Thank goodness for David Sleep. Where would I be without him? Contemplating a nude dash around York Minster and reaching for a shotgun, probably. Once again my good friend aided my cause by offering a lift for third and final day of triple licks.
Another early start was made a thousand times more enjoyable by the simple joy of companionship. Cathedral-licks of late had been lonely affairs, ones of sneaking about in dark corners and crippling paranoia at the prospect of being caught. Travelling with a companion is far preferable in any case, mainly for being able to share glorious discoveries together, ones which can be wheeled out on nostalgia trips for years to come. That is not to say that the solo cathedral trips have not been enjoyable (except the Birmingham debacle, perhaps), just that shared experiences live longer in the memory. Having a cameraman/lookout to help in my dirty work is also added bonus, of course.
So, three more cathedrals and three new cities to visit. What did I know about Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester? Not a lot, apart from the fact that I would soon become well acquainted with landmarks in each of them.
We reached Gloucester in good time and both yelped with joy at the sight of the cathedral’s great tower. Parking up we hurried towards it eagerly. David had been here before and spoke with excitement of the treasures to be found within. I already knew of its famous cloister thanks to fanatical Harry Potter fans, who grew visibly moist at the memory of the scenes from the movies filmed here. A medieval monarch’s tomb also lay somewhere inside, plus a whole host of other treats to satisfy our cathedral lust. First though to the lick.
The time not yet being quite 9 a.m. the cathedral was all but deserted. This boded well for an undisturbed tongue-job on the place. The addition of excellent signage by the main entrance likewise made my heart leap with joy and my tongue sought out the stone like a limpet does a rock. Being the veteran he is David already had his camera out and captured the scene. Strangely I cannot find the photo of this first lick anywhere. Thank goodness then that Gloucester Cathedral is so damn gorgeous. My tongue wasn’t finished with it yet.
Inside it was dark and cavernous. Vergers floated here and there but otherwise we had the place to ourselves. Fat Norman columns and grotesque, grinning carvings struck fear into us and brought to mind the sound of chanting and drums beating ominously, though this was drowned out by the hum of someone hoovering in some unseen, murky corner. This ruined the atmosphere somewhat, but this was soon regained when a nerve-shredding chord suddenly burst from the organ. With trepidation we stepped along the nave.
We sought out the cloister first of all, as this was not only one of the highlights but also a superb spot to have another lick. Before any such business could take place however, it was necessary to spend a few minutes picking my jaw up from the floor. I had seen van-vaulting before, but not quite like this. The light was almost ethereal and people seemed to disappear into it before your very eyes. The stonework above our heads was complex and beautiful, the earliest of its kind anywhere in the World. Partly out of admiration for this gem of place, partly out of the desire for a unique photo I begged David to take another licking photo.
The treasures my friend had spoken of were being revealed one by one, leaving me in a punch drunk state as they revealed themselves. The monks’ lavitorium was just such gem, which seemed strange given its original purpose. Will people revel in our bathroom sinks 800 years from now? Will a toilet seat take pride of place in the British Museum? Yesterday’s rubbish is today’s treasure. Moving on, a doorway showed the way out to the peaceful gardens of the cloister, where we stood and sighed as doves cooed soothingly all around.
Back in the main body of the cathedral, David beckoned me over to the tomb of the unfortunate Edward II. Not exactly our greatest king, Edward excelled in pissing off just about everyone in the land thanks to his inept rule. Favour shown to a succession of odious hangers-on did little to help his cause either and supposedly he met his end upon the tip of a red-hot poker at nearby Berkley Castle, although recent research suggests that he may have lived out the rest of his days in miserable exile in Italy. Whatever happened, his son (Edward III) provided for a lavish funeral and alabaster tomb that still stands here today in his memory. It is exquisite in its detail and covered in graffiti, scratched by local schoolboys over the centuries. Given his reputation as a tyrant, the king’s saintly appearance here is somewhat ironic. The fact this place became a site of pilgrimage during the 14th-century is another great irony, but one that Gloucester’s Benedictine monks certainly did not discourage. Money and prestige flowed into their otherwise sombre cathedral, thus creating the means to give it the mother of all makeovers.
The tomb of a king and a cloister to die for were already making me feel giddy, yet even more treasures were waiting to be discovered. Jousting knights adorned the impressive collection of misericords, a heavenly orchestra of gilded angels shone bright above the high altar and “The Palace of Glass” (a beautiful stained glass window depicting an army of saints) almost brought tears to the eyes. We had also heard tell of two sporting figures somewhere within the building: one of a golfer and the other a footballer, both medieval and some of the earliest depictions of those sports in the World. The footballer intrigued me especially, but my eager enquiries were met with confused expressions by the vergers. They knew of no such image and so my hopes were dashed. Mischievous thoughts had flashed through my mind of adorning the little man in the colours of York City.
We were in serious danger of overdosing on Gloucester Cathedral, and with still another two cathedrals to get to we reluctantly made for the exit. Before continuing our journey however, David suggested one more photo. I got into position and made contact next to an excellent sign in the cloister, but was soon given some wise words by my friend:
“Lawrence, it would be nice if you smiled in one of these photos for a change.”
How right he was.
We delved into Herefordshire just after noon. Here the roads ran through dark forests and over rolling hills, churning the stomach with every steep climb and rapid descent. Atop one such hill stood the ruins of Goodrich Castle, where we stopped for lunch and had a thorough explore. Its commanding position served as a reminder that this is border territory. The dark hills of Wales were clearly visible in the distance, from whence raiders once issued centuries ago.
Time had gathered apace by the time we strolled up to Hereford Cathedral. No time was to be lost and we got down to the lick straight away. Our good fortune with excellent signage continued in the front porch and merrily I licked a column. With the pressure off we were free to explore.
As with Gloucester, the organ here was striking fear into all that entered. Bone-shaking chords reverberated off the 12th-century walls and seemed to be offering a warning. On numerous occasions on this journey I have feared the wrathful hand of God striking me down, with dramatic organ music providing a suitably terrifying accompaniment. This was just such an occasion and my eyes closed in preparation for the ground beneath me to open up. Thankfully the flagstones remained intact and no lava spewed forth, showing (I’d like think) divine favour and approval of the quest.
Here too were mighty Norman columns and arches in the nave, all decorated with elaborate carvings that would have once have glowed with vibrant colours. As with almost all of England’s Anglican cathedrals, a more modest Saxon church would have once stood somewhere on the site, but is now buried and conquered by this Norman monster. All traces of the original 7th-century building, burial place of its patron saint, Aethelbert, were obliterated by the invaders and fully replaced by a church more to their liking in 1145.
Statues and paintings of the murdered saint were to be found at every turn, as were a series of memorials to other great men of Herefordshire. One such gentleman is Sir Richard Delabere, who on his death in 1514 had fathered a brood of 21 children with two wives. Such enthusiastic production of offspring is commendable, and fathering less than his impressive quota would be enough to kill any man or woman. Sir Richard and his vast family are depicted on a worn stone slab, his wives knelt in prayer (presumably imploring God for the invention of the vasectomy). Another local hero, one Andrew Jones (died 1497), is buried in the crypt. He was a celebrated benefactor of the cathedral and champion brewer of cider to boot. Little gems like these abound in cathedrals. It is only a matter of making the effort to find them.
The greatest treasure of Hereford Cathedral is undoubtedly the Mappa Mundi, now displayed just off the cloister in a cunningly concealed and pricey museum. This early 14th-century vellum map (the largest of its kind in the World) is a window into the medieval mind, depicting not only continents, seas and rivers, but also Bible stories, scenes from Greek legend and an array of weird and wonderful creatures and people. Bizarre monsters inhabit the plains of Africa and Asia, such as Blemmyes – headless creatures with mouth and eyes in their chests (sometimes still seen in Scarborough), and Mandrakes – aphrodisiac plants in human form. Quite how the latter functioned is a mystery, but such queries spoil the magic of the map. Attempting to make sense of it is a hopeless task. Jerusalem sits at the World’s centre, the Red Sea is actually a vivid red and Britain is an insignificant strip of land being pushed off the edge by the monstrous continents. It is a wonderful mixture of the known and unknown, beautifully drawn and painted by its imaginative artist. It is possible to gaze at it for hours on end and lose yourself within its baffling brilliance. How wonderful it would be, I thought, to live in a World full of such mystery. Why can we not still believe in sea monsters, giants and mermaids? Reason and science is all very well, but four-eyed Ethiopians are much more fun.
Looking at my watch my heart gave a jolt. It was almost 4 pm and we still had to get to Worcester. Leaving the Mappa Mundi sadly un-licked we hurried back to the car.
As we neared Worcester it soon became inevitable that we would not reach the cathedral in time to get inside, and so it proved. The huge doors at the entrance were firmly locked and we cursed silently. We knew already that reaching three cathedrals within one day was a tall order, as the experience in Peterborough back in January had proved. Unlike Peterborough however, we could not even get a glimpse of the nave and be politely thrown out by the staff. I desperately wanted to see the tomb of yet another monarch, that of Bad King John, and also that of a young man who should have been king – Prince Arthur, elder brother of Henry VIII. Had he not died England may well have remained a Catholic country and Anglicanism would never have been born. Who knows how many more or less cathedrals I would have had to lick in that case, but it was a true delight to lick Worcester.
Thankfully the cloister remained open and we paced its aisles in search of some sort of sign proclaiming the name of the cathedral. During our explorations a couple of jolly vergers appeared and confirmed the dreadful news that building was closed for the day, and not even worshippers were allowed in. This seemed mightily odd for a cathedral and one can only presume the bishop and his mates were having a poker night in the crypt or something. The vergers were happy for us to pace the cloister to our hearts’ content though, which we continued to do until a sign was found.
I must say that the stonework was not particularly pleasing to the taste buds, being exceedingly gritty and salty. It was no Wakefield however, the memory of which still has me reaching for a bucket every time. Still, the task for the day was complete and David offered me a congratulatory handshake. It would of course been splendid to have seen the cathedral properly, we both agreed, but we would return one day and enjoy it together. With sadness David and I realised that this could well have been our last licking adventure. Hopefully this is not the case and we will go even cover more miles, pace more cloisters and moisten more stone. In any case, I am ever grateful for his kindness, enthusiasm and friendship.
Sorry Worcester Cathedral, we will be back and you can rest assured that I won’t try and lick you again. That task is now complete and another nail had been well and truly hammered into Adam’s coffin.