An opportunistic cathedral-lick

Opportunism has been a welcome ally during this bet. The unexpected stop-off in Rochester was just such an example (despite the subsequent humiliation) and one that had not been repeated until a journey north presented a potential treasure trove of licking possibilities.

Making the most of my last ever Young Person’s Railcard journey I had planned to screw the rail companies over one last time by making a slight detour on the way back to York. East Midlands Trains were offering a surprisingly generous £16 single ticket to Sheffield, from where the plan was to sneak back over the North Yorkshire border at the minimal possible cost. What made this even better was the fact that the train passed through an as yet un-licked cathedral city in Leicester.

The glorious double strike of Chichester and Portsmouth had convinced me that breaking a journey was a simple enough business with no extra cost involved, so a simple stop-off in Leicester along the way would be frankly foolish not to make the most of. However, my buoyant mood was soon well and truly destroyed by the train guard (clearly a Nazi on community service) who informed me in no uncertain terms that any such plans would result in imprisonment, torture and a swift death, and at the very worst an additional £30 penalty fare.

So, with Leicester station reached and the city’s cathedral spire disappearing into the distance my mind was ablaze with despair and anger at myself for not taking a chance. All of this changed however when the next destination was announced, and it was music to my ears: Derby. This was also on the list and this stroke of unexpected good fortune was far too good to let slip. “To Hell with the consequences” I thought “you’re an adult now.” This logic may not make much sense, but at the time it fired my belly with such zeal that I positively leaped onto the platform at Derby station.

The lengthy trek into the city centre soon diminished this new-found passion and doubts began to arise. Was there actually an Anglican cathedral in Derby? Enquiries made to passersby left me none the wiser, with a whole array of baffling and unhelpful answers. Most had no idea, others directed me to a mosque and one guy actually ran away when asked. Such lack of cathedral love was upsetting, until one wonderful man showed me the way, it being on his route to work.

“Oh, it’s a special place alright. Tiny, but special.”

He led me to the main door and at this point I had expected a handshake and farewell. Instead he lingered and made small talk, which was all very nice but did he not know that I had a cathedral to lick? The fact that he chose to lean against the excellent DERBY CATHEDRAL sign was even more galling and I soon began praying for a chloroform-soaked flannel to help deal with him.

In the end he must have sensed my impatience and off he went, leaving me alone to capture this corker of a photo –

Extremely pleased with my work I ventured inside, into England’s smallest Anglican cathedral. A 16th-century tower is all that remains of the older, Gothic church, with the rest having been torn down in 1723. So ruinous had the building become that the vicar and a team of eager locals tore it to ground in the space of one very destructive night. On top of the ruins a new, Classical Renaissance style church sprang up and formed the cathedral seen today. Although not really my cup of tea in terms of architecture (not old or crumbly enough) the interior is modestly beautiful and full of hidden surprises.

The crypt was a little haven- cosy and with comfortable seats to sit and relax on. It was so cosy and welcoming in fact that I nodded off for a few moments and awoke with a loud snort. Down here the original, Saxon church would have once stood, but all traces of this have long since vanished.

Somewhere close by are the remains of two famous and formidable historical figures: the Elizabethan noblewoman Bess of Hardwick, and her likewise aristocratic descendant, Georgiana Spencer, Duchess of Devonshire. Prince Diana was a direct descendent of both women, who lead equally turbulent lives. Hard times aside, Georgiana’s happiest days were spent only a few hundred yards from where I am writing these words, in the gardens of “sweet Chiz”- Chiswick House. Such unexpected discoveries are starting to make this cathedral journey ever more enjoyable.

Up on ground level the history lesson continues, as it was here that the cathedral welcomed perhaps its most famous worshipper in the Winter of 1745: “The Young Pretender”, Bonnie Prince Charlie. It was at Derby of course that his invading Jacobite army halted, and possibly within these very walls that the fateful decision not to march on to London was made. The cathedral would have been the obvious place for the Prince and his advisors to have met, away from the December chill and the sufferings of the ordinary soldiers. Gazing along the nave towards the elaborate altar, it was tempting to picture the scene – a young, headstrong prince on a quest to claim the throne of England, being put in his place by his cautious and fearful councillors. They urged a return to Scotland, to avoid bloody defeat and ruin at the hands of an approaching army, a plea to which their leader reluctantly agreed. Outside stood a statue of the unfortunate Charlie himself, wearing an expression of  sad submission.

By now the pews had begun to fill up with morning worshippers, most Eastern Europeans speaking in hushed, respectful tones. All offered me a friendly nodded greeting and a smile. This influx and a few sleepy notes from the organ served a reminder that this was not only a place of history, but one of religion. Watching people at prayer made a pang of guilt run through me and suddenly I was praying myself, praying that none of these good people had seen me lick a building they obviously cherished so much. Had they done so and been offended I would have fully understood. This is something that has often crossed my mind on this quest and I have always tried to treat each cathedral with the respect it deserves. Damn that blasted Adam for stipulating the need for licking in the bet criteria! Why not hugging or a simple kiss of the stone instead? Well, I am in too deep now, I thought to myself. Any consequences (including stone-borne diseases or burning at the stake) would have to be endured.

Just as the service was due to start I decided to make my way out, but at the door an attendant stopped me and asked if I would care to join them. At first I was reluctant but the opening notes of a hymn were already humming through the air. Deciding to put my atheism aside for an hour or so I agreed, found a hymn sheet and sang my heart out.


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