I had promised myself to never set foot in Victoria Coach Station again, yet here I was once more. Sadly the buses from this dreadful place have been the cheapest and most convenient means of getting to many of the cathedrals on my list, so it has been necessary to endure it far more than is healthy. Being there at 7 a.m. does little to lift the spirits either, the same time the drunks and other local personalities hold their morning briefing. Perhaps they had merely got stuck here while waiting for a bus sometime in the 1970s and the evil of the place had driven them to drink, poor souls. Thankfully my Megabus ride arrived promptly and was largely empty, meaning a chance to reclaim some hours of lost sleep. By the time my eyes opened again I was far away from that ghastly place, at least until the next journey.
Dad met me in Leicester, fresh from a good night’s rest in a nearby hotel and ready for a big day of cathedral-licking. We found a greasy spoon cafe and fuelled up with a full English Breakfast. I always go for this option when a big day of activity is ahead, though quite how it would aid in the licking of three cathedrals was a mystery, but it seemed to make sense.
Leicester is an ancient city (almost 2000 years old) but you wouldn’t know it. Surviving remnants of its Roman and Medieval history are few and far between: knocked down or smothered by the concrete of the modern world as if they were never there. This had once been the site of a Roman town and later part of the “Five Boroughs”, which along with Derby, Stamford, Lincoln and Nottingham formed an alliance of powerful towns under Viking control in the 9th-century.
The cathedral is really a large parish church and only gained its elevated status in 1927, much like its Midland cousins at Birmingham and Derby. Victorian architecture forms a shell around more ancient foundations and its 220 foot spire is its greatest glory. It was the ramshackle collection of ageing, mossy gravestones in the churchyard that warmed my heart however, in a slightly macabre way. These had clearly been removed from their original locations and arranged in a more pleasing manner at some point. In places some had been arranged in domino fashion, as if to tempt an idle passer-by into give them a gentle nudge.
A kindly old man in a cardigan greeted us inside and showed genuine surprise at our arrival.
“You’ve come to see the cathedral, have you?”
The tone of his question was as if we had come to see some sort of freak show. This was unnerving, but also a little exciting. He gestured that we should follow him (towards the Spider Baby, hopefully ) and he led us to the nave. Here he gave us a brief history of the building but was almost apologetic for the cathedral’s modest nature. The news that we were from York increased his sense of embarrassment further.
“Well, this is rather pathetic compared to your Minster” he sighed “sorry about that, ho hum.”
He obviously thought we were cathedral snobs, come here to sneer at the place. You got the impression that had we been on such a mission he would be the first to hand us rocks and burning torches, which was awfully sad. We tried to explain that we saw beauty in the smaller, un-celebrated cathedrals such as this, but he remained unmoved.
“There is one thing that we have that you do not!” he suddenly piped up, a smug grin taking form on his lips.
“A memorial to king of England! Did you know that?”
He did not wait for an answer and beckoned us over to a plaque in the stone floor. The inscription read:
KING OF ENGLAND
KILLED AT BOSWORTH FIELD
IN THIS COUNTY
22ND AUGUST 1485
Buried in the
Church of the Grey Friars
In this Parish
I was positively giddy with glee at the sight of this. Now, I have a lot of time for the Richard III, despite the fact he may have murdered his two young nephews, and committed plenty of other skulduggery in his time. “Rick the Dick” is much maligned but almost certainly the victim of Tudor propaganda following his death. My admiration for the man stems from his connections with York, my hometown, where he was much beloved by the citizens. Indeed, there is even a museum dedicated to him inside Monk Bar, one of the old gateways to the city. It is well worth a visit, both for the exhibition and for its collection of frightening mannequins.
Richard was the last of the Plantagenet kings, before another powerful family came to power. Now, if anyone reading this is getting all dewy-eyed about the dynasty in question, let me remind you that watching The Tudors box set does not pass for historical research. In short, the Tudors were usurping scoundrels, or more accurately, Henry Tudor was. His claim to the throne was flimsy to say the least, yet he took the crown from our dear Richard not far from this spot at Bosworth, and in doing so effectively brought an end to the Middle Ages.
“Of course, he’s not actually under our feet sadly” the old man sighed, as if proximity to a corpse was something to get excited about. “He was buried at another church in the city, then dug up and chucked in the river, poor man.”
Even though it’s quite likely that Richard didn’t mind this too much (what with being dead and all) I was beginning to despise the Tudors even more. Memories of dressing up as one (involving flamboyant velvet knickerbockers and an outrageous ruff) for a school assembly aged 8 made me feel sick. Had Henry VIII walked by just then I’m certain I would have shot the bastard.
It would have been great to have had longer to explore Leicester Cathedral, but there were two more to reach that day and time was already passing fast. We thanked the elderly gentleman and made our way out, almost forgetting the reason we had come: the lick. A suitable spot was chosen by the main entrance and soon the job was done to a very satisfactory level. Sorry Leicester, I do plan to return one day soon to have a proper look around your wonderful (and quite tasty) cathedral.
Southwell is a gorgeous town. Embarrassingly, until this bet began I had never even heard of it. At first I genuinely believed that Adam had invented a fictitious cathedral in order to send me on a fruitless journey (he would do that, the bastard), but no, a quick look at the map revealed just such a place does exist, in the rolling countryside of Nottinghamshire. Its size is reminiscent of Wells and shares the same atmosphere or jolly Englishness in its old, winding streets and charming timber-framed and Georgian houses.
Southwell’s Minster is the best surviving example of a Norman cathedral in England and is an absolute triumph. It is commonly known as “village cathedral” and basks in the glory of being perhaps the best-kept secret in the land. It can also boast to be the mother-church of its larger neighbours – Nottingham and Derby. Expensively built from around 1108 but frequently neglected by its leading holy men, it has survived almost completely in its original form, with the occasional tweak here and there over the centuries. In its heyday it served as a proxy church to York Minster and is still within its jurisdiction to this day. The ruins of the Archbishop of York’s old palace are close by, where a centre of theological learning was once found, thus giving the place the elevated “minster” title.
We parked the car and did a circuit of the cathedral before entering. The west front, with its twin Romanesque “pepperpot” towers was particularly striking, as were the multitude of grotesque carvings and gargoyles. I am a huge fan of such carvings, mainly for their often brazen and unnerving quality. My dad had to almost drag me inside, so enamoured was I the exterior of the place. It was going to be a true honour to lick it.
Once inside, it was not long before a problem presented itself. From within came the sound of merry voices in full song, accompanied by a jolly accordion and guitar. A quick look revealed that a lunchtime concert was in full swing, watched on by a huge congregation of locals nodding along happily to the music.
“Best to get a photo done now” my dad advised “who knows if we’ll get a chance again?”
How right he was. The potential to get caught licking was far greater with such a multitude in the vicinity, so it was wise to get the job done while they were still distracted. I got into position by a huge sign and licked away, and it was delicious. Perhaps it was the gorgeous Chevron carvings nearby that had got me all excited, but the stone was actually quite agreeable to the palate. Thank goodness my dad spotted this sign when we did; things would not be so easy later.
We stepped inside gingerly and found a seat amongst the happy throng. A group of primary school children were dancing around a Maypole in the nave and yelping out praise for God, Jesus and various farm animals. A bespectacled man in a loud woolly jumper massaged an accordion and sang along with the youngsters, who were now belting out a chorus of “I want to be near you, you’re the one, the one for me!”
It was toe-tapping stuff, all right. The audience clapped and sang along and I began to think how wonderful it was to see a place of worship so alive, not echoing with distant footsteps and stifled whispers. Soon my dad and I were swept up with it all as well, and began clapping and whooping with the rest of them. It was splendid stuff.
Before a full-blown moshpit could break out dad once more advised me to get exploring. He was happy where he was in a comfy seat watching the performance. So, to the sound of children’s happy song I stepped softly around this hidden gem of a cathedral. I stopped briefly to take photos of the kids prancing about, but was soon given a stern glare by an elderly couple, no doubt grandparents to one of the jigging youngsters. This seemed a trifle unfair, seeing as many other people were doing the same thing, until it dawned on me that I was hidden behind some sort of fake shrubbery backdrop. Point taken.
Retreating into the South Transept I stumbled (literally) upon part of Southwell’s ancient past in the form of Roman paving, in a spot charmingly named the Bread Pews. A villa or possibly a temple once stood on this site, before the Saxons built their first church here at some point in the early 7th-century. When the Normans came onto the scene they saw fit to knock this down (they seemed to enjoy doing that) and rebuild in far grander scale. And good on them; if the result of their destruction is a building as beautiful as this then who can argue?
The interior is just as mouth-watering as the exterior and is a feast for the eyes: imposing Romanesque arches, yet more carved grotesque heads and a collection of weird and wonderful misericords are enough to make the knees grow weak. It is impossible not to gawp at it all in dumb fashion. Some might say that places like this put you under a spell, a description I find rather sickly. Rather, it puts you into more of a zombie-like trance: shuffling about with mouth wide open, crashing into pews and pulpits while emitting a low groan at the sight of each new glory.
The cathedral’s greatest treasures lie within the 13th-century Chapter House: the famous Leaves of Southwell. These intricate carvings offer a view into a world long-gone, one in which nature held a stronger sway on everyday life. In between stone leaves of oak, maple and countless other trees, dogs chase rabbits and snuffling pigs hunt out acorns in the earth, depicting scenes that would have been familiar to the men who created and used this space centuries ago. Indeed, the faces of these very people may well the ones carved here, which is a poignant thought. Green Men also make their inevitable if mysterious appearance, vomiting forth foliage from their grinning mouths and generally unsettling the onlooker, as they do in churches all over the country. I ran my fingers carefully over their smooth, leafy faces and expected at any moment for one of them to take a bite of my finger. The stonework was almost alive.
Feeling a little cathedral-drunk with all the beauty on show I staggered back to where my dad was sitting. The concert was still in full swing and now a small choir was energetically imitating the sound of a rainstorm. The audience sat in quiet awe: some with heads tilted in fascination, others with their eyes shut tight to block out everything but the bewitching music. It was wonderfully soothing, that was until some swine with cymbals saw fit to add thunder to the performance right next to my head.
This was the climax to an otherwise highly enjoyable concert, and with my head still ringing the audience began filing out of the main entrance. I still wanted to get another photo of me licking the same spot as earlier, merely for safety’s sake. The thought of losing all important evidence is a hellish one, particularly because it would involve spending more time in Victoria Bus Station making return journeys to far-off cities. It is wise, therefore, to get at least two photographs done to guard against such disasters.
So, following a brief chat with a friendly verger we returned to the spot of the earlier lick. Thankfully the building and grounds were now all but empty – or so we thought. I positioned myself in the previously chosen location and made good contact with the stone, while dad played photographer once more.
Just as we were celebrating yet another cathedral triumph, something moved from in the corner of my eye. With tongue still pressed against the wall I turned my head to face the sight of a red-faced verger behind a glass door. He looked at me; I looked at him. He mouthed something that left me in no doubt that he was not a supporter of my venture. I tried to fashion a reassuring smile, one I hoped would transmit to him the terrible burden that had been placed on my shoulders, that this was something than needed to be done to prevent an unthinkable punishment. From the reflection in the glass door, however, it was evident that my attempt at a friendly smile had failed dramatically. What was meant to be reassuring gesture was in fact a ghastly grimace, not unlike the grotesque heads adorning the minster itself. It would have probably been wise to remove my tongue at some point during this curious episode because this only made things worse. At this point it seemed best to leave immediately, as the verger was already waving his arms about frantically for backup from his colleagues. Not waiting to reason with them, we fled the scene and found safety in a nearby pub.
For the first time on this journey I felt genuine guilt. What the hell was I doing? I had been observed before of course (at Rochester and Chichester) but on those occasions my actions had only provoked mild confusion from onlookers. I guess it was inevitable that someone would rise in anger eventually and I thought I would be prepared for it, but this really stung. Southwell Minster was lovely and so were its staff. Somehow it felt like I had betrayed them all. There was the added feeling of self-mortification: I was 26-years-old and I was travelling the country licking cathedrals; licking cathedrals! This was no way for a supposedly grown man to act.
I shared my thoughts with my dad who gave (as ever) sterling words of encouragement:
“So what if you licked the cathedral? There are a lot of worse things you could have done to it.”
There was no argument there.
“What about Henry VIII then?” he continued “He ripped the heart out of places like that!”
“Yeah!” I piped up, suddenly encouraged. “And Oliver Cromwell did a fair bit of church-smashing in his time. Licking a building, if anything, shows ones appreciation for it!”
“Precisely. And if that bloke had caught us then what would really have happened? He was never going to call the Police was he?”
At that very moment two policemen stepped into the bar. We both choked on our Guinness while they gave the room a friendly nod. They spoke in low voices to the barman and we expected their gaze to fall upon us at any moment. My heart raced. There was a rusty blunderbuss on the wall, along with similarly ancient but deadly farm implements should we need them to make a dramatic escape. Oh god, had it really come to this- thinking about how I would use a scythe against a pair of police officers? Things had got out of control.
Luckily the officers were in good spirits and had obviously just dropped in for a chat with the landlord. We sat in silence, not daring to move in case a fragment of incriminating Southwell Minster stone should fall from my lips and into my drink with a plop! They took an age to leave, and offered us another friendly nod on their departure. Downing the rest of our drinks we hit the road to Lincoln, not daring to look back in case the whole population of Southwell was in hot pursuit, with pitchforks and blunderbusses in hand.