Lancashire licks : Blackburn and Manchester

By March the cathedral-licking bet was starting to become a burden. As the days and weeks flew by the map was still full of far-off places I somehow needed to get to, all in a bum-clenchingly short about of time and seemingly at great financial and mental cost. People’s inquiries into how it was all going did little to settle my nerves, usually because they were either amused or concerned at my lack of progress. Despite the more lenient terms recently re-negotiated with Adam, the bet was weighing me down, like an ongoing hangover that couldn’t be shaken off. With these grim thoughts in mind I boarded a train to Lancashire.

This was the first time I had gone cathedral-licking without a single shred of excitement in me. Gone was the carefree licker of that glorious day in Canterbury, to be replaced by a sullen and broken man, worn down by the ridiculous situation he had got himself into. As the train sped west I began listing all the better things I could have been doing instead: spending the day with Lisa, seeing old friends and generally not going anywhere near an ecclesiastical building. But no, I was on a train on my way to bloody lick Blackburn and Manchester cathedrals. Not for the first time I asked myself just what on earth I was doing.

The train journey was mightily dull for the first hour but became increasingly intriguing the further West we travelled. The railway tracks slowly slipped into dark, steep valleys of thick woodland containing peculiar, coal-blackened buildings. Crooked church spires poked through treetops and a few scattered houses, weather-beaten and crumbling with age, were the only signs of civilisation. I knew that these Pennine regions were bleak, but this was a whole side I had never seen before. The whole place looked like an Edward Gorey print with a touch of northern Gothic.

Past the old station at Hebden Bridge the valley grew deeper, darker and even more unwelcoming. The trees disappeared and were replaced with wet rock and thin grass, on which perched sodden and miserable sheep. Further up I glimpsed a white goat jumping from crag to crag and the occasional deer vainly nibbling at the scant vegetation. This didn’t feel like England at all, even though we had just crossed the border into Lancashire. The occasional view of a wind-buffeted waterfall brought back memories of days trekking in the Faroes and Iceland, only now I was in a comfy seat in a warm train carriage and not soaked to the bone being stalked by sheep. Just before Burnley this Pennine sojourn reached perhaps its most unsettling moment, when a field littered with animal skeletons gave me one last fright. As spooky as it was, I was taking great delight in this seemingly forgotten scenery of northern England.

I had been to Blackburn before, around two years earlier for a party, and my eagerness to see the city had baffled my hosts. They had reluctantly agreed to take me on a tour through its streets one Saturday night and we were treated to the sight of numerous brawls and the arrests of hooded, rambunctious youths. After such an experience it will come as no surprise that I fully expected never to have to set foot in Blackburn again. There was a strange feeling of defeat then when alighting at its station. Fortunately the cathedral is close by and within a couple of minutes I was stood outside its main entrance, having passed a statue of a bloated Queen Victoria and what seemed to be a pigeon graveyard.

Stepping gingerly around the pigeon corpses I whipped out my camera to capture the cathedral’s exterior, only to discover that I had left the memory card behind. I almost booted one of the nearby carcasses in fury, but suddenly remembered that my camera phone would be a very able substitute. That it proved to be, though the further realisation that I had (yet again) forgotten the handy camera stand as well put me in an even fouler mood.

Without the stand I would have to hold the camera phone at arm’s length to capture the lick. This I tried to do in vain at the cathedral’s main entrance, where there was a decent official sign but also plenty of CCTV watching me. If their cameras were rolling then they would have been able to provide ample proof that I licked the place, though I doubt that a request for a copy of the video would go down well. The photos were disappointing, which was no great surprise given the lack of suitable equipment and my lack of elasticity. The BLACKBURN part of the sign was lost in a blurry mess that no amount of experimentation would fix so it seemed best to look elsewhere.

Not far from the site of my first attempt hung a fabulous tapestry with BLACKBURN CATHEDRAL stitched proudly upon it. This is a cathedral licker’s dream as it not only proves the location but also makes an attractive alternative to bog-standard entrance signs. I was forced to wait though by an infuriating woman, who haunted the area around the intended lick-spot, reading every pamphlet on the nearby table and studying every stone. For a while I feared that she had the same intentions as me and was awaiting my departure. A potential licking rival! This notion was actually quite entertaining, but sadly completely untrue as she eventuallyly disappeared and left me in peace. With her finally gone I licked away gleefully and also filmed the deed for edge and evidence.

With the job done I could relax and explore the cathedral. The place was virtually empty and my slightest movement sent deafening echoes bouncing of the walls and vaulted ceilings. It reminded me a little of its cousin in Guildford in that it is still so young, having only been fully completed in 1977. This former parish church has roots stretching back to Saxon times but only began to take its current form in the 1930s. A walk along the nave gives you an idea of its previous dimensions, which were modest before the feel-good factor of cathedral status in 1926 prompted the people of Blackburn to build, build and build some more.

A link to Sheffield Cathedral is its beautiful lantern tower filled with coloured glass, topped with a metal spire. Remnants of the old church survive in likewise colourful shards of medieval glass rescued from the earth and incorporated into the modern windows. Centuries-old faces, animals and strange beasts arranged in random form made for a delightful dose of vibrancy on an otherwise dull and overcast day.

Down in the crypt there was a stampede going on, as OAPs outmuscled each other to get at the piping-hot stew being served for lunch. It smelled incredible and it was very tempting to join the gravy and dumpling hysteria, but I was in a rush and had to get to Manchester. Stomach growling with protest I headed for the exit, but not before picking up more evidence of my visit in the form of postcards and yet another fridge magnet for the collection. These I have arranged on our fridge in London, partly to pin my cathedral-licking list up, but mainly to piss off Adam whenever he needs the milk.

True to form, the Manchester train was pulling out just as I dashed up to the platform, prompting me to swear loudly and inadvertently offend a small group of train spotters. The Manchester service wasn’t for another hour, so I had no option but to shiver on the platform and dream about being somewhere else.

I arrived in Manchester at 4pm with the clock ticking. I wanted to be back in Leeds by 6 to meet Lisa and luck was on my side as Manchester’s Anglican cathedral is only a short walk from Victoria station. Still, I ran to it like a madman, having only 20 minutes to complete the task and get back for the train. It was sad that this would have to be a lick-and-run job, but I have only my poor timekeeping to blame for missing out on the delights of this cathedral.

I must say that Manchester Cathedral is surprisingly impressive. That is not meant as any slight on the city, I was just not expecting anything as old and wonderfully Gothic. Like Newcastle, the long history of Manchester is not something often associated with the place. Any signs of anything pre-19th century are very thin on the ground, and even those are in the shadows of the city’s industrial quarters and rather grim car parking blocks. Yet here Romans once lived, in a remote outpost fortress called Mamucium. Before them the Brigantes tribe also had a stronghold here, almost exactly on the spot where the present cathedral now sits.

Having reached the cathedral with only 15 minutes before my train’s departure, the pressure was on to get licking fast. This was easier said than done however, as the building was positively brimming with people both inside and out. I’m sure some people wouldn’t have any qualms about licking an ecclesiastical building with an audience watching on, but I am far more reserved about such things. The horrific experience in Rochester had taught me that discretion is the way forward, as it saves on a great deal of embarrassment and disapproval from passers by, usually old ladies. Why the latter seem to congregate outside cathedrals just when I want to lick them (the cathedrals, not the old ladies) is an ongoing mystery.

I hurried around the gloomy interior, which was even darker than Ripon Cathedral, and tripped on numerous chair legs and other shin-shattering obstacles. Some of these could well have been drunks, of which there were a healthy number inside. Most were either asleep in the pews or lost in their own thoughts, but one (there’s always one) fixed his attentions upon me instantly. I could smell his breath from twenty paces and his crazed stare had me sweating. I tried to look as nonchalant as possible, but ended up crashing into a small table instead, sending books and pamphlets scattering. This ruckus awoke some of the others who began to growl menacingly. This was all getting highly stressful.

A glance at my watch revealed that my time was down to just 10 minutes. Shit, shit, shit. I turned from the drunks and stared into the gloomy nave before me in the hope of sudden inspiration. Sadly the miracle of Oxford was not repeated and no well-placed, clear sign appeared miraculously. At this point of deep despair I jumped out of my skin when the crazy-eyed drunk bellowed in my direction. I turned around in fear to see him pointing at me in White Ace-fuelled rage.

“Ey, you! Don’t even fink abart it!”

This made my heart hammer like never before. What the hell did he mean? Did he know what I was up to? Had Adam paid this man to deter me? If he had then it was actually working, as I began edging towards the door in terror. The drunk watched me go with a grin of victory on his face. Damn the bastard, I thought, there was bound to be a decent sign outside somewhere. One was found soon enough, though getting both it and me licking the wall in the picture was a hopeless task. In desperation I considered asking one of a group of loitering teenagers to do the job for me, but soon realised that the only way they would fulfil my request was probably as part of some happy-slapping montage. With five minutes to go this was getting serious.

In the end I decided to confront the drunks inside again, even if one of them was on to me, but just as I grabbed the door handle a previously unseen sign appeared! Not wasting any more time I licked a spot next to it and captured the picture below:

Thank heavens that sign was there, otherwise I would have been totally lost. It was certainly not the best for a variety of reasons but for me at that moment it was a glorious sight. The picture came out pretty well and my spirits were lifted. I ran back to the station, just catching the train back home to Yorkshire. For the first time that day I was a happy man.

Once back in Leeds I regaled the day’s exploits to Lisa and her friends over drinks and dinner. It was not exactly a hero’s return, as earning hero status from licking a couple of walls will never be something likely to earn anyone a tickertape parade (as fun as that would be). All I cared about was having got the job done for the day so that now I could relax and focus on more enjoyable things. Still, while telling my tale I did laugh at the idiocy of the whole thing. One of Lisa’s friends, Tony, loved it all and guffawed heartily.

“Why not, eh? Why bloody not?”

Why not indeed.


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