Dedication is something I have been learning a great deal about since taking on this bet. At times it has seemed far wiser to ignore ghastly 5 a.m. alarm clocks than to rise from my warm bed and trudge out into the cold, black mornings to go and lick some far off cathedral. Things are made infinitely more arduous when a bad cold is involved, as was the case before this triple East Anglian lick. My head felt as if it had been filled with cement overnight, making the simple task of lifting it off the pillow a near Herculean undertaking. A day of rest in bed would have been the sensible thing to do, but being sensible wouldn’t win this bet.
I met David near his home in Eltham, having made my way with other early morning commute mutants across from Chiswick in an almost stupified state. My friend’s excitement about the day ahead lifted my spirits greatly though and soon my sickness woes were forgotten thanks to good conversation and Mars bars.
Once again David proved my hero, offering to drive me to another three cathedrals as he had done in October. We had formed a plan at work using a trusty English Heritage map, highlighting Anglican hot-spots still in need of a lick within easy reach of London. We settled on St.Edmundsbury, Ely and Peterborough, which could all be explored and tongued in one long but rewarding day.
It was a foul morning, with rain lashing down and turning the motorways into churning rivers. We sped through a drowning Essex and up into a similarly sodden Suffolk, reaching Bury St. Edmunds in good time. This looked like an attractive little city, with grand Georgian houses and cobbled streets galore, all crying out to be explored. Had we not been on such a tight schedule its delights and charms could well have made a splendid way to pass a day. The sight of the striking cathedral gatehouse soon reminded us of our mission however. This building alone struck awe into us both, in that “down on your knees, Saxon scum” way that Norman architecture does so well.
Beyond, through well-tended gardens and bowling greens where monks once plied their trade, sat the cathedral itself. The rain couldn’t obscure its grandeur, though its main tower had a certain strangeness about that I could not at first put my finger on. We searched for the entrance for a good while in vain before stumbling across a modest side door. Here stood a corking sign bearing the cathedral’s name and I was all ready to get licking. The relatively uninspiring entrance did not make for a decent photo though, so we delved inside to seek a better spot.
It was deathly quiet inside but surprisingly beautiful. With the whole place to ourselves pretty much, we gaped up at the stunning artwork on the ceiling. Once more, there was something very odd about the scene before us. It all looked brand new, as if the artists had just applied the last licks of paint and left us to enjoy their work. The vaulted ceiling in the main tower glowed with warm reds and greens and shimmered with gold. A sign close by revealed that this work was barely a year and a half old, and the tower only five years old. That explained the unusual aura around the place, one that seemed so ancient but yet had youthful good looks. These recent renovation works had stayed true to the cathedral’s Gothic sympathies and for that I can only applaud it.
The central theme of the building, as the name of the city and its cathedral suggests, is the cult of St. Edmund, whose bones were first laid here in 903. Given that he is close namesake of mine I have always had an unwavering affinity with him. His martyrdom at the hands of Danish Vikings, being tied to a tree and pierced full of arrows, also makes him infinitely more exciting than Noel Edmonds. One could well argue that their places should have been exchanged in this case.
Images of the saint appeared everywhere. He was depicted in wall paintings, tapestries and sculptures, either about to undergo his ordeal or in the midst of his suffering. In all of them he looked remarkably untroubled, despite the best efforts of the Viking archers to spoil his afternoon.
All the while David and I were seeking out good lick-spots in vain. I certainly did not want to lick any St. Edmund-related decorations, out of respect and in fear of meeting the same fate as the old king himself. As we searched the organ suddenly piped up a warning note, reminding us that we were not alone. Although occupied with infinite keys and pedals, the organist’s lofty position meant that he could watch us like a hawk, ready to thump out blood-chilling chords of damnation upon our heads. This alarming set of events had us heading to the entrance once more, where our one shot at getting the lick done lay.
Thankfully the secluded nature of the doorway made it an ideal spot for capturing the St. Edmundsbury lick. It is not the tastiest of cathedrals by any stretch but its beauty would make me want to lick it again for sure.
Back then into the car and through the rainstorm towards Ely. Of all the cathedrals on my list, this was the one that excited me the most. During over two years of train journeys in those parts, the awesome sight of Ely Cathedral rising from above the watery fens had always been a highlight. The sheer size of the thing, like a monstrous stone beast dominating these low-lying, misty lands struck the fear of God into me. On a more playful note, its soaring bazooka-like towers and alien architecture brought to mind a sleeping Transformer robot. When provoked, this demon would surely rise and strike fiery destruction upon the surrounding shires, with Optimus Prime and friends in tow.
Perhaps only at Durham had I had a similar sense of dread through stonework, gaining an insight into the fears of the native Anglo-Saxons shocked and awed into submission by the construction of this monster. Before the conquest only a small settlement had existed on the site, with a similarly tiny church at its centre. It would be the equivalent of a space ship landing on a village green today.
The admission price continued the theme of shock, and of grudging submission as we emptied the contents of our wallets into the gleeful hands of cathedral staff. A notice nearby revealed the reason behind the steep fee – £3000 is needed every single day to keep the cathedral running and open to the public. The thought that my money was helping to keep this architectural triumph from crumbling me feel slightly better and I readily agreed to the top-price ticket that would allow almost VIP access to its every nook and cranny.
Where to start with Ely? So far this is the only cathedral that has made me forget the bet for a substantial period of time. The sheer magnificence of the place had David and I stumbling around in a numbing wonder that blocked out every other concern and thought. A glance up at the nave’s painted ceiling almost brought the sound of singing angels to my ears that made me want to fall to floor and kiss the flagstones.
The great octagonal tower loomed above us, its vaulted supports and bosses still shining bright despite the gloom within. Another, larger tower had once stood there but was eventually betrayed by the soft, marshy soil.
The tour we had paid to join eventually took us up there via coffin-tight spiral stairways. Our guide was a beaming and cheeky old man, whose love for the cathedral was felt in his every word. He pointed out centuries old graffiti, unusual and alarming architectural quirks and areas we definitely should not stand in for too long. Up at the octagonal tower we ducked under 700-year-old wooden beams and shimmied along ancient, creaking floorboards. Opening a bolt the guide revealed a heart-in-mouth view down to the nave that filled me with such a dizziness I was forced to step back for fear of tumbling to my death. Here though lay an excellent licking opportunity. On the other side of the bolted panels were painted a series of glorious angels. This collection, we were told, was unique to the building. This information awoke my licking senses once more and David and I created the beauty shown below:
Although it is hard to make out my tongue in the photo I can assure you that it made good contact with the wood, which had a sickening taste.
Up, up and up again we went, out onto the lead roof that was slippery with rain. We slipped and slid our way around the tower and admired the views, which were still impressive despite the gloomy weather. As the guide disappeared with the rest of the group around a corner David and I were once more spurned into action with knowing nods and winks.
I certainly hadn’t planned two licks of the cathedral but the simple fact was that it was so blooming marvellous that I would have happily licked every stone. The roof photo is one of my favourites for its audacity and the fine view of the other great tower of Ely. Up there we were largely away from prying eyes and even the rain and rank mossy taste of the stone did not put me off. We descended the spiral staircase as heroes.
After a triumphant and free cup of tea in the refectory, during which we giggled like schoolgirls at the photos we had just captured, we headed for the door for the final leg of the adventure. On the way out, just to be safe, I licked a spot next to this official sign:
This I soon regretted as the unlucky column chosen for the lick was little more than loose sand. I was spitting grit out for some time afterwards, recalling the experience at Salisbury. More was swallowed than safely expelled, but at least I can say that I managed to take a little piece of Ely Cathedral away with me. With rogues like me doing such things it’s no wonder they need £3000 every day.
The journey to Peterborough saw the worst weather of the day. Sheets of rain battered the car and winds threatened to land us in the fens. The sky was rapidly darkening as well as the clock ticked away, leaving our chances of licking the next cathedral in very serious danger. In addition, Peterborough seemed impossible to enter. We passed countless road signs welcoming us to the city, only for us to drive on for miles through dark country lanes from which we expected to encounter banditti at every turn. Then all of a sudden the cathedral appeared as if from nowhere. It was as if a great veil and been removed from it and now it was revealed in beautiful illuminated light.
With the car safely parked we started another battle in finding the entrance. The cathedral was due to close to the public in a matter of minutes so we had no time to lose. Eventually we came to a grand entrance and hurried inside. There were few signs of life inside, only a slightly surprised attendant in a high-viz jacket. He revealed the crushing news that the cathedral was now closed for the day and that, unless we wanted to stay for Evensong, we were to kindly bugger off please. He really was a decent fellow though, much like the two men at Guildford whose sign-moving activities had nearly led to me to an early grave through stress. He piled us high with leaflets and offered many a smile but did not budge on his firm stance of no entry. All we wanted to see, we cried, was the tomb of Catherine of Aragon, but this had no effect. Before long he had called in back-up in the form of a red-robed chorister who regarded us suspiciously. I silently prayed for a bottle of chloroform and a flannel to smother the two of them with, but on this occasion my prayers went unanswered. So, as at Guildford we retreated with smiles and nods with burning frustration in our hearts.
Refusing to be beaten, we lingered by the entrance and looked out for signs and good lick spots. Infuriatingly there were few and far between and we soon began to admit defeat. That was until I noticed a folded up sign close by. I willed it to have printed on it the information I craved. Turning it over my heart leapt with joy as it merrily offered a warm welcome to the cathedral. Annoyingly it weighed a bloody tonne and I grunted and sweated hauling it closer to a lickable wall. David got into position and quickly snapped this shot, just as the attendant appeared from the doorway behind.
I spotted him through the corner of my eye and froze, my tongue still firmly fixed to the stone. I feared the worst, yet he merely gave me a thumbs up and disappeared again. This was a highly baffling episode as he had either not realised that I was in fact licking his beloved cathedral (whilst being photographed in the act) or he was in on the whole thing and had just displayed his whole-hearted approval for the venture. We did not stay long enough to find out more but made our way out in triumph.
We were both sad not to have had the chance to explore Peterborough Cathedral as it clearly possessed some intriguing treasures. Still, the main goal had been achieved and we started the journey back to London with a feeling of great contentment.
This was soon shattered however, when the subject of Scottish cathedrals arose. Two days previously Adam had claimed that Scotland boasts a total of eight Anglican cathedrals, a story I laughed off nervously at the time. Regrettably, panicked Google searches revealed the horrible truth. Although Scottish cathedrals fall under the Church of Scotland’s jurisdiction, I soon learned that they are still technically Anglican in practise. This latest development was a kick in the nuts to say the least and left me visibly deflated. What made it worse was the other awful news I had encountered not long before, that Wales also had it in for me by being the proud owner of six cathedrals of the Anglican persuasion. This double whammy was a serious blow but would not put me off finishing the job. As soon as I was back in London, it was decided, Adam and I would have some serious bargaining to do.