All walks of life
This summer, lodges across Wales united in a challenge to trek 1,000 miles in sixty days to support a children’s hospital. Sarah Holmes put on her hiking boots to spend a day on their epic journey
Picture the scene – it’s a balmy afternoon in late July. The sunshine beats mercilessly down over a golden belt of sand dunes on South Wales’s Bridgend coastline. In the distance, music echoes through the granular valleys as a trail of trekkers in matching white T-shirts slowly emerge, their Welsh voices chorusing in booming unison. They look like explorers venturing through the Saharan plains and, as they come closer, it becomes apparent that they’re singing Santana’s ‘Black Magic Woman’.
The lead crooner, Gareth Jenkins of Afan Lodge, No. 833, is an undertaker from Port Talbot. But today, equipped with his Bose speaker and backwards cap, he’s DJ Jazzy Jenks, self-appointed MC for the twenty-two-mile walk around this stretch of the coast. Along with thirty fellow Freemasons from lodges across Port Talbot, he’s attempting to complete the Glamorgan leg of the Walk Around Wales campaign to raise money for the Noah’s Ark Children’s Hospital Charity.
Until now, it’s been a leisurely ramble through the woodlands and heather fields of Kenfig Nature Reserve, passing by the candy-coloured attractions of Coney Beach funfair. But the toughest route has yet to come.
Ahead, the grassy ridges of the Merthyr Mawr dunes rise dramatically upwards. They are the second-highest dunes in Europe, and the place where Peter O’Toole filmed his 1962 adventure epic, Lawrence of Arabia. Luckily, the Port Talbot lodges are well prepared for the challenge. A fortifying hip flask is offered around the group before they dare tackle the ascent – a dose of liquid encouragement for the heroic fundraisers.
‘If your family ever needed to use the Noah’s Ark Children’s Hospital, you know they’d be in safe hands.’ John Bendall
There are just three days left before the Walk Around Wales campaign comes full circle. Today, it falls to the Port Talbot lodges of Afan, No. 833; Baglan, No. 6079; Celtic Eagle, No. 9132; Margam Abbey, No. 5257; St Theodore, No. 8536; and Ynys, No. 8274, to complete the penultimate stretch. For Paul Haley, Worshipful Master of Services Lodge, No. 7139, this is the pinnacle of many months of careful planning. In January, inspired by a friend who had trekked the Welsh coastal path in just sixty days, Paul set about organising a fundraising event that would see lodges from across Wales come together to cover the same 1,000-mile stretch in relay.
‘The idea had a fantastic reception from the masons at Services Lodge,’ explains Paul. ‘So we started to build up the schedule with the idea of enrolling a different lodge to complete each leg of the coastal path.’
Paul eventually managed to get twenty-six lodges to commit to the challenge, with members of his own lodge offering to fill in the gaps along the north coast. He also appropriated a mascot, a travelling gavel that would be carried through each stage of the journey by the participating walkers. On Sunday, 25 May, the first group left Penarth Masonic Hall on a counter-clockwise adventure around the Welsh border. Their aim was to raise £12,000 for the Noah’s Ark Children’s Hospital Charity, which supports the only children’s hospital in Wales. But the campaign quickly surpassed its target with the total now standing at £12,678.
For John Bendall of Baglan Lodge, the walk was a fantastic opportunity to give back to a worthwhile cause. ‘The Noah’s Ark Children’s Hospital is first class,’ he says. ‘Obviously, you hope your family would never need to use it. But if they did, you know they’d be in safe hands. It’s a reassuring presence in the community.’
While Noah’s Ark is a familiar Welsh charity, less well known is the vital role Welsh Freemasonry had to play in the hospital’s establishment, with Freemason Lyn Jones launching the Noah’s Ark campaign in 1990.
‘It took ten years of knocking heads together,’ Lyn explains. ‘But finally, in 2000, the public appeal got the green light.’ Since then, the charity has raised £10 million and overseen the successful completion of a state-of-the-art children’s hospital in Cardiff that treats over 100,000 seriously ill children every year.
In 2008, an appeal for a further £7 million was launched to fund the building of the second phase of the hospital, which will include two additional operating theatres, a new Critical Care Unit, and a hydrotherapy pool, as well as various improvements to its existing facilities. With completion due in 2015, this latest donation from the Walk Around Wales campaign is essential to helping the hospital reach its target.
For Alan Bolger of Ynys Lodge, the walk was as much about enjoying the camaraderie of the day as raising money. ‘It’s a great way to meet other lodges and get to know people who you might never have spoken to before,’ he smiles. ‘The reward of making lifelong friendships is enough for me. If we raise awareness about a good cause – that’s even better.’
Word spread about the walk via social media. Paul created his own hashtag, #circlecymru, which he used in tweets to local organisations and councils, encouraging their support. The campaign even drew the attention of Welsh TV personalities, including weather presenter Sian Lloyd, and The One Show host Alex Jones.
‘It’s a great way of connecting with the community outside of Freemasonry, which is something I hoped this campaign would achieve,’ explains Paul.
Back in Glamorgan, the midday heat has coalesced into an orange haze as the army of masons amble along the cliffs at Ogmore Bay. It’s the home stretch and, after scaling Merthyr Mawr dunes followed by some tiptoeing across the stepping stones by Ogmore Castle’s enchanting ruins, it’s safe to say all are now firmly focused on closing the gap between themselves and The Three Golden Cups pub in Southerndown. Even DJ Jazzy Jenks has gone quiet.
A crowd of family and friends cheer the masons across the tavern threshold. Having walked non-stop for ten and a half hours, a pint or two is well deserved. However, the real celebrations won’t take place until the following Saturday when the masons cross the final finish line at Barry Rugby Club.
‘The highlight for me has been seeing how willing everyone was to get involved,’ Paul beams. ‘The dedication of the lodges has helped to raise awareness of both Noah’s Ark and Freemasonry, which is fantastic.’
To donate to the Walk Around Wales campaign, visit www.justgiving.com/walk-around-wales
On the move
Special mention goes to the Provincial Wardens John Roberts and Rex Plowman, as well as the following Freemasons from Services Lodge, No. 7139, who spent a considerable number of days on the walk: Allun Jones and Alun Punter (ten days); Steve Hill (eight days); Mike Rudall, Clive Thomas and Martin Flanigan (four days).
The following lodges took part in the walk: Afan, No. 833; Baglan, No. 6079; Beehive, No. 6265; Breaksea, No. 8358; Celtic Eagle, No. 9132; Industria Cambrensis, No. 6700; Dinas Powis, No. 5997; Gnoll, No. 5057; Ionic, No. 6626; Llanilltud Fawr, No. 8644; Lodge of Three Pillars, No. 5857; Margam Abbey, No. 5257; Old Barrians, No. 6671; Penllergaer, No. 5567; Porthkerry, No. 6299; Preswylfa, No. 5792; Services, No. 7139; St Cecilia, No. 8748; St Quentin’s, No. 4778; St Theodore, No. 8536; Striguil, No. 2186; Wenvoe, No. 9038; Windsor, No. 1754; Wings, No. 8651, and Ynys, No. 8274