St. Albans Extract



Hello dear friends.

Thank you all for your supportive messages over the last few months. Many of you have been asking how many more cathedrals I plan to lick, now that the challenge has been won. The answer is absolutely none! Well, for the moment anyway. Ever since the final, victorious lick at St. Asaph in December I have rather enjoyed having my life back and being able to sleep in past 5 a.m., which was often the dreaded hour at which I had to arise to catch a bus or train to some distant corner of the country.

Many of you have also been asking how the book has been coming along. Well, it is taking some time, mainly because I want to get it right so am not rushing it. It is quite a daunting task telling the tale of all 64 of our mighty Anglican cathedrals, as well as the grueling story of how I reached them, but it’s a task that I am thoroughly enjoying.

I have decided to include a sample chapter on the blog for people to read and comment on.  It is by no means the finished article but merely a rough outline of the kind of content and tone I am aiming for. Some of you may remember the original blog post about St. Albans Abbey; much of this has been re-used here and I have added a few anecdotes about the building and its history. Ideally I’d like to find a good balance between the story of the bet and the histories of each cathedral. Please feel free to comment and criticise, I would really value some feedback. Happy reading!


St. Albans has always had a special place in my heart. It is the city in which my dear grandmother lives and where I have spent a good deal of my life on holidays and breaks away from London. When younger, idyllic summers were spent in the peacefulness of Verulamium Park (site of the old Roman town of the same name), in the very shadow of the Abbey, little knowing that one day I would be forced to lick that mighty Norman building. During those innocent days the historical significance of the Abbey (and indeed St. Albans as a whole) was largely lost on me; it is no exaggeration to say that it is one of the most important historical and religious sites in these islands.

            To this day my family and I will often struggle up the thigh-bursting hill on which the abbey cathedral sits, and delve into the gloom of this mighty structure to light a candle at the shrine of St. Alban. Here was once an elderly verger, who used to tell my sister and I the story of the Roman saint’s martyrdom on that very spot. His grisly account on the beheading held me in morbid fascination every time, as did the story of the executioner’s eyeballs falling out when the dreadful deed had been done, an event which must have spoiled his day somewhat. Afterwards, it is said that Alban’s severed head rolled down the hill of his execution, and where it stopped a spring of holy water had appeared miraculously. This too was related with relish by the shrine’s verger, who one day happened to witness me losing a football down the very same hill where Alban’s head had once tumbled.

            “It brings to mind the story of our man Alban” he sighed happily, watching the ball bounce and roll downhill before ending up in the lake.

            Given my obvious connections with St. Albans, it was with some trepidation that I approached this very personal cathedral-lick. I had been planning to put it off for as long as possible, mainly because I feared my grandmother’s stern disapproval. A walk through the park and up to the abbey has always been a sacred tradition of ours, and one that I felt would be sullied by my selfish licking needs. Several trips had been made there since the beginning of the bet and I had not summoned up enough courage to ask her to be my accomplice and photographer, so It was a painful experience seeing the walls and great Norman tower crying out to be licked, but all the while knowing that I risked family ostracization by heading its call. It was though, I realised grimly, a risk that would have to be taken.

            Another opportunity presented itself quite unexpectedly one Sunday morning, when a panicked phone call had me on the very next train to Hertfordshire. What at first had sounded like news of a break-in or a nasty fall turned out to be a shocking announcement that my Grandmother had baked a cake and could find no one to eat it. To my grandmother, everyone is on the verge of starvation and should be fed copiously, preferably until they are half dead, at which point they should be fed more to revive them. During my university years in London her concern for my welfare was a constant worry, and she routinely rang to announce great tidings of a leg of lamb or a sponge cake, as if in fear that the big, bad city had turned me to cannibalism.

Shortly after waking up from the latest food-coma, the question was raised of how best to spend the rest of the day together. My grandmother immediately piped up and insisted on a walk up to the Abbey: “It’s our tradition, after all” she said to me, smiling sweetly. I felt both ecstatic and sick at this idea, knowing that there was a shot at getting my tenth cathedral licked, although potentially at a great cost. Not only was this pilgrimage a treat for my grandma, but the Abbey is a treasured place for her. This could all go very badly.

            My nervous nausea continued during the short car journey, with a constant worry of how best to evade my poor grandma to get this damned licking job done and finally set my mind at rest. These troubled musings continued upon reaching Verulamium Park, where we made our way past sleeping ducks and herons in the gentle river Ver, and up the familiar winding path up to the Abbey.  For those new to these parts, this route is by far the most appealing route into the city, as almost everything beyond the abbey and market square is intensely grey, dull and best avoided. Queen Boudicca once famously put the old Roman city to the torch, and walking the streets of modern St. Albans today you can’t help but wish for a repeat performance. Small reminders of the small medieval city do remain in a few streets of gorgeous timber-framed houses and peaceful, semi-rural lanes. Given such heart-melting surroundings, it is hard to imagine Boudicca’s army burning and killing on this spot, or that another two bloody battles took place here during the Wars of the Roses. A famously villainous victim of the first battle of 1455, the Earl of Somerset, lies buried in the Abbey today. He met his end in fierce combat outside a long since vanished inn named The Castle, something a soothsayer had once warned him to avoid.

            Half way up the cruel hill a welcome rest-stop is found at the Old Fighting Cocks, a charming pub of low ceilings and many a crooked beam. There is something strangely satisfying about drinking inside a listed building such as this, where you fully expect to be referred to as “stout yeoman” by all who dwell within. It is a jolly place and one worthy of the title of Britain’s Oldest Pub, with origins dating back as far as the 8th-century, so a well-bearded and red-nosed man once told me over a pint in there. Even the drunks are charming.

            Resisting the strong temptation of a drink by a warm fire, we continued to climb the hill, smiling and pretending that we really were having a nice time. It was a bitterly cold and misty November afternoon and the great Norman tower was all we could see of the cathedral, which was almost entirely wrapped up in thick fog. Though mostly hidden from us, it was still possible to sense the building’s brooding and austere presence.  Austere it certainly is, and a bit rough-looking in comparison with such stunners as Wells, Salisbury and Ely, the true pin-ups of the cathedral world.  Sadly St. Albans will never adorn the locker door of any cathedral enthusiast. This is due to a serious the lack of decent local stone to beautify it with, something that forced its Norman builders to raid the decaying Roman ghost town at the bottom of the hill. This recycled stone was troublesome to carve into any attractive shape and instead was used solely to beef-up the walls of the great brick monster seen today. Many of these Roman bricks found their way to the gigantic, castle-like tower.

            As we approached the southern entrance I was already checking out for good lick-spots. With nine cathedrals already under my belt I felt I had got this licking lark sussed, but now the fog was likely to complicate matters. It was so thick that from a distance it appeared as if the abbey was swallowing people up whole. This would not make for an especially clear photo and would not be approved by Adam under the terms of the bet. Even if a suitable location were to be found and a decent picture taken, there was still the difficulty of explaining the deed to my Grandmother. I quietly hoped to snare some passerby, ask them to take the photo and then disappear back into the fog before they could ask any further questions.

            Inside was little better, with no signs anywhere proving the location and a positive throng of potential cathedral-licking condemners, mainly in the form of nice old ladies. It was like Rochester all over again, except without the legions of priests and Dutch people. They were everywhere! In the nave, in the refectory, up by the altar and causing a general hubbub in the gift shop. Not all were visitors, with a healthy number of those volunteer do-gooder types making up a vast army of knitted cardigans that stood in my way of getting the lick done. I would have said damn the lot of them there and then, were in not for the fact that they were all so lovely, giving me a cheery “hello” and a warm smile. What made it worse was that my Grandma was now one of them. Recognising some friends from her Bridge group, she walked over and introduced me to them.

“And what brings you to the Abbey, my dear?” one of them asked with an angelic smile.

            The question had me in a sweat, and fearful that they should discover the awful truth I awkwardly sang the praises of building, its long history and fascinating architecture, anything to divert them away from the true purpose of my visit. Although these sentiments were indeed genuine, I still felt like some sort of devilish beast come to despoil the place.

            While Grandma gossiped with her friends I took the opportunity to sneak off to find a good spot of cathedral wall to lick. Something drew me straight to the shrine of St. Alban, though I knew that this would not be the most advisable place to do the job. Here was (and still is, to some degree) the heart and focus of the cathedral. In its heyday pilgrims flocked here in search of spiritual and physical healing, with often four at a time kneeling inside the specially cut alcoves within the shrine itself, hoping to soak up some of the saint’s holy aura to cure whatever malady they suffered from. With this in mind I decided to do the same, but given the fact that my greatest affliction was a bad knee (partly the fault of Adam), the process of kneeling on hard, cold stone only made the pain worse, and I was forced to my feet once more.

             Overlooking the now heavily restored shrine is a curious feature: a 15th-century “watching loft.” What first appears at first to be a balcony for pilgrims was in fact a viewing platform for medieval security guard monks, who would have kept a close eye out for any thieves planning to steal offerings of money and jewels left on the shrine’s pedestal. The whole thing looks remarkably unsafe and on the point of collapse, with chunky and uneven steps leading up to the balcony. Despite the obvious dangers the desire to creep inside and explore the thing is overwhelming, but by the look of it merely breathing on the 600-year-old woodwork would bring it crashing to earth. There was no question, therefore, of licking it.

            Without a spot to lick in the Shrine I bought a candle instead, which was promptly lit and placed amongst the already numerous and happily burning collection. Despite my atheist leanings I quietly prayed to the saint himself, apologising for the imminent licking of his church and asking for a lightning bolt or something suitably nasty to spite Adam down with. Whether that was within his saintly powers was unknown, but I like to think it worked as not long afterwards Adam contracted a nasty case of Gout.

            Moving on, I made my way to the north transept, where can be found an excellent example of gaudy indulgence and typically Victorian “I know best, you bloody savages” interference. The enormous rose window that dominates this part of the cathedral is the work of the amateur architect Lord Grimthorpe, whose bust sits nearby with an arrogant smirk. Although a successful barrister and millionaire, sadly his money could not buy him and ounce of architectural skill or taste.  Through an alarming lack of know-how and loathing for medieval stonework he took a wrecking ball to the place and, much to the horror of the locals, altered the building’s original character forever. In addition to this new window Grimthorpe also saw fit to tear down and replace the old west front and sections of the old roof. Such was his heavy-handedness a new verb was created, “to grimthorpe”, meaning to carry out unsympathetic restorations of ancient buildings. Even though the death penalty was still in force at this time, remarkably no one thought to have this great vandal strung up for his crimes. Were it not for the fact that he designed the mechanism for the world-famous clock of Big Ben he may well have been the most famous criminal of English architecture.

            So lost was I in the midst of my explorations that the little old lady had to raise her voice to get my attention, with those dreaded two words of  “Hello dear.”

Where did she come from? I span around in surprise to see a little old lady sporting a huge badge with the word “GUIDE” proudly emblazoned upon it.

“Would you like to know a little about the cathedral?” she asked with a sweet smile. Getting the impression she had been there all day, through gritted teeth I said that I would. So there I stood, whilst she merrily reeled off lists of dates and names, obviously delighted to have someone to impart her knowledge with, while I suffered in silence. My smiles and frequent nods, which had worked a treat in Guildford for getting people to kindly bugger off were useless here. Clearly this woman was a pro and was going to give me every tiny detail before releasing me. To be fair she knew her stuff and told me many interesting tales about the place, most of which I sadly forgot almost instantly, so great was my wish to get the lick done and over with.

            Just when I thought I would never get away, she mentioned the length of the nave.
“Ah” I said, interjecting for the first time “the second longest nave in England after the one at Winchester, if I’m not mistaken?” I thought this little nugget would impress her no end, but regrettably it had rather the opposite effect.

“Winchester”, she said, as if the very name were poison, “Those Winchester folk like to think they have the longest nave, but it’s all lies! Ours is longer!” Her voice had risen to a fearful pitch and she regarded me with sudden distaste.

“They told you that rubbish, I presume?” she asked, but before I could answer she bade me good day and disappeared in a cloud of huffs.

            So, having thoroughly pissed off the guide (who was now no doubt calling security) I decided it was probably best to get out of the place before they could release the hounds. This was getting nasty. Is there really such rivalry in the cathedral community? You’d think they would get along perfectly well and possibly even bake cakes for one another (in the shape of each other’s cathedrals, I’d like to think). Images of football hooligan style confrontations came to mind – bishops’ crosiers cracking skulls, font drownings and hymn sheets ablaze in the cloister. On my way out I cast a wary glance at the kindly ladies pottering about the shop, convinced that they would soon learn of my recent Winchester outburst and pursue me with bloodthirsty zeal in defence of their beloved Abbey. One wished me farewell by the door and I let out a very unmanly squeal before fleeing into the welcoming fog outside, where my guilt and shame could be hidden.

Safely outside I began pacing the car park in despair. Having noted my sudden absence Grandma came out to find me, wearing a concerned expression. Guilt flooded through me at the realisation that I had selfishly abandoned her. What kind of a monster had this bet turned me into?

“What are you sneaking around for, dear? Is something wrong?” she asked, with genuine concern in her voice.

I couldn’t lie any longer so, taking a deep breath, I told her everything – the bet, the licking and the dreaded forfeit- expecting at any moment for a handbag to be swung forcefully into my face and to be dragged back down the hill by the ear. For a couple of seconds her expression was completely blank, sinking my spirits further, but slowly it transformed into a warm smile that emitted loud and glorious laughter. Such was her mirth that she brought out a hanky to dab the tears from her eyes. Her laughter was infectious and soon I too was roaring away. The sense of relief was immense.

            Once we had recovered Grandma gave me a soft and reassuring pat on the cheek. Then, with a glint in her eye she said “you’re as mad as your grandpa was, you lunatic.” He would have heartily approved of the venture she said, and would probably have joined me in this most poignant of licks. Such words were bittersweet, and I felt a pang of sadness that I had never known him.

            We were having such a good time that the lick was quite forgotten, but then, as if by a miracle, an official cathedral sign appeared around the next corner we turned. This strange but very convenient phenomenon was becoming a regular feature of these cathedral-licking trips and was surely proof that a higher being was on my side. My grandma agreed, and didn’t need to be asked to take the all important photo

            So, with my grandmother’s approval she happily took hold of my camera and ushered me into position, and I did finally lick St. Albans Abbey. The welcome taste of relief was truly wonderful; the taste of the stone, however, was bloody awful, and before long the hideous crunch of grit between my teeth and the sour, mossy taste of stonework had become unbearable. Grandma reproachfully clucked at my discomfort,

“Well you’d better get used to it my lad, there’s plenty more to do.”

Nodding in agreement at this all to true and intimidating fact, I took her arm as we headed back down the hill.

“How about a pint at the Fighting Cocks to wash away all that gritty nastiness?” she chirped. My response could not have been more positive, and I couldn’t help but wish that all future cathedral licks would end the same way.



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