Cathedral-licking in the West Country

So, another painfully early start to go cathedral-licking. During the lengthy bus journey west to Bristol I had plenty of time to question just what on earth I was doing, and what I would prefer to be doing instead. That list was depressingly long, so I decided to focus on the job in hand and try to make the most of the trip.

Fortunately my spirits rose after reading about the two intended destinations for the day: the cathedrals of Wells and Bristol. I already knew that Wells Cathedral was a stunner, funnily enough thanks to Adam’s dad. A few weeks previously he had positively demanded that I make the journey there, even though this would contribute to his own son’s eventual humiliation. He had only just learned about the bet and, whilst casting a gleeful eye over the lengthy list of cathedrals still to lick, told me bluntly to “bloody well get going”.

Bristol was reached in the late morning, and following an uneasy half hour in its bus station sat waiting next to people who looked like they were on their way to the Mutants’ Association AGM, my coach arrived and whisked myself and a merry band of pensioners off to the quieter, greener county of Somerset. The journey was a joy not only for the rolling scenery but also for the array of guffaw-worthy place names on show. I was already aware the fabulous villages of Shepton Mallet and Nether Wallop, the former sounding like a device for delivering the latter. New names to me were the dreamy-sounding Featherbed Lane and Temple Cloud, and my personal favourite, Chewton Mendip.

Wells’ etymology is less thrilling, indicating a landscape of holy wells, venerated by both the Romans and Saxons in centuries past. Such marshy, watery conditions seem ideal for some cathedrals it seems, with Ely and Westminster Abbey also once sitting on almost inaccessible islands cut off from the temptations of the World. Not far from here is Glastonbury, another site of pilgrimage in times gone by. The famous Tor was just about visible through the mist, a sight I had last seen two years before, woozy with cider, at the festival that takes place in these parts.

Naturally enough the cathedral dominates this tiny city, the second smallest in England behind the City of London. It is a beautiful place and possibly the most English of cities I have every visited. Gorgeous architecture is in abundance, especially at the cathedral’s medieval gatehouse. Fans of the film “Hot Fuzz” will recognise this as one of the backdrops for the fictional “Village of the Year”, Sandford. Up until this point the cathedral is all but hidden from view, but a few steps on and its glory is revealed and knocks the breath out of you.

It’s difficult to describe this masterpiece. The inspiring facade of the west front left me speechless and I sat down before it, gaping in awe for a full ten minutes. It was like being slapped around the face by the Gothic itself. Adding to the whole affect were the crows and ravens that flew and cawed around the towers, and perched on the heads and arms of ancient, carved kings. Some of these sculptures have lost their finer details, thanks to the blasted musket balls of Cromwell’s army, though many appear freshly carved. It was hard to drag myself away from such magnificence, but I had some licking to do.

The interior is equally striking, particularly the famous “scissor” arches supporting the central tower. At first glance these appear to be modern insertions, but in fact date back to the 1300s. An earthquake during the previous century had unsettled the tower’s foundations and one William Joy, master mason, was given the task of saving it. Anyone who says that the Middle Ages was a dark and ignorant age need only to see this triumph to shut them up. I considered licking one of the arches but too many people were milling about to carry out a discreet lick. What a photo that would have made! It is times like this that I long for a companion, to deter onlookers and capture beauties of photos of me licking stuff.

The more I explored the more my knees began to grow weak. The crooked, uneven steps up to the chapter house gave me butterflies and told a story of millions of feet treading up them, so worn were they. It looked almost dangerous to even attempt an ascent, like climbing some treacherous mountainside that threatened to send me tumbling and slipping at any moment. Indeed, a woman in front slipped and hurt her shin, howling in pain. Climbing bravely over her body, I made my own ascent and felt the hand of gravity pulling me backwards the higher I went. This was a health and safety nightmare, and it was brilliant. I licked a section of wall here, leaving my camera at the foot of the steps. Sadly my tongue was not visible in any the photos taken, and the practise of negotiating the steps of Death to set the camera each time was irksome to say the least.

Further evidence that I had become a cathedral pervert was found when the ringing of bells met my ears. Nearby, positioned high above on a wall in the north transept was a beautiful, astronomical clock. Sun and Moon wend their ways around the clock face, watched on by angels and jousting knights, who come out to play every 15 minutes. A character known as Jack Blandifers, perched on a ledge nearby, rings out the hours of the day nearby with a hammer and his heels.

I attempted a licking-photo here as well, as this was a sight unique to Wells. Sadly though, some fiends ruined it by appearing suddenly and putting me off. This continued denial of top-class  photographic evidence was deeply vexing and I was forced to seek a less challenging, quieter spot to get the job done. This was soon found, just around the corner from the clock. An excellent sign was propped up by a doorway and it was a simple task to capture the lick. Although far better pictures could have been taken, this one was special for the fact that the camera (through a mixture of its age and my own incompetence) made me appear almost ghostly.

I was reluctant to leave Wells and would have happily gawped some more at the cathedral’s magnificence, but I was on a tight schedule and had to get back to Bristol. Before catching the bus though I captured yet more proof of the licking at the iconic west front, this time with the handy video camera on my iPod.

This took a couple of attempts to get right, enough time for some boys from the nearby cathedral school to congregate and stare on in bewildered fascination.

“What’s ‘e doin’?” one of them asked his friends, with genuine unease in his voice. None of them answered but continued to stare at me open-mouthed. I offered them a friendly nod and smile as I went on my way, fearing a lynching at any moment.

“F****** weirdo” another of them called after me, before hoofing a football into the air (really quite alarming) to re-start the kick-about my antics had clearly disturbed.

Although Spring has sprung it was actually getting dark when the bus pulled into Bristol. I have an irrational fear of new cities, especially when the sun starts going down. Being an outsider I am convinced that everyone in sight is either going to rob or stab me, possibly even both. It is ridiculous paranoia that has haunted me for years and has not once proved to be well-founded. Around me Bristolians went about their business, completely oblivious of my existence, but to me they were all murderers, thieves and other forms of scallywag. Thankfully I knew someone in the city- an old school friend named Ali. He had learned about the bet over a Christmas drink and had quickly offered his support for the Bristol leg of the challenge. He had even offered to put me up for the night on his houseboat.

Thanks to Ali’s directions the cathedral was eventually found, almost directly in the city centre. This is a little-known and sadly uncelebrated cathedral. Bristol’s importance as a port throughout its history made it a worthy location for a monastery and grand abbey church, which has grown and been added to almost constantly for almost 900 years. Its outer shell and main towers belong to the Gothic Revival of the 19th-century, and is more French than English in appearance thanks to the rose window above the main entrance. Traces of the original Norman abbey survive in small fragments, most notably the old Romanesque gatehouse, under which I sheltered from a sudden downpour.

I entered the cathedral just as it was about to close for visitors, throwing me into a panic akin to the stressful lick-attempt at Peterborough. I managed a quick circuit of the place before being informed that unless I wished to attend Evensong then it would be jolly nice if I buggered off. Evensong sounded like a fine way to end the day, though Ali was on his way we had other matters to deal with first. Several lick spots had already been identified. We would be rather spoiled for choice in fact, as the good folk of Bristol Cathedral had supplied us with a whole array of excellent signage for photographic proof.

Before long a grinning Ali appeared, fresh from work and ready to lick. “Let’s do this” he said, with heart-warming determination. A favoured spot for the lick was quickly identified just inside the main entrance, where in a very small area there were no less than three fabulous Bristol Cathedral signs! I took up my position and licked away at some very salty-tasting stonework, while Ali merrily captured the scene with my camera.

Once my work was done, Ali announced boldly that he too wanted to tongue the cathedral. This news gladdened my heart greatly as this was the first time someone else had joined me in this utterly pointless but very pleasing exercise. Being careful not to touch the same spot as me (who knows what he would have caught) he merrily licked away.

I was sad not to have had the time to visit Bristol Cathedral properly, or to peruse its gift shop for more items to annoy Adam with. The growing collection of fridge magnets had him groaning whenever he went to get some milk over the previous weeks. As with several other cathedrals on this journey, I will find the time in the future to come back, explore and appreciate.

Task complete, Ali and I celebrated over a drink with another old school friend, Felix. He chortled at my account of the day, which made me laugh too at the sheer idiocy of the situation I was in. Sometimes all you can do is laugh.

Two more cathedrals done and two steps closer to Adam’s walk of shame.


9 thoughts on “Cathedral-licking in the West Country

  1. Pingback: Ely | Dominic Yeo

    • Hi Phil, that would be great, thanks!
      So you were at Bootham Cresent on Saturday? So was I! It was a mad old match alright. Sorry that I saw your message so late, it would have been great to meet up.

      • Well I am pleased one of us enjoyed Saturday. I wondered if you were there, perhaps I needed you to give the Rovers a severe tongue-lashing! Let me know about Brizzle – April is the return fixture but who needs footie as an excuse for a cathedral visit?

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