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Paddy Belton cycles from London to Paris with love

Thursday, 24 September 2015

It was a gentle journey of sorts...

It involved being gifted water by a gypsy family on the hot juncture where countryside meets the foothills of the Parisian conurbation.

It involved being spat on by a driver in that city's disaffected, poor banlieues.

And in Beauvais, passing a night on my road from London, an Edinburgh man and Grande Loge Nationale Française (GLNF) Provincial Officer, William Laughton, dredged forth his bicycle to crest the first hill with me – the morning after he and his French bride greeted me with Islay whiskies and cheeses which were slightly more local.

I'd pedalled off on the Wednesday, to swap the Crystal Palace Transmitter for the Eiffel Tower, for a London Air Ambulance I hoped not to need on the way.

All this was in memory of two friends, and predecessor First Principals of the Royal Somerset House and Inverness Chapter No. 4 - Clive Thompson and Professor Merton Sandler. Both were lovely chaps who will be fondly remembered for quite a run of time. (Merton was known in medicine and elsewhere as a pioneer within his subject of brain biochemistry. His obituary in the Guardian is here).

I began with a breakneck scamper, atop a Ridgeback Voyage tourer named Herman, to cycle to the sea and set sail – catching by a trice the 11:00pm Newhaven-Dieppe ferry, planning a few hours' sleep in the Channel which aboard the roar and heave of the actual MV Seven Sisters did not quite transpire.

In Normandy, as I cycled a disused rail path beginning in Arques-la-Bataille, almost every last local I passed paused to say hullo. (I paused too, but for twenty minutes' sleep on a park bench).

I joined masonry for enlightenment, and got sunburn on the D927 through la Picardie. (Irish skin and sun sum up to bad news).

Reaching on Friday a city engrossed by strike, I arced off the Boulevard Pereire on to the Rue de Saussure in the capital's northwest, then the gentle right to the Rue de Pisan and the chic Parisian building of the Grande Loge Nationale Française.

A few companions of our chapter were there to meet me with water and rush me – possibly not entirely early – into the GLNF's grand temple, two grand pillars guarding each side of its doors, where we were able to attend a Convocation Exceptionelle of Chapitre No. 25, and an exaltation worked for our benefit in French with Gallic aplomb.

Over dinner – l'Agape, our French brothers call it – I said how happy we British companions and brethren had been to be able to join them, and that our communication with their constitution had been restored. That we had not been complete without them, and had missed them.

This, anyhow, is what I meant to say. Bear in mind I was speaking in French – so I might well have said I was an octopus.

But they were gracious, toasting the Queen and our Grand Master. I ate with hands possibly just a smidge swollen, a side effect of hanging on for dear life.

I had hurled myself before on the kindness of unknown brethren, advancing from Land's End to John o' Groats as a journeyman bicyclist, and the year after, running from the top of Ireland at Malin (you see, reader, downhill!) to its rump in Mizen.

Each time I inflicted myself on kindly, long-suffering strangers' sofas a remarkably consistent twelve hours after I'd intended to appear. To their credit, they each opened up their door to me, guided perhaps by a morbid curiosity, at 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning, and – as much their interest as mine – showing me the way to their shower, quickly tempting their washing machine to an unforeseen nocturnal kit wash.

All this called to mind mediaeval pilgrimage, a perambulation less akin to RyanAir than to the writings of Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, or perhaps a wandering journeyman or compagnon (the French use this to describe a fellow craft, as well as a Royal Arch companion) who seeks to become a master. 

Our Chapter fundraising, www.virginmoneygiving.com/air-ambulance-cycle, is now over midway to its goal. The £4 million campaign to purchase a second air ambulance for London has been covered amply by the BBC. Half the cost is being met by us, the masons of London. 

And strapped sweltering to a heavy Herman, I thought of a bevy of supportive compagnons at l'Agape and London, and sharing yarns of misadventure from the dusty route intertwining London and Paris, a tale of two cities.

Because compagnons, we'll always have Paris.

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