Midlands licks

Maps are just one of my many interests and I can easily spend hours gazing at them. It is strange then that the one and only map I have myself created should cause me so much anguish. The licking map on this blog was created to chart my progress (or rather, lack of it) and the very thought of it has, at times, brought me out in a cold sweat.

That said, highlighting each location post-lick has been a real joy. Steadily the map has begun to be populated by a pleasing number of red “lick markers”, usurping the blue, un-licked locations. There was one region still holding out however: the Midlands. Having conquered most of the cathedrals in the North and South, an infuriating band of blue still stuck out on the map, which to me resembled a stiff middle finger of defiance. Something would have to be done, with Birmingham and Lichfield the intended targets for a double swoop.

The Midlands is not an area I know particularly well, having spent most of my life either side of it and only making passing visits. Birmingham was a total mystery to me then, but is a city I owe my very existence to. It was here that my parents met as students in the 1970s before moving to York. They both still speak fondly of the place and have often encouraged me to make a visit. Going there to lick its cathedral was not quite what they had envisaged, however.

The day did not get off to the best of starts, with the bus arriving an hour late into Birmingham. A heated argument with the driver resulted from this, putting me in a foul mood that already had me penning a strongly-worded letter in my head. This altercation diminished my previous enthusiasm for visiting and licking the cathedral, which given the time, effort and money already spent in getting there was irksome to say the least. My sole consolation was the belief that this lick would be exceedingly straightforward due to the cathedral’s tiny size. Surely no one would be in sight, would they?

As I rounded a corner my heart lurched in horror. There sat Birmingham Cathedral, not in a secluded, deserted corner as I had hoped but in the beating heart of the city and surrounded by hundreds of people! The warm weather that day had obviously brought folk out en masse, who now lounged on the grass surrounding the building or rested against its sun-warmed walls. They formed an intimidating barrier around the one thing I so desperately needed to lick, none of them realising just how much I wanted to slay them all on the spot. There was no way I could carry out a discreet lick-job here.

For a mad moment the thought that Adam had arranged this awful scene flashed across my mind. These dark thoughts developed further and I had images of these hoards of carefree sunbathers forming a human-shield to prevent my tongue from coming anywhere near the place. Adam had actually threatened to do this at least one cathedral and now it appeared his words had not been in jest. My fears were unfounded, of course, and no one paid my the slightest bit of attention as I gingerly stepped around them and up to the cathedral.

By the main entrance stood a superb sign proclaiming the identity of the cathedral. The only trouble was the immediate vicinity was haunted by a group of young ruffians who looked far more likely to do me in than the sunbathers. Instead of enjoying the weather they appeared to be looking for someone’s face to rearrange, and their eyes lit up when they saw me.

I don’t know how these people find me, but come rain or shine they are always waiting – in bus stations, on trains and park benches the World over. They must have a Facebook group or something. You’d think that a cathedral would a safe haven from them, yet here they were, tracksuit bottoms tucked into socks and ready to break bones. It seemed far more likely that Adam hired this lot to do his dirty work. Working for the government as he does, he could probably have me killed, so hiring a mob of hoodlums was a simple enough task.

In the end I took the decision to leave this cathedral be for the moment. The risk of being stabbed was pretty high, which was a first for the bet thus far and actually quite a novelty. With many a “humph” I made my way reluctantly to New Street Station and on to Lichfield, a short train journey away to the north-east. I would be back here later, be things would be no easier.

The stressful experience in Birmingham had put me off the city (and cities in general), so it was a relief to get out for a while and into some green countryside. The glorious sunshine showed no signs of fading as the tiny train sped away from the crowds and bustle.

Lichfield had a wonderfully calming air to it and strolling its ancient streets, ice cream in hand, was a true joy. The spiky, triple-spired cathedral and its peaceful, secluded close beckoned me eventually and, as at Wells, it was a jaw-dropping first meeting.

Thankfully it was a lot quieter than the outside of Birmingham Cathedral. No hoards of lunchtime sun-worshippers or gangs here! A few couples lounged on the grass nearby, but they were too busy eating each other’s faces to notice me. Yes, tongue-blockers were few and far between here, so I got down to work straight away.

The reddened sandstone was beautifully warm on the tongue, without any hint of saltiness or other foul taste to ruin the experience. In fact, I would have to say that the pleasing temperature and flavour of the cathedral’s stone puts it at no.1 on the taste league table.

Not only is Lichfield Cathedral quite tasty it is also an incredibly attractive building. The sheer detail of its exterior gave me a headache, so rich was it. Like at Wells, the West Front was filled with all sorts of carved treasures – noble kings, saintly saints and wild animals frolicking amongst copious foliage. Most of these sculptures are Victorian- replacements for earlier works which were (once again) blasted to pieces by Cromwell’s soldiers during the Civil War. Sadly this was becoming a familiar and heart-breaking story on this cathedral quest. The thought of such wanton vandalism to medieval beauty was enough to make the stomach churn.

During the Civil War Lichfield was besieged THREE times, with the cathedral and its close being fortified and bearing the brunt of the bombardment. In 1646 Parliamentarian cannon balls brought down the central spire, prompting Royalist capitulation and general ransacking and destruction by the victors. Although the 19th-century carvings certainly are easy on the eye it is painful to think of what had been lost, most notably ALL of the medieval stained glass. Seething with anti-Cromwellian rage I stepped through a low doorway.

Inside it was wonderfully cool. The brightness of the day also meant a few moments of almost total blindness as my eyes adjusted to the gloom within. At the very moment my sight was restored the eager face of an attendant suddenly appeared, making me yelp like a fool and almost floor her with a right hook. Thankfully I didn’t end up punching her, which is just as well because she really was a lovely lady (as are all of the cathedral attendants I’ve met on my travels). She pressed a guide into my hand, as well as a small envelope for donations.

“I do hope you will help us by making a small contribution” she said, smiling sweetly. I was planning to do this anyway, as the news had lately been full of stories about the crippling costs of keeping England’s cathedrals afloat. To show her that I really cared I immediately fished out my wallet and produced a few pound coins. Even before this action was complete the sound of a stifled sigh was enough to inform me that such stinginess would not be tolerated here. She had clearly spied the crisp £10 note nestling seductively in the wallet’s main pocket. Fearing some unknown, terrible punishment I fished that out too and slipped it into the envelope along with the pound coins.

“You are very kind, young man, very kind”, she beamed, having to almost tear the now bulging envelope from my reluctant grip. As she disappeared once more into the shadows there was a distinct woop of joy that echoed off the vaulted ceiling. If Lichfield Cathedral is still open to the public this time next year then there had better be some sort of bloody great Lawrence Edmonds memorial window, or a chapel named after me for my act of foolish generosity.

With my wallet and willpower now considerably lightened the cathedral was before me to explore, and also to lick once more. I reckoned that my money should buy a few extra licks of the building and the hunt for other possible locations began. The hunt proved successful and another decent spot presented itself by the door to the chapter house.

Happy with this second lick it was now possible to relax and enjoy the building other than for its agreeable flavour. The 8th-century Lichfield Gospels (an illuminated manuscript of great beauty and historical significance) was just one of the highlights, as was the stunning marble sculpture entitled The Sleeping Children, depicting two sisters resting in each other’s arms. Its technical brilliance is tempered by the tragic tale of these young girls and their early deaths one year apart, the eldest in a fire and the youngest from a terrible sickness. Their grieving mother (who had also lost her husband not long before) told the sculptor how she had often watched her daughters fall asleep in each other’s arms and that this is how she wanted them to be represented. Suddenly the destruction of the cathedral seemed hugely insignificant.

Before leaving I stumbled across some wonderfully informative information panels outlining the history of Anglicanism and just what exactly makes a cathedral and cathedral. Much of this was already known to me yet it was still vital to note it down. I was preparing myself for a war of words with Adam, who I was convinced would raid Wikipedia for some sort of Anglican technicality aimed at unravelling all of my hard work come June. Thankfully all of my research leaves him without a leg to stand on, which will make his naked-dash forfeit even more challenging.

The panels were also notable for a picture of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who that very week and announced his retirement as top man in the Anglican Church. Rumours were already circulating that John Sentamu, Archbishop of York and general hero, was the main candidate for the job. I must say that I do hope that he gets it, although he has already laughed off such suggestions and declared his happiness in the role of Anglican leader of the North. We all know though that the real reason he wants to stay is because he would miss going to watch York City every week.

The renewed good mood that Lichfield had created within me soon evaporated upon reaching the station. Delayed trains back to Birmingham cost me another hour and threw my plans for having another go at licking the cathedral there into total disarray. To make things worse, the train staff seemed to be on a personal mission to ruin my day with their vague and lethargic responses to my desperate enquiries.

“Don’t you realise that I’ve got a cathedral to lick, you utter bastards!” I longed to cry, but kept silent. It would be even harder to complete the job from inside a prison cell. Somehow I would have to run back to the scene of my earlier licking failure and then on to the bus station to catch my ride back to London, all within just half an hour. While the train dragged itself sluggishly back to New Street Station I, in my bottled-up fury, pictured the mass execution of the entire London Midland Trains workforce for their gross incompetence.

I arrived back in Birmingham with only minutes to spare. I longed for a lightsaber to carve a route through the slow-moving, rush hour crowds but had to rely instead on good old brute force. After a few wrong turns the cathedral appeared once more, which was alarmingly still surrounded by the sun-worshipping masses. Now there was no choice but to lick the thing and run, risking a possible lynching by the hoodlums, who were still in residence by the main door.

Now with only 3 minutes before my bus’s departure, I found myself sprinting up to the cathedral’s walls whilst trying to tease out my iPod from a pocket and turn on the video camera. There was no time for a carefully constructed photo here, just the bare essentials in all their brutality would have to do. Nearing the sign I had spotted earlier I pressed the record button…

The scary young men (sadly not captured on screen) were too dumfounded to react and watched on in stunned silence at the sight of me licking the wall and sprinting off. I imagined a Trainspotting style
chase scene through the streets but thankfully was left well alone.

It was only whilst running that the realisation I had not even stepped inside the cathedral hit me, and this was followed by a crushing sense of failure. This was not totally justified, seeing as the lick job had been completed after all and well within the terms of the bet. Somehow though, on a personal level, the whole thing felt incomplete. Believe it or not, this bet is not just about the licking.

I reached the bus station just in time to see my coach (the last of the day) leaving and a long, painful night in Birmingham ensued. This bet was getting me into all sorts of scrapes and uncomfortable situations, which I suppose one might say are character-building, though during those miserable hours other words seemed more appropriate to describe them. Shivering on a street bench (the sun had now disappeared) my thoughts jumped forward to Adam’s upcoming wedding in the Autumn and the Stag Do currently being organised. Images of him being handcuffed naked to the door of Birmingham Cathedral warmed my heart.


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