HG Wells said that whenever he saw an adult on a bicycle, he had hope for the human race. A three-hundred-mile ride brought out the best in forty-five masons when they pedalled the perimeter of the Province of Yorkshire, West Riding. Simon Lewis met some of the participants
The August bank holiday started beautifully in Sheffield, remembers retired civil servant John Boyington, a Freemason since 1994. John was there at dawn to watch forty-five Lycra-clad masons set off on a bicycle tour of the entire perimeter of the Masonic Province of Yorkshire, West Riding, visiting all twenty-three masonic halls along the way.
‘The Grand Départ was from Tapton Hall,’ John says. ‘Funny how we speak French now – up until last year we’d have called it the “Start”. When I arrived at 8am, the car park was full of bits of bikes and all I could hear was the clip-clopping of cycling cleats. As the lads came into view, I could see the excitement on their faces from twenty yards off. The trepidation, too.’
No wonder they were daunted. West Riding is one of the biggest Provinces in the country, spanning both sides of the Pennines, ranging from industrial Sheffield to the hill farms north of Lancaster, taking in the Three Peaks of the Yorkshire Dales and some of the toughest cycling roads in the country. The participants would be covering nearly three hundred miles over three days.
‘The first real climb took us over the Pennines to Uppermill,’ says Phil Atkinson, a menswear retailer from Addington and a member of Olicana Lodge, No. 1522, in Ilkley. ‘We were going down the high street towards the Lodge of Candour when this guy steps out, stops the traffic and ushers us into the lodge like royalty. Then a brass band starts up. It brought a lump to my throat. A lot of people had gone to an awful lot of trouble.’
At Hebden Bridge, a bit further on, the cyclists were greeted by a piper in full Highland dress playing Danny Boy. That night they were invited to Waddington’s Royal Forest Lodge to have dinner with the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress, resplendent in their chains of office, while the cyclists limped around bow-legged in Lycra.
All twenty-three masonic halls along the route opened their doors. ‘My aim was to raise awareness of Freemasonry,’ says Martyn Bolt of Woodsmoke Lodge, No. 9317, in Mirfield, who is a cycling development officer and designed this year’s Tour de France route through Yorkshire. A mason since 1993, he spotted a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something new for the Craft. ‘Two years ago there was huge Olympic cycling success and we were about to host the Tour de France. I figured that by the summer of 2014 there’d be a huge boom in cycling.’
He was right – cycling participation in the UK has doubled in the past few years. When his Province began its Festival to raise money for the Royal Masonic Benevolent Institution (RMBI), Martyn’s suggestion of a three-hundred-mile bike ride was the right idea at the right time. ‘It chimed with the goals of our five-year Festival,’ says John Boyington, who heads the Province’s fundraising committee. ‘When it started in 2012, the economic climate wasn’t good and our Provincial Grand Master didn’t want to set arduous targets. Another goal was to raise the profile of Freemasonry. I think there’s a misconception that we just look after ourselves, when we also look after lots of other people. We give to almost every type of charity you can imagine.’
‘I’ve seen one of the RMBI homes in York,’ says Martyn, ‘and I know how people depend on our charities.’ And so he began planning, beginning with sticking pins in the map to show all the masonic halls in the Province, working out the best routes between them, and recruiting fellow mason Craig Johnson, a senior lecturer at Bradford University School of Management and member of Lodge of Connaught & Truth, No. 521, in Huddersfield.
‘Cycling is not normally something you associate with masonry,’ says Craig. ‘In fact, it’s almost the beginning of a joke: “What do you call a Freemason on a bike?” A lot of the events we do are based around dinners and galas, so for me this was something new and exciting.’
The planning took eighteen months. Craig took two weeks off to design a website to keep everybody informed and to make it easy to donate. The site alone raised £1,000 and Craig gave talks about the ‘Provincial Perimeter Pedal’ at all the lodges in the Province and elsewhere.
The real hard work, however, came on that August bank holiday – particularly on the second day, when the forty-five cyclists faced some of the steepest roads in the UK. ‘There was one hill just outside Settle that was so steep some of the sheep were falling off it,’ says Craig. ‘I’d heard about it but had never been up it, and now I know why.’
With a gradient of one-in-four over two miles, cobbles at the bottom and an unseasonal hailstorm at the top, it was all a bit much for Chris Oldfield, who only started cycling a few years ago. ‘I’ve never seen a hill like it,’ says Chris, of Mirfield Lodge, No. 1102. ‘I had to get off and push, which I’m annoyed about. One of our group was over seventy and he managed to stay in the saddle – if only because his hips were so bad he said he couldn’t walk.
We looked after each other. If anyone had a mechanical problem, we’d stop. If anyone needed a breather, we’d stop.’
There were compensations for the near-vertical ascents. The views, for one thing: the valleys around Keighley and Hebden Bridge, where Last of the Summer Wine was filmed, and the beautiful James Herriot country around Ripon. More importantly, however, was the friendship.
‘I got to meet likeminded masons who I wouldn’t have met otherwise,’ says Phil. ‘We’ve been out riding since and just today I got an email from one of them who’s having a get-together at his lodge. There’s also the buzz of raising money. And with the training, I’m as fit as I’ve ever been.’
‘The fact that all the masonic halls opened their doors to us on a bank holiday and gave the public a chance to come in will have had a beneficial effect for Freemasonry,’ says Martyn. ‘Hopefully we’ll have broken down some of the myths about us – including the notion that masons are all grey-haired blokes who sit around and eat.’
Martyn is already planning an even bigger event for 2016: a walk around the Three Peaks in the Yorkshire Dales, with various levels of difficulty so people can bring their families, and he hopes hundreds will get involved.
Are we seeing the start of a new era? John, who was there to see the cyclists off that Saturday morning, was also there at the end when the exhausted riders returned to Tapton in a freezing downpour. ‘There was an enormous cheer,’ he remembers. ‘Some of the guys were done in. It does my heart good to know that people are willing to put themselves through that sort of trial for the benefit of people they’ll never know. In these days, when the media is full of how a minority of people in the world can be so unkind and cruel, it’s great to be reminded that the majority of us want to live good lives and do good for others.’
Donate to the Provincial Perimeter Pedal at www.everydayhero.co.uk/event/E2057A