Adam was getting worried, very worried. The list of cathedrals stuck on our fridge door made him groan every time he went to retrieve some milk, as it seemed that each time he looked another one had been crossed off. The collection of cathedral fridge magnets did little to ease his nerves either, and these too only seemed to grow in number as the weeks went by.
Still, he was showing great interest in my progress, which struck me as a little odd considering it was all contributing to his eventual doom. This confidence of his was a little disconcerting, as if he had some ace up his sleeve that would only be revealed at the very last minute. He had long joked about secretly championing the cause of some obscure, isolated church and convincing the Anglican authorities to promote it to full cathedral status, just in time for the very last day of the bet. I did not relish the prospect of making a mad dash to the Orkney Islands or Anglesey, like a cathedral-licking Phileas Fogg.
There was one as yet un-licked cathedral that had us both on edge: Exeter. Although Adam and I are flatmates in London he spends his weekends in the aforementioned Devonshire city, where he shares a flat with his fiancée, Charlotte. Naturally the subject of my trip there was a common topic of conversation, not least because it would be my first visit after repeated invitations over the years. I felt terrible that I hadn’t been to see them there in all that time, but now there was a genuine (and pretty unusual) excuse for going. In addition, as part of the revised terms we had recently negotiated, Adam had agreed to give up a weekend to drive me wherever I wished to go on a cathedral-licking foray. Despite his concerns that I would actually win this bet and force him into naked shame, it was obvious that he wanted to join me for at least one of the licking trips to see what all the fuss was about. That, or drive me off a cliff.
We envisaged a blissful weekend of pootling around the South-West, stopping in cosy country pubs and indulging in other such manly pursuits. I had originally toyed with the idea of forcing him to convey me to another un-licked location – Carlisle Cathedral- partly because I was desperate to get it done, also just to piss him off. I had once banned him from using the letter E for a whole day for just such a purpose, and it had been splendid fun. I’m sure he would enjoy our northern jaunt even more.
In the end none of it came to pass, and not just because I had no idea where to get a gun from. Dates were suggested, routes were planned and even pubs were earmarked, but due to our own busy lives we couldn’t quite fit it in. This was an awful shame of course. The idea of having my nemesis accompany me on a cathedral-lick was thrilling to say the least, mainly because we each expected some form of sculduggery off the other. Given the fact that Adam and I have both nearly killed each other in the past the chance of this was highly likely, and I would expect nothing less from him.
All was not lost however: Charlotte was in town for my visit, and as Adam’s accomplice I could fully expect some kind of devious act to prevent me from getting the job done. In fact, as soon as she met me off the bus her intentions were very clear:
“Pub?” was all she said, and so it was.
We headed to a cosy establishment nearby, where we were joined by Tobias, an extremely likable Dutchman and friend of Charlotte’s. He had no doubt been recruited to help dispose of my body, but his first act was to buy me a drink, which was jolly nice of him given the circumstances.
As the evening progressed and the drinks flowed, it dawned on me that this was exactly how I had got myself into this mess in the first place. I made a mental note to go easy on the ciders therefore, but no sooner had this thought crossed my mind than another drink was placed before me. It began to feel like I was to be press-ganged, and that the next morning I would be waking up on board a creaking man-of-war bound for the East Indies, surrounded by grinning salty dogs and with a very sore bottom.
The cider we were guzzling was fiercely strong and the room soon began to spin. Thankfully its effects had done far more damage to Charlotte, whose tongue was loosened by the local brew:
“Adam gave me strict orders to get you too wasted to go cathedral-licking tomorrow! I think I’ve failed” she said mournfully, staring into her empty glass. Tobias had been given the same instructions but was still relatively sober, enough to do me in down some dark alleyway at any rate, so he assured me. Apparently Adam had become some sort of mob boss during his weekends in Devon, or do it seemed at that moment. He had employed his cohorts to befuddle me with drink and leave me bruised and bleeding on the streets of Exeter, the monster!
As we walked back to the flat through dark streets and a torrential downpour, Charlotte and Tobias made one last attempt to thwart me.
“Well, we should at least show you where the cathedral is, now that we’ve failed to kill you” sighed Charlotte. Tobias nodded in sad agreement and led the way. Their dejected faces suggested that Adam was to have them shot at dawn for their failure.
We stopped outside a queer-looking construction that was clearly not the cathedral. It was a Christian building alright – it had all the pointy bits and other appropriate anatomy- but the fact that it was painted bright pink was an indication that my friends’ story was, quite bluntly, total bollocks. This I told them in a roundabout sort of way, adding that if Exeter Cathedral was painted pink then why was it not the World’s most famous house of God? This they couldn’t answer and off we went again, staggering through the dark streets soaked to the bone.
I awoke the next morning in a daze. The rain was still lashing down and the prospect of going outside to lick two cathedrals was far from appealing (I had forgotten all about Truro). But such defeatist thoughts would have warmed Adam’s heart so up I got. My head and legs seemed to be full of cement, and gravity did its cruel work by dragging them onto every sharp edge in the living room. Bruised and wild-eyed I bade my hostess farewell. She was even worse off than me and in a great deal of discomfort. Poor Charlotte, she had well and truly taken the cider-bullet for her soon-to-be husband, and all in vain. With a smirk of triumph I hit the streets.
Exeter is pleasant little city, much like York with its ancient heritage and attractive buildings. I soon stumbled across an imposing section of Roman wall and the remains of a Norman castle, both of which I thought very fine, in a tumbled down sort of way. The city has taken its fair share of batterings over the years, with Vikings, Normans, Royalists and even the Prayer Book Rebels throwing themselves against its walls. Luftwaffe bombs proved more effective than prayer books during the Second World War when a whole host of historic buildings were destroyed in the city centre. Incredibly, little effort was made to preserve these treasures and in came the wrecking balls in the 1950s, for shame! Now downtown Exeter boasts the country’s most generic high street, with only a smattering of eye-catching buildings left. “It’s not a beautiful city” Adam once told me, “just a city with a few beautiful buildings.”
Thank goodness the cathedral was left relatively untouched. It was not difficult to find and was (to my great relief) not painted pink. During the night I had woken with a start and panicked that Adam and his minions had actually gone to the trouble of painting the whole cathedral in that lurid shade, just to confuse me.
The west front looked particularly delicious (architecturally speaking, of course), with its collection of carved figures much in the styles of Wells and Lichfield. These would have once been painted in bright colours, making for a splendid scene, especially on a dull day like the one I found myself in.
I got the lick done early because a superb sign was to be found by the entrance. Who knew if it would still be there after my tour? The harrowing events at Guildford still haunted me, as did the thought that Adam might try something monstrous and slay me before the job could be done.
The choir was in full song when I entered, which made for a memorable and atmospheric arrival. Their gorgeous voices drifted upwards to the cathedral’s greatest glory: the gigantic vaulted ceiling above the nave. A nearby verger whispered that it is the longest and perhaps finest Gothic vista in the world, and it was hard to disagree. Somewhere up there also was a roof boss depicting the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, and I took a moment to reflect on the many miles traveled since that visit to Canterbury months before, when I had stood on the spot where he had died. That had been a wonderful day; there made been many wonderful days on this quest so far, and there would hopefully be many more to come. The simple joy of travel had been re-awoken in me and I was very happy.
In this buoyant mood the rest of this magnificent cathedral was thoroughly explored. Every nook was peeped into and every curiosity examined. I discovered exquisite misericords, one depicting an elephant with hooves (fancy!); an impressive astronomical clock similar to the one in Wells; a 14th-century minstrels’ gallery decorated with images of musicians and their bizarre instruments; a gigantic kathedra (bishop’s throne) and a multitude of grinning, grotesque carved heads.
My favourite discovery however was a simple hole cut into the bottom of an old, creaking door. This hole, another kindly verger explained, had been made for and used by the cathedral’s resident cats. These felines had first been introduced to combat the legion of mice that had been nibbling away at the ropes attached to the bells, out of which the nursery rhyme “Hickory Dickery Dock” was born. The mice are long gone (they must use shotguns now) but the cats remain, and the current custodian showed his face through the hole and gave me one of those withering looks that cats do so well.
Having fully explored the building I got chatting to two delightful old ladies at the gift shop. They were kindness itself and greeted me with heart-warming west country ‘ello-moi-dearrr tones. One spotted my York pin-badge and asked me if I had really come all that way to see their cathedral.
“Yes, that I have” I exaggerated.
“Croikey!” she exclaimed “You on ‘oliday then?”
“Yes, and I’m visiting all of the Anglican cathedrals in the country as well.”
At this the look on their faces suggested that I had just pulled. Did I dare drop the L-word?
“And I’m licking them all, too.”
Oh no, what did I say that for?
“Licking them?” one of them gasped, while the other stared at me open-mouthed. “But… why?”
I gave them a hurried and bashful explanation of the bet – the licking, Adam, nakedness, the lot- expecting at any moment to have their sticks render me senseless. They might even tear off the jolly I’VE VISITED EXETER CATHEDRAL! sticker they had just issued me with, which was a mortifying thought. Thankfully their dumbstruck faces soon lit up:
“That’s bloody brilliant!” one of them gasped, before checking herself for the curse she had just uttered.
“It is!” the other chirped “Well done, young man, well done!”
Despite their evident enthusiasm they were visibly crushed to learn that I had already licked their cathedral and said they would have very much liked to have seen me in action, for what they called “an historic moment.” They were full of questions: how did Exeter taste? Which one tastes the best? How many more were left to lick? I could have happily spent all morning nattering away with them, but my mention of Truro got them all in a fluster.
“Oooo, there ain’t many trains going there today, you’d best hurry!” one of them cried.
So, with sounds of encouragement ringing in my ears and a new faith in humanity gained – not to mention another FREE cathedral sticker (I think I pulled) – I departed like a hero into the rain once more and jumped aboard the Truro train. If you ever visit Exeter Cathedral do look out for these two lick-supporting ladies, they truly made my day.