St. Albans has always had a special place in my heart, being the city my dear grandmother lives in and where I have spent a good deal of my life on holidays and breaks away from London.
When younger I used to feed the ducks and play football in Verulamium Park, in the actual shadow of the Abbey, little knowing that one day I would be forced to lick that mighty building. It sits atop a hill, not quite in grand Durham style but not far off it, affording fine views for miles around. It was near this very hill that St. Alban himself was martyred and (this was always my favourite bit as a boy) his executioner’s eyeballs fell out. This grisly scene could be purchased in postcard format from the gift shop, but sadly was always denied me by my grandma, who was convinced it would give me nightmares.
It was with some trepidation then that I approached this very personal lick. I had been planning to put it off for as long as possible, mainly because I feared my granmother’s disapproval. A walk through the park and up to the Abbey is a sacred tradition of ours, one that I felt would be soiled 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 photographer. This was a painful experience, seeing the walls and great Norman tower crying out, pleading me to lick them and knowing that I risked family ostracization by doing so.
Recently another opportunity presented itself. My mum (already a veteran of the very first lick at Norwich) was visiting my grandmother and I took the train from London to see them. After a the usual delicious but coma-inducing grandma lunch the question was raised of how to spend the rest of the day. 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, knowing that there was another shot at getting the Abbey licked but potentially at a great cost. Not only was this pilgrimage a treat for my gran, but the Abbey is a treasured place for her. This could all go very badly.
Reaching the park we made our way past sleeping ducks and herons in the lake and up the winding path to the Abbey. It was a bitterly cold, misty day and the great tower was all we could see from a distance, wrapped up in blinding fog. As we approached the main entrance I was already sussing out good lick-spots, but annoyingly none were at hand. Signs displaying the name of the place we nowhere to be seen and the mist obscured the finer details of the main tower for any possible photo.
Inside was no better, with no signs anywhere and a positive throng of potential cathedral-licking condemners, i.e. old ladies. It was like Rochester all over again, except without the priests and Dutch people. They were everywhere! In the nave, in the chapter house, by the altar and causing a general hubbub in the gift shop. Not all were even visitors, with a healthy number of those volunteer do-gooder types making up a vast army of knitted cardigans that stood in my way. I would have said damn the lot of them there and then, were in not for the fact that they were all lovely, giving me a cheery “hello dear” or a warm smile. What made it worse was that my grandma was now one of them.
In an attempt to escape them I made my way to the only un-cardiganed area in view, over by the impressive 15th-century rood screen. This seemed like a pretty good place to get the lick done away from prying eyes, and I beckoned my mum to come and be my photographer. Before she could reach me though those dreaded two words met my ears once more.
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 an angelic 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.
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 Europe, after Winchester, if I’m not mistaken?” I thought this little nugget would impress her 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, but it’s 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 farewell and disappeared in a cloud of huffs.
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 I could be kicked to death by the knitwear maffia. This was getting nasty. Is there really such rivalry in the cathedral community? You’d think they would get along nicely and bake cakes for one another (in the shape of each other’s cathedrals, I’d like to think), but clearly there are tensions simmering. I started to imagine football hooligan style confrontations – bishops’ crosiers cracking skulls, font drownings and hymn sheets ablaze in the cloisters.
Safely outside I paced with despair, with my grandmother following me in concern.
“What were you sneaking around for dear? Is something wrong?”
I couldn’t lie to her any longer, so, taking a deep breath, I told her everything, expecting a handbag in the face at the conclusion of my confession. For a couple of seconds her expression was completely blank, then it creased into glorious laughter.
Greatly relieved, she gave me a soft pat on the cheek. Then, with a glint in her eye she said “you’re as mad as your grandfather, you are.” He would have heartily approved she said, and would probably have joined me in this most poignant of licks.
Then, as if by a miracle, an official cathedral sign presented itself around the next corner we turned. I was starting to believe that this repeated phenomenon (see “A Day of Triple Licks”) was sure proof that a higher being was on my side.
So, with my grandmother watching proudly on, I did finally lick St. Albans Abbey, and it I saw that it was good.