Northern Ireland Part 1 – Armagh

The great Christopher Power and his van, which brought us to all 8 Anglican cathedrals in Northern Ireland.

It’s fair to say that this licking odyssey has caused a great deal of stress and general misery. Of course, it can be argued that this was largely self-inflicted when I uttered the words “go on then” to Adam that night in the pub, thereby burdening myself with a gruelling task that would prove costly, both financially and mentally. There have been many low points on the quest and none more so than sleeping on that cold, hard bench in Manchester Airport one freezing October night, whiling away melancholy hours before a 6am flight to Ireland.

During that night of fitful sleep and waking snorts I once again questioned my own sanity and tried in vain to think why on earth I had thought all of this was such a good idea.  Barely six hours earlier I had left London for good, having handed in the keys to my flat and given notice on my job, using the last of my leave to get through as many cathedrals as possible before the December 16th deadline, which was now rapidly approaching. How I would do this on only a shoestring budget remained a mystery and one that would have to be worked out on the road. This was all madness, utter madness, and now I wanted no part of it. Thankfully such dark thoughts began to evaporate once on board the aeroplane, and were replaced with a reassuring sense that perhaps the greatest challenge of the whole cathedral-licking bet, namely the licking of the eight Anglican cathedrals of Northern Ireland, was about to be removed forever.

I was met at Dublin airport by a smiling and jolly Christopher (the brother of Lisa, my girlfriend), still fresh from a lengthy early morning drive from County Wexford. It was wonderfully cosy inside his red van and after a quick look at the map we began the journey north with much boyish enthusiasm. The simple pleasure of having a companion again gladdened my heart after the  lonely hours spent in Manchester. Christopher quickly proved to be excellent company, as I had known he would be, and I was provided with a wealth of knowledge on the towns and villages we passed through on our journey. He also related how the cathedral-licking story had been greeted in Ireland since it made the news back in June. It had appeared in Love It, a glossy magazine full of tales of lunatics, into whose bosom I had now been inadvertently welcomed. Lisa had done an interview for the feature, which included a mocked up image of me tonguing the ample spire of Salisbury, and apparently it had caused quite a stir in her home town.

So engrossed we were in conversation that I did not even notice when we crossed the border.  It seemed strange to be back in the United Kingdom so quickly, especially on a different landmass from the one I called home. I was uneasy about calling it British soil given the history here, and soon it became clear that this question was one that continues to divide people today. Just over the border we passed through a small down bedecked in the red, white and blue; not only flags but paving stones and the very curbs of the road. A few miles on, sometimes even a few hundred yards, this was replaced with green, white and orange. My ignorance of the history was embarrassing but Christopher did a fine job filling in the gaps before we arrived at our first stop of the trip.

It was perhaps fitting that we started the licking tour in Armagh, which is Ireland’s religious capital and a city of great historical importance. An acquaintance of Christopher’s had given the place a pretty damning review and had not offered much in the way of praise for it. Taking a stroll around its sunny streets however, we agreed that this assessment had been harsh to say the least.  Certainly there are fairer cities in the World, but that morning Armagh had nothing but charming streets and friendly nods of greeting from locals a plenty.

The city is famous for its two cathedrals, which can be found atop two equally noble hills, both dedicated to St. Patrick and dominating the skyline for miles around.  The Roman Catholic cathedral is perhaps the more attractive of the two but (luckily for me and my already burdensome quest) would not require a lick. It really was magnificent to behold, with its twin towers glowing white in the morning sun and the sight of it raised my spirits once more.

My mood soon dampened somewhat as we struggled up Ard Macha, the steep hill that gives Armagh its name and upon which the Anglican cathedral proudly sits. This lofty spot has seen plenty of action and upheavals in its time and has been fittingly dubbed “the Canterbury of Ireland.” Here also was a famous site of pagan worship, as well as a stronghold for the kings of Ulster in days long since passed.

When Christianity first spread to Ireland during the mid 5th-century Armagh became the island’s ecclesiastical capital, following the foundation of a church here by St. Patrick himself. This would not only be a place of Christian worship, the saint decreed, but also one of learning. Soon he was declaring that only those educated at Armagh could spread the gospel, and that is exactly what they did.  Soon Irish monks began crossing the sea to northern England full of Christian zeal and determined to convert the newly arrived Anglo-Saxons. During what some have described as “some of the darkest years in English history” it was the Irish that were saving Greek and Latin culture for Europe.

The cathedral itself is a modest affair but exudes an air of peace and tranquillity, something this hilltop has had little experience of in its time. No less than seventeen different churches have stood on this site since St. Patrick first huffed and puffed his way up here. This is thanks largely to the efforts of Viking raiders, who had such a fabulous time trashing it in A.D. 832 that they returned to do it further damage on nine separate occasions. The carnage finally ceased in 1014, when a Danish army was comprehensively defeated at Clontarf by the forces of Brian Boru, High King of Ireland. This celebrated Irish hero is now buried somewhere within the cathedral grounds, having been cut down at the battle by some brute while thanking God for his great victory.

When the Vikings weren’t around to cause mischief the weather put saw fit to put the boot in, or more precisely a lightning bolt, which caused such terrible damage in 995 that the building was left largely in ruins for almost two centuries. Two further incarnations were put to the flames during the troubled 16th and 17th centuries, making Armagh one of the most patched up and punch-drunk cathedrals in the World. Now it sits in a peaceful glow, surrounded by trees and enjoying its lofty perch over the city.

The cathedral seen today has been heavily restored during the 19th-century but still retains some delicious medieval features, but it is the collection of older, Iron Age treasures that most captures the imagination. In the south aisle can be found six stone carvings, which serve as a reminder of the old Celtic religion that once thrived on this site.  Principal amongst these is the Tanderagee Idol, a comical yet sinister effigy of a grinning creature believed to represent another of Ireland’s greatest kings, Nuadha. He is famous for possessing an arm of pure silver, a wonderfully garish gesture following the loss of the original limb in battle. Another carving shows yet another legendary ruler, one Labhraidh Loingseach, who would have been glad of a silver appendage but instead was cursed with a pair of horse’s ears.

Having had our fill of the place it was time to get moving. With seven other cathedrals to get to we could not afford to linger too long. As we made our way out and down to the van I shrieked at the realisation that I had forgotten to lick the cathedral! This was a disturbing thought given the fact that I had gone to such pains to get there in the first place, so back up the hill we trudged and captured the following video.

Of its taste I remember nothing, but it can only have been tinged with a sense of relief on having licked my first Northern Irish cathedral. Whatever flavour was left on my tongue was soon vanquished by a hearty breakfast in a nearby establishment, where we planned the next licks with great excitement. Slowly but surely the bet was being won.

More Welsh licks – Brecon


The journey east to Brecon was long but not without its charms. Back in Haverfordwest I caught the train to Carmarthen through gorgeous green countryside and over many an old railway bridge topped with merry people waving. At times it was like being part of a very large model railway. The experience would have been all the more enjoyable were it not for the train guard. The ticket office at Haverfordwest had been deserted and the prospect of a free trip was a distinct possibility. This bet had been crippling me financially since the start, so any chance of a freebie had to be seized with both hands. Things were looking good until the penultimate stop, when the dreaded guard caught me day-dreaming and yanked a £10 note from my reluctant grasp.

From Carmarthen I caught another bus, having first had a brief look at what remains of the castle there. Wales is absolutely teeming with these things, thanks partly to the efforts of the Normans and later King Edward I, who saw fit to knock up a good few fortresses to keep the locals under his boot. Standing amidst the ruins, I reflected on the imperialist nature of the English throughout history and wondered quite why we have gone to such lengths to extend our borders and generally piss off the rest of the World. Before this trip a Welshman in a pub had warned me about opening my mouth in certain regions of this homeland. He was adamant that colourful language would ensue and a few other choice words that would leave me in no doubt whatsoever that they really were not keen on me. So far though everyone had been kindness itself, and I began to think his words had been little more than scaremongering. And in any case, it is difficult to be intimidated by the Welsh, who of all the people on Earth possess the least threatening accent.

My penultimate stop was in the small town of Llandovery, where the ruins of yet another castle can be seen atop a grassy mound. There was a half hour wait for my next bus, so to kill some time I explored yet another noble fort. Here a rather unusual mounument to Owain Glyndŵr, the famous hero of Welsh nationalism, can be seen. Even in the afternoon’s dull weather its metallic sheen was blinding. The statue (I’m guessing) is not supposed to be 100% realistic, otherwise the English army would have been dealing with some sort of Johnny 5-like robot during the Welsh uprisings of the early 15th-century.

I was the only passenger on the bus to Brecon and the driver was at liberty to talk. He winced at my pronunciation of the towns and villages we passed through but was friendly enough. He gave a snort when the purpose of my trip was revealed and heartily gave his approval for the venture. Once we arrived in Brecon it was too late to visit the cathedral, so I asked him if he knew the way to the Youth Hostel, where I had planned to spend the night. He looked at me as if I had just asked the way to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and said that he didn’t think there actually was a hostel in Brecon. This was worrying news as it was getting dark and my meagre budget would see me laughed out of all the other hotels in town. Most of these I trudged past on my way down to the canal, which the driver thought was roughly in the right direction of the hostel. The hotels all looked warm and inviting of course, as most places do when you know you can’t afford them. Inside jolly, red-cheeked folk were sat down to dinner in the bar, tucking into steak and quaffing pints of ale, while I pressed my nose against the windows with a sigh, like some pathetic Victorian urchin.

Downtown Brecon

Feeling mournful and suddenly very lonely I began the long walk along the canal path. The bus driver had called it a “pleasant stroll”. If by “pleasant” he meant a laborious trudge through puddles, thick mud and goose crap, resulting in total despair and general dark thoughts then his description was spot on. The path went on for quite some way and I began to question the accuracy of the directions I had been given.

As the sun began to sink behind the nearby Brecon Beacons I had a good mind to retrace my steps, go and find the bus driver and do him some horrible injury; that or ask someone else the way. Eventually a kind soul appeared on the path and confirmed that I was on the right track, but warned that the hostel was inside a deep, dark wood where it was likely that I would be shot with a poisoned dart and wake up inside a burning wicker man surrounded by locals chanting pagan songs of sacrifice. He didn’t actually say that, but those were the images running through my head as I entered the dark wood in question.

Eventually the hostel appeared amongst the trees and so ended a long and exhausting journey. The building itself was rather drab and depressing, but the staff were friendly and the prices low and the dinner excellent. Sleep came very easily that night.

Over breakfast the following morning I got talking to the hostel’s only other guest – a fellow Englishman on a gloriously aimless jaunt through Wales. He had been driving around with no particular destination in mind and seeing where his fancy took him. This seemed a splendid attitude to travel and it was worthy of praise. He had also passed through St. David’s and agreed that it was a “fine spot”, and recommended a number of other charming towns and villages in the locality. He had yet to go to the north and I toyed with the idea of asking hum for a lift to the cathedrals in Bangor and St. Asaph, before reality reminded me that work awaited me the following day. He did though offer me a lift into town, which I gladly accepted.

Brecon Cathedral

It was fine summer morning and Brecon was at its very best. In a happy state of mind  I made a leisurely route up to the cathedral, which sits in the quiet backstreets of the town, on top of a hill almost entirely obscured by trees. It is a lonely spot but a wonderfully peaceful one. A modest doorway serves as the entrance here and in I slipped. Just as I got inside my phone rang:

“Hello, this is BBC Radio Coventry. We’ve heard all about your, err, hobby and wondered if you’d like to do a live interview with us this coming Sunday?

Yes, why not? I told them I would be delighted to and hung up.

Oh no. Just then I remembered all the mean things I’d written about Coventry on my blog, not about the cathedral but the ugliness of the city itself. Making a mental note to think of some nice things to say about the place I delved into my fourth Welsh cathedral.

Brecon Cathedral exudes an air of calmness. The building and its interior is certainly charming but cannot be called stunning, having a relatively modest layout that is simple to explore. The beauty of a cathedral (or any building, in fact) does not always have to lie in its appearance but in the feeling it gives you, and here it was an aura of calm that was most striking. This is not to say that the building is ugly, far from it, but that for perhaps the first time on this licking trip it was the atmosphere of the place that had the greater hold on me, rather than the architecture. I sat for a while to drink in this serenity and then began exploring.

Although modest by design and layout, the cathedral contains several eye-catching treasures, most notably an ancient baptismal font decorated with the heads of horned, ugly beasts with enormous tusks. These date to the Dark Ages and have no doubt been frightening pre-baptised babies and other young children for centuries. Carvings such as these were, it is believed, a hark back to pagan myths, which were still well-known even after the arrival of Christianity on these shores. Religious faith could be altered, but even as late as the 15th-century Western Europe still clung onto some remnants of its pagan past. This is evident in churches and cathedrals up and down the land, where the unsettling faces of grinning creatures look down on us with menace from lofty heights.

Brecon’s other main highlight is its association with the British army. Brecon men have served and died in numerous conflicts over the years, most notably the Zulu War of 1879 when a good number saw action at Isandhwala and Rourke’s Drift. Their colours can be seen in St. Lawrence’s chapel here, and include one that was captured by the Zulus.  Another hero lies in the churchyard: one Charles Henry Lumley, who won the Victoria Cross during the Crimean War for leading a near-suicidal charge at Sebastobol. Although not a local to these parts, this proud Scot later achieved the rank of major before being laid to rest here in 1858. His other claim to fame is being an ancestor of the actress Joanna Lumley.

I’m sorry to say that pretty soon I had exhausted all there is to see at Brecon Cathedral, though the beasts’ heads on the font were given another thorough examination, and if anything, they get uglier the more you look at them. Now it was time to get licking.

There had been no decent signs anywhere inside the cathedral, and it’s very generic interior would not be sufficient proof of its location, so I turned my attention to the exterior. A suitable sign was found near the main door and I licked away, being very pleased with the result. I recorded the lick on film as well, just for good measure. Having traveled huge distances I was paranoid of losing a camera so decided to get as many copies of the deed as possible. The loss of such evidence would be catastrophic.

My mood was buoyant post lick; I had achieved what I had set out to do and now the rest of the day was before me. Strolling back into town I nodded good morning to the good folk of Brecon, who all returned the greeting with a smile. What a jolly fine place this was. Passing two old gentlemen with another nod, I overheard part of their conversation, which was delightfully baffling:

“So yes, in that respect the fish and I are in agreement.”

After a couple of drinks in a friendly pub it was time to start heading back to London, a fact that did little to cheer my heart. It had barely been 48 hours since I’d left and already the travel lust was alive in me again. At the bus station I spotted buses heading north, up to St. Asaph and Bangor, and once more the temptation to cast my responsibilities to the wind and continue my Welsh licking journey was overpowering. I could always call in sick and tell work that I was far too ill to come that day, tomorrow or however long it would take to get back from some, as yet, unknown destination. In the end I decided to be sensible and climbed aboard the bus home, a choice I soon came to regret. The journey back my mind was plagued with thoughts of “what if” and where I might have ended up had I taken the chance. Sensible is so overrated.

A few licks in Wales

The very mention of St. David’s had been making me shudder for months. This was ever since the unwelcome discovery that the cathedral there is a proud member of the Anglican club, and would therefore require a lick. Yet another arduous journey would have to be endured, this time to a remote tip of west Wales I was totally unfamiliar with.

I had made my first proper trip to Wales the previous month for an enjoyable if uneventful day-trip to Cardiff and Newport. Wales’s capital city is a true delight, as is its cathedral at Llandaff. Here I passed a happy afternoon in this semi-rural suburb, exploring (and licking) my first Welsh cathedral. The most pleasing discovery of that day was that a young Roald Dahl had grown up nearby and had attended the cathedral school. The famous sweet shop of dead mouse notoriety is still standing, and is now a chippie.

Llandaff Cathedral, Cardiff

St. Woolos’s Cathedral in Newport is another gem, sat on top of a hill overlooking the town. Here I met a friendly caretaker, who over a cup of tea told me of the financial difficulties unknown cathedrals like this suffer with. He showed me around the building and spoke eloquently about its treasures, chief of which is a beautiful Norman arch from the original, early Medieval church.  Over more tea and biscuits he told me, with some sadness in his voice, that  I had been the only visitor that day. If you ever find yourself in Newport, do stop by the cathedral and have a look. It’s a charming place and the biscuits are to die for.

A tasty wall at Newport Cathedral

The journey to St. David’s would be far less enjoyable – if anything it promised to be truly hellish. Sitting on the very western tip of Wales, the city (for that is what this tiny village has been since 1995) is a right royal pain to get to. The nearest railway station is 16 miles away, in the sleepy town of Haverfordwest. A train journey here would have been convenient were it not for the outrageous fare and total of 5 different changes, including a 3 hour wait in Swansea in the dead of night. The other, far cheaper option was to take a Megabus as far is it would go in a generally western direction. This would leave me in Pembroke Dock, only an hour or so from St. David’s by road. This seemed a splendid solution, the only drawback being that the coach would dump me there at one o’clock in the morning, six hours before the first bus. During my teenage years the prospect of ending up in some unknown town at such an hour had been thrilling; an adventure of boundless opportunity and character-building experiences. Now aged 27 and the recipient of one assault, two muggings and a nasty incident with a hungry stag I thought differently. As the bus edged ever closer to my destination the more scared I became. The now familiar feeling of foolishness returned: just what the hell was I was doing? The matter of where I would spend the night was another question that dogged my thoughts on that unhappy journey westwards.

I’d expected Pembroke Dock to be grim, and grim it was. The bus was a haven of comfort and warmth compared to the damp world of portakabins and dead seagulls outside, into which myself and four other wretched passengers were now unceremoniously dumped. I watched the coach disappear into the night and considered the options: either sleep in the ferry terminal or commit a crime to get a bench in a Police cell. There was also a hospital nearby – maybe if I inflicted an injury upon myself (which seemed a likely outcome given my state of mind at the time) there would be a place to rest my head. In the end I chose the ferry terminal, mainly because they sold cups of Bovril and had a TV.

The terminal was quite cosy it turned out, and virtually empty. Just as I was about the settle down for the night however, a smug sign informed me that the building would be closing at 2.45 am when the ferry from Ireland arrived. Drat. Surprisingly, the Bovril offered absolutely no comfort to this crushing news. Forming a new plan, it seemed wisest to get as much sleep as possible before being chucked out. I curled up on a hard bench therefore and indulged in self-pitying melancholy.

A lady’s soft voice woke me up:

“Are you getting the ferry, love?”

I swung off the bench with a start and made her yelp. She held a walkie-talkie and looked ready to call security, but thankfully she waited patiently and listened to my tale of woe. If I could just put my head down somewhere dry and warm until morning, I cried, then all would be well.

“There might be a place nearby where you can kip for tonight, just a minute darling” she said sympathetically, before speaking a few rapid Welsh sentences into the walkie-talkie. For all I knew she could have just sent an order to release a pack of wolves on me, but her smile betrayed a sweetness that raised my spirits.

A few minutes later a jeep pulled up outside and a hand beckoned me to jump in. Another kindly lady drove me to large portakabin in a distant corner of the dock. This, it turned out, was a rest stop for lorry drivers and was a veritable paradise. Inside were soft sofas, radiators and enough tea and coffee to swim in. Better still, a plasma screen TV provided some light entertainment as my eyes finally began to feel heavy.

I slept like a baby and was not even woken by the fierce rainstorm that lashed Wales that night, which would surely have washed me into the sea had I not been so lucky in finding this truckers’ palace. I emerged into the early morning refreshed and with a renewed faith in humankind. This feel-good factor increased when another port official offered me a lift all the way to Haverfordwest. The kindness and decency of the people of Pembroke Dock will never be forgotten.

From Haverfordwest I took the local bus to St. David’s. The route hugs the seashore in several places and offers a wonderful introduction to the famously beautiful Pembrokeshire coast. Coves of sandy beaches are plentiful here, and are a haunt for early morning surfers, who skimmed merrily along the tops of raging waves. The sun was returning too, and bathed the beaches in a romantic dawn glow.

St. David’s sits at the heart of all this beauty, almost on the tip of a peninsula jutting out into the Irish Sea. It’s a gorgeous little place full of charming cottages and old winding streets. It is difficult to believe, however, that this tiny collection of houses and shops constitutes a city.

The cathedral vs. city debate had been a popular one during conversations about the bet. There were those who maintained that any settlement that could boast a cathedral was, by law, a city and those who didn’t really give a damn either way. Although it is true that many places – such as Truro and Chelmsford – are cathedral cities, they did not gain their city status simply by having a bishop’s church within their limits. This had indeed been the law ever since Henry VIII had famously moved England’s religious goalposts so that he could bonk Anne Boleyn, but in 1888 this ruling was finally abolished.

If this was the case, what happened at St. David’s? It turns out the city council had been pretty miffed about their home being demoted, and in 1991 first mooted the idea of  joining the top table once more. The matter went before the Queen, who in 1994 granted both St. David’s and Armagh in Northern Ireland city status “In recognition of their important Christian heritage and their status as cities in the last century.” The theme continued this year when another Welsh cathedral town, St. Asaph (still to be licked), joined the club along with Chelmsford and Perth as part of the Diamond Jubilee feel-good factor.

I must sat that I rather enjoyed that fact that this tiny village, with a population of barely 1,600 is (officially speaking) a city. The likes of Reading (232,600), Dudley (195,000) and Luton (186,000) have all tried and failed in recent years, which is a jolly thought.

After a delicious breakfast in a friendly establishment on the High Street I made my way, burping, down to the cathedral. It sits in the sheltered valley of Glyn  Rhosyn, through which a little rivers runs, giving the area its luscious greenery and the calming sound of running water.

This is the site of the monastic community first founded by St. David himself back in the 6th-century, and is the beating heart of Welsh Christianity. Nearby are St. Non’s Well and the holy place, once “bathed in brilliant light” where Wales’s patron saint is said to have been born. The ruins of the bishop’s palace complete the splendid scene, that was now bathed in glorious morning sunshine.

Despite its peaceful air, the site has taken its fair share of batterings by raiders over the centuries.  Chief amongst  these were the Vikings, who even saw fit to murder two of the local bishops in 999 and 1080, the rotters. William the Conqueror (himself a descendant of a Viking warlord) later visited St. David’s to pray and was quite taken by the place. The same was true of his son, the future King Henry I, who called for a new stone cathedral to be built here in the early 12th-century. Under Bishop Bernard the monastic community flourished, and in 1123 a Papal Privilege was bestowed upon the cathedral, decreeing that “two pilgrimages to St. David’s is equal to one to Rome, and three pilgrimages to one to Jerusalem.” Quite an honour indeed.

As with the majority of cathedrals in the British Isles, further additions and modifications were made to the building over the following centuries, with a few collapsed towers, a tornado and even an earthquake providing their own special input into the design we see today. New raiders, this time in the form of Cromwell’s soldiers (not them again), also looted a great deal of the cathedrals treasures during the years of the Puritan Commonwealth of the mid 1600s, and so began a long period of decline.

It was not until the 1950s that new life was breathed into the cathedral, when the young and energetic Reverend Carl Witton-Davies was appointed as dean. His enthusiasm gave rise to the famous Welsh Youth Pilgrimages to St. David’s, which helped to inspire a whole new generation of clergy in the country. The much abused and neglected cathedral was thus reborn.

Given that St. David’s has been on the receiving end of so much grief in the past, the level of calmness and serenity surrounding the place is startling. I was just one of hundreds of visitors milling around that day, and we shuffled about in quiet awe at the beauty of it all. Even a group of French teenagers – notorious for their boisterous ways –  maintained a level of hushed respect that was admirable.

The beautiful ceiling of St. David’s main tower

The ornate vaulted ceiling of the main tower was one of many highlights and is well worth a painful crane of the neck to view in all its splendour. Nearby is is the 13th-century shrine of St. David, the focus of pilgrimages even today. Close to this another pilgrimage of sorts was being made at the tomb of Edmund Tudor, grandfather of (yes, you’ve guessed it) Henry VIII. Middle-Aged American women bustled around this with an air of reverence, trying to recall whether the man inside the lovely stone box had appeared on the TV series The Tudors. This famous royal dynasty have become quite popular over the last few years it seems, despite their strong penchant for killing and persecuting people in imaginative ways and displaying their heads on pikes; what times they were!

The Tudor-perverts went into spasm upon stepping foot into the Holy Trinity Chapel.  Here the coat of arms of the dynasty’s founder, Henry VII, are proudly displayed on the fine fan-vaulted ceiling. Henry had been born not too far from here in 1457, at the imposing Pembroke Castle, so the multitude of references to his family here were hardly surprising.

The nave

Increasing numbers of coach parties continued to arrive all morning and eventually the peace and quiet was lost. The general hubbub also made me uneasy, as it meant that the all-important lick might well be witnessed. I had come to realise now that no one was really offended if I licked a cathedral, it was just bloody embarrassing being spotted doing it. The memory of Rochester  – when an avid crowd had gathered to watch me do the deed – still haunted me, and I had made a vow to never ask a stranger to take a licking-photo again.

So, I spent a good hour retracing my steps through the cathedral looking for a quiet spot to get the job done, but everywhere was brimming with visitors. Even in the quieter corners some boob would suddenly appear just as I had got into position and ruin everything. Memories of Chichester returned and how I had prayed for a bottle of chloroform and a flannel to deal with these people.In the end I used the Birmingham Cathedral tactic and filmed the lick instead.  I do much prefer a photo of course, but it was not to be. I was pleased though to get the small statue of St. David in shot, however.

After so much anguish and trouble getting here it was a huge relief to get this one finally done. To celebrate I decided to stay the night in St. David’s and enjoy its many charms, including the fabulous coastline nearby. Unfortunately my enquiries revealed that there was not a bed to be had in the whole city for the next few days, so full was the place with holiday-makers. Indeed, the High Street was now alive with them, and suddenly it had resembled Padstow or Salcombe, both popular weekend retreats for wealthy London folk. A little dejected I caught the next bus out of town and began a long and uncomfortable journey east to go lick yet another cathedral.

A mad summer of hurried licks

It’s been a hectic summer, during which there has been very little time to sit down and write about my cathedral adventures. Even these have been infrequent, but I am still well on track to complete the challenge before the December 16th deadline. Before that time my friend and bet-master Adam will be getting married, with me serving as bestman! In the unlikely event that I complete the challenge by the time of the wedding (September 28th) he is going to have one hell of an unwelcome surprise during the my bestman’s speech.

I am planning to write up the accounts of the remaining English cathedrals in greater detail when time becomes available, but for now a short description of each will have to suffice.

No. 38 – TRURO

After licking Exeter Cathedral I jumped onto the train and visited this Cornish    gem. Its relative isolation from other English cathedrals had been a thorn in my side for months, so it was a huge relief to finally get it done. The building is a real Victorian treasure and well worth a visit. The choir was in full song upon my arrival, which provided some welcome backing music for the lick.

No. 39 – CHESTER

I have the wonderful Mr. Mike Brimmage to thank for this photo: it was he that put me up for the night and drove me to Chester and Liverpool the following day. He quickly became a staunch supporter of the cause and encouraged me to ignore the strange looks from passersby when licking this sublime cathedral. This place is the epitome of a hidden gem – beautiful architecture, fascinating history and a wealth of treasures to be discovered inside. Top audio guide to boot. We even saw the Queen later that day!


Liverpool Cathedral is a monster! The sheer scale of the place is staggering, like some huge,  impregnable fortress from the future. The interiors are enough to make the knees grow weak and the view from the colossal central tower is well worth the punishing climb and trip in the face-meltingly fast lift. Also packed full of gorgeous artworks and ingenious architectural features that leave you in no doubt that this is one of the World’s finest. A must for all cathedral perverts.

Thanks again to Mike Brimmage – host, driver, photographer and local guide.


 The penultimate English lick took place on a sweltering day in Carlisle. Many thanks   must go to Marc and Rachel Barkman-Astles for driving me there from their home near Newcastle. Carlisle Cathedral is wonderfully odd, having seeminly been built in the dark to sets of different designs by blind (but incredibly gifted) builders. A hodge-podge of styles and eras all rolled into one. The collection of bawdy misericords was a real highlight as well. Further thanks must go to my great cathedral-licking companion, David Sleep, for showing me around Roman Vindolanda afterwards, before kindly offering a lift back to London. What wonderful friends I have.

No. 42 – YORK

 The big one – my home cathedral of York Minster. I had left the best until last purely for symbolic reasons, but also in the hope that Adam might be in town to witness his defeat. He wasn’t, but the photos in The Sun gave him a rude shock a few days later. It was marvellous fun confusing the hoardes of tourists outside, and meeting the delightful family from Norwich in this picture. If they are reading this, sorry for spoling your holiday. With this lick, every Anglican English cathedral had been done, and part 2 of the bet began. Oh God.

 I am delighted to say though that I have begun licking in Wales. There are many more miles to be covered and stone to be moistened, but I am confident and extremely excited about the adventures ahead. More to come soon!

Exeter and the dark plans of Adam Drury

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.

Lincoln Cathedral: the fairest of them all

Lincoln has the most beautiful cathedral in England, of that there can be no doubt. Up until the moment I stood before its stunning west front I had favoured other beauties – the sumptuous Norwich Cathedral, the jaw-dropping Durham and the frankly arousing Wells – but Lincoln made my mind up once and for all. Throughout history many others have agreed, from the genius madman Augustus Pugin to Lord Cormack, who in a recent House of Lord’s debate called it “the fairest cathedral of them all.”

There’s little I can say about the place without sounding clichéd and possibly a little creepy, so here are some photos from our trip that will hopefully convey its glory.

Carvings of mythical beasts and biblical scenes on the west front. The Romanesque frieze shows souls suffering in Hell, a visible depiction of the consequences of sin and supporting Luton Town FC.

Near the shrine of  St. Hugh of Lincoln,  a former bishop much-loved by the citizens. He was known for kissing lepers and once bit a mouthful from the arm of St. Mary Magdalene. And you thought cathedral-licking was bad for the health.

Listening to the bells ring the time in the cloister, where a lick took place against damp stone. 

The lick itself was uneventful but very satisfying. The stone was damp from the copious rain that had fallen that day, which probably gave it a very refreshing and mossy taste, though I cannot recall exactly. I can only speak from experience in this case as my mind was focused more on the building than the lick. Either way, the taste could have only been enhanced by the beauty of this cathedral. All I can really say is to just go there – drive, cycle, hijack a plane –  whatever you must to see it for yourself. It will be one the best things you will ever do.