parts of which survive in the form of the sombre crypt. Here were kept a collection of holy relics amassed by Wilfrid himself. I had to duck my head to negotiate this series of gloomy tunnels, which were originally built to represent Christ’s tomb. It was certainly not a place to linger in, but I took a moment to imagine the scores of Anglo-Saxon pilgrims moving solemnly through this very same space, hoping for a glimpse of the relics. These are now long-gone but the stone floor stills bears the marks of thousands of shuffling feet, and smoothed grooves in the walls reveal where hands once reached out to touch sacred bones.
Up above ground more treasures can be found in the superb collection of medieval misericords, all carved by Ripon men in the late 15th-century. One of these, showing a griffon chasing a rabbit down a hole, is thought to have been the inspiration behind Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. My favourite carving was a grim-looking Blemya, a mythical monster with its face sat in its chest. These creatures were said to inhabit Africa and be enthusiastic cannibals. This one certainly did look brutish with its fierce expression and staff-like weapon in its hand.
So, to the lick. As with most of the previous licks, I eagerly sought out good spots to get the job done. This proved tricky but not impossible. The first spot chosen was in a lonely corner which looked like a Sunday school area, due to the boxes of toys and tiny toddlers’ chairs. I made the mistake of trying to sit on one these in a moment of jollity, pretending to be some sort of giant in this miniature world. The inevitable result was the sound of splitting plastic that echoed around the building like a thunder crack. This was hardly the kind of inconspicuous behaviour required for the task ahead. I waited until the din had faded before getting on with the job in hand.
I’d chosen this spot as it had a fine tapestry bearing the name of the cathedral on it, much like the one at Oxford. The trouble was that I had forgotten to bring the handy camera stand that had worked wonders at Chelmsford, Chichester and Portsmouth. To compensate for this I attempted balancing the camera with the help a variety of toys from the boxes nearby, including a fire truck, a Barbie doll and some Stickle Bricks. It will come as no surprise that all of these were utterly crap at keeping the camera at the required angle. The Barbie was the greatest disappointment of all, as my attempts to balance the camera in its arms and make it look like it was actually taking my picture so very nearly worked. I even began building a little wall out of plastic bricks, but this too collapsed under the camera’s weight. Stung by these failures I turned the camera’s video settings on and filmed myself doing the deed. I wasn’t too happy with the result, but with so few other options open it would have to do.
Having licked and looked, I left the cathedral in a happy state of mind. I decided to make a circuit of the building, searching out more good spots to lick. Before long one was found close to the main entrance. I felt rather stupid for not having seen this before, but I merrily balanced the camera on a nearby wall (a far superior cameraman to Barbie) and captured the playful photo shown below.
The stone was tongue-piercingly cold and would soon give me splitting headache. I kept my tongue in contact longer than planned, in sudden fear that I would lose a chunk of it to the freezing wall when I pulled away. Thankfully it peeled off safely enough and I went to find a cup of tea to thaw it out. Before doing this, I called Carol to tell her of my latest triumph. She was delighted of course and agreed that her brother had been well and truly outdone by both my double-lick of Ripon and the accompanying proof. Hopefully this will put him off doing it again, but seeing as he seems to share my love of licking ecclesiastical buildings; it wouldn’t surprise me to find a freshly damp cathedral wall in the future.