Invictus Games Competitor and British Army veteran Ashley Hall fought back after a terrorist bomb took off both his legs and part of his left hand while on duty in Afghanistan, but even he was unprepared by the callous thieves who stole his specially adapted bike – and his route back to mobility and a more normal life

Now thanks to Essex Freemasons, Ashley, aged 28, is back in the saddle four months after thieves broke into the shed at his Colchester home, taking the bike and most importantly, the special components that enabled him to ride it.

After his story was featured in the Colchester Gazette newspaper, Rodney Bass, Provincial Grand Master for Essex, immediately offered to replace the bike; a task that took four months and the skill of experts from across Europe to fulfil.

'Raising the £8,000 to replace the bike and purchase the modifications was the easy bit,' said Rodney, who officially presented Ashley with his new machine at the St Giles Masonic Centre in Colchester on 19th October.

'We had to approach a specialist company in Austria, the only one that could build the bespoke specification needed and even they had to order and adapt a wide range of additional components to complete the job. It was a long wait but worth it to be able to get Ashley back in the saddle.

'I was particularly appalled by the fact that thieves who have probably contributed little to the community, had deprived a brave Army veteran, seriously disabled serving his country, and my members agreed. I am delighted we could help.'

For Ashley, who was serving in the Royal Engineers in 2007 as part of a bomb disposal team at the time of his injury, it is a dream come true. 'I wanted to do all the things that I had enjoyed before the incident,” he said.

'One of these was riding a bike again on just two wheels, a thing that most people take for granted. The thieves stopped that on the day they broke into my shed.'

Not that Ashley is man who is easily deterred. In 2017, he competed in the wheelchair rugby event in Prince Harry’s Invictus Games and today practices martial arts – he is a blue belt in Brazilian Jujitsu. At the time of the robbery he was in Anglesey in North Wales competing for Team Brit, a racing car event.

A new £250,000 high and low rope activity centre complete with aerial runway – the result of more than two years of fund raising, planning and construction to deliver what will be a major community project for young people across the county – was officially opened by Rodney Bass, Provincial Grand Master for Essex Freemasons, and Stuart Gibson, County Commissioner for Essex Scouts, on Saturday September 15th 2018

The Ropes Course, the first facility of its kind anywhere in the country, is open to both able bodied and wheel chair users and in places, is the height of a four storey building. It's a joint project built for the Essex County Scouts at Skreens Park, Chelmsford, to celebrate 300 years of modern Freemasonry.

The High Ropes and Linear Courses, including the zip wire equipment were funded by a £145,000 donation from Essex Freemasons. Essex Scouts added to this by funding a further £120,000 to build Low Rope and Wheelchair Courses to ensure that access is provided to those of any age, including anyone with mobility issues. This has ensured that the facility will be open to all and also serves to raise awareness in the able bodied community of the issues faced by wheelchair users in everyday life.

For Essex Freemasons, who donated the money to build the runway, it will be a lasting legacy in support of young people who live in the area. It also once again confirms the organisation's ongoing commitment to the community.

'Our 10,000 members across Essex were in full support of funding a project that would be a fitting legacy in celebration of our Tercentenary year,' said Rodney Bass. “In less than 12 months they raised more than £161,000 which we decided to donate to the Scout Movement.

'Essex Scouts told us that they needed funding for a new rope activity centre that could be used by all organisations that use Skreens Park and we agreed. We immediately donated £145,000 to cover the cost of the work and decided that the balance will be used to support local Scouts across county.

'This activity centre is a wonderful facility of which my members can feel proud and one which I hope delivers many hours of challenge and enjoyment for the young people of Essex.'

Essex Scouts is one of the three largest Scout Counties in the Country, with nearly 22,000 members. Each year its adult members contribute over one million voluntary person hours in providing skills for life for young people across the county, which translated into financial terms equates to an injection into the Essex economy of nearly £8 million per annum.

Stuart Gibson, County Commissioner for Essex Scouts, commented: 'Essex Scouts are delighted and grateful to have received this generous donation from Essex Freemasons, which has enabled us to design and build an integrated Ropes Course comprising High Ropes, including a zip wire, Linear, Low Ropes and Wheelchair courses, to ensure that we have a facility that is accessible to as many people as possible. This will truly be a lasting legacy for the young people of the county.

'Skreens Park is a very busy site used by Scouts and Guides from across the country and the rest of the world. In addition, the facility is used by many local schools and other youth organisations. The Ropes courses will be an excellent facility to develop team building and group working whilst also challenging individuals in a safe environment.'

Installation of the High Ropes Courses at Skreens Park is one of dozens of projects across the county involving Essex Freemasons who regularly donate more than £1 million every year to local charities and good causes. More than 300 lodges meet in Essex from 27 different Centres and continue to play an active role in the community – Skreens Park being the latest.

Have you heard the one about the three Essexboys?

The Essex Cornerstone Club is bringing younger masons together to create new connections across the Province, as Peter Watts discovers from three of the founding members

Lazy stereotypes abound when it comes to Essex, yet it’s one of England’s most diverse and under-appreciated counties. It boasts a lively mix of busy commuter towns, rural villages, regal Roman settlements and colourful seaside resorts. Essex also has a huge number of Freemasons, with around 10,000 members meeting in hundreds of lodges.

Since 2016, Essex has also been home to the Cornerstone Club, which was founded to connect young masons from across the Province. Three of its founding members – self-declared, born-and-bred ‘Essex boys’ – talk among the cockle sheds of Leigh-on-Sea, which sits on the northern side of the Thames Estuary: ‘With the Cornerstone Club, we want to capture the spirit of Essex,’ announces chairman Elliott Chevin. ‘It’s such a large Province with so much to offer.’

Elliott and his co-founders Jack Gilliland and Jack Saunders discuss the beginnings of the club, which has attracted 150 members from Essex’s large but not particularly youthful masonic community. Elliott, 41, took to Freemasonry enthusiastically in his 20s, but only realised the full range of potential masonic experiences as he moved higher up the ranks, out of his own lodge and into the wider Province. This was also when he began to meet other young Essex masons.

‘There was an age gap between me and everybody else in my lodge,’ he says. ‘I enjoyed the meetings, the meals, the beer, and I loved meeting different people, but the interests of somebody in their 20s can be very different to those of someone in their 60s.’

YOUNG GUNS

After Elliott became more involved at the Provincial level, he met more people of a similar age and formed a circle of younger masonic friends. ‘I wanted to find a way to extend this, as I knew there were masons in Essex who had never had that sort of access.’

Supported by Deputy Provincial Grand Master Paul Reeves, Elliott recruited a six-man team of young masons, among them Jack Saunders. Now 31, Jack has been a Freemason for three years and helps to manage the Cornerstone Club’s social media presence.

‘We looked at the data for the Province and saw there were around 500 masons under 40 – one or two per lodge – and we wanted to join them together,’ says Jack. ‘It’s great being with different people [in lodge], but sometimes you want to speak to someone who has the same life experience.’ The club has blossomed, and half its 150 or so members are under the age of 30 – the youngest being 19.

The Essex Cornerstone Club combines its home county’s get-out-and-do-it spirit with a deep respect for masonic tradition. ‘We didn’t want to create another commitment, something that was compulsory,’ says Elliott. ‘We wanted to create something so compelling they’d want to be there. It’s not just meetings and beer – although beer and meetings are important – but a mix of social and educational events that deepen and strengthen knowledge as well as being fun.’ 

Events have included a tour of the museum at Freemasons’ Hall, playing paintball, a trip to a local brewery, a chance to go inside an Apache helicopter, a family day at Romford Greyhound Stadium and marshalling at London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park for a charity run raising funds for Haven House Children’s Hospice.

The imagination demonstrated by these activities may account for the club’s success. ‘We expected an initial burst of interest but have continued to build on those numbers every month,’ says co-founder Jack Gilliland, 33. ‘After every event, people have talked about it on social media, and we always get new members. It’s the mix. We’re not just a drinking club; we have thrown in educational events and charity and community engagement.’

‘The club is all about connecting with people – creating an extended family’ Elliott Chevin

PEER-TO-PEER

The club is focused on holding events in different parts of the Province to enable members from all over Essex to participate, but also to ensure all new young Freemasons in the county are aware of the club. Here, the support of the Province is essential.

‘When a new young mason signs up, we will go to a meeting to welcome them and talk about how to connect with Freemasons of a similar age,’ explains Elliott. ‘We also try to be there every time they do a ritual or event. The Province was very supportive [when setting up the club] and it was important we moved in step with them in order to use their ability to communicate with Essex’s 10,000 Freemasons.’

Jack Saunders admits the club initially had to reassure lodges that it wasn’t planning to poach any younger masons. Now lodges all over Essex help to spread the word, understanding that the Cornerstone Club operates to everybody’s benefit. ‘It’s supplementary, not competitive,’ he explains.

Jack Gilliland is one of three generations at his lodge, which he attends alongside his father and grandfather, and believes this mix of ages is one of the appeals of Freemasonry. ‘There aren’t many other places where people in their 20s and their 80s can discuss life experiences,’ he says. ‘I’ve never had that outside family and Freemasonry.’

MORE THAN A CLUB

Rodney Bass, Provincial Grand Master for Essex, appreciates the way the Cornerstone Club has enriched masonic life in his Province. ‘It’s clear by the significant number of young Freemasons who have signed up to the club just how enthusiastic our younger members are about Freemasonry, and this bodes well for the future,’ he says.

The club is active on social media and Elliott is excited by the potential of technology to build a national or international network of young Freemasons. It uses Facebook to give younger masons a private support system, so they can discuss masonic principles without fear of embarrassing themselves in front of older masons or non-masonic friends.

Elliott is now considering the creation of a Cornerstone Lodge, as a way of maintaining friendships for those who have become too old to attend the club itself; at 41, he is already anticipating his own retirement.

‘Wouldn’t it be great to create a Cornerstone Lodge; a way for people to stay connected to the club for life?’ he says. ‘The club is all about connecting with people – creating an extended family. Before the club existed you had to hope you’d make a connection with somebody or, if you were lucky, find there was somebody of a similar age in your lodge already. Now people can make an instant connection with others around their own age while also expanding their masonic knowledge. That could help somebody stay in Freemasonry for 50 or 60 years.’

FIND OUT MORE: Read more about the club at www.essexcornerstone.com

Essex Freemasons and their families made the most of a once in a lifetime opportunity to help the Province celebrate the United Grand Lodge of England's Tercentenary in real style with  a glittering Last Night of the Proms spectacular

Featuring the British Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, the concert was attended by nearly 3,000 people on Saturday 8th July 2017 at Freemasons' Hall.

There was also a champagne reception hosted by the Provincial Grand Master Rodney Lister Bass and his Executive.

The event was the latest in many such occasions to mark the Tercentenary, which includes a number of Open Days held at Masonic Centres across Essex. Many more are planned for 2017, where Freemasons will be on site to answer questions from the public alongside exhibits of historical masonic regalia, literature and photographs.

Please scroll through the gallery at the top to view photos from the concert

Rodney Bass, former Essex County Councillor and the current Provincial Grand Master for Essex Freemasons, has been awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List in recognition of his service to Local Government in Essex.

Coincidentally, Mr Bass, who was a member of Maldon District Council for 40 years between 1967 and 2007 and an Essex County Councillor from 1997, first heard about the award in May this year, on his last working day for the local authority.

“I am really delighted and very honoured to have been made an OBE,” said Mr Bass, aged 71 and married to wife Margaret. “It is wonderful for me personally, but I also see it as recognition for all my former colleagues in Local Government who have supported me over the last 50 years and I thank them for all their help.”

“I hope to continue serving the local community through Freemasonry in Essex and the charitable giving associated with our Fraternity and will also continue membership of my local Parish Council.”

A graduate in economics and accountancy, Mr Bass spent 35 years working in the banking industry becoming a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Bankers in 1980. He used this specialist knowledge in his Local Government career dealing with finance, constitutional law and more recently highways and transportation.

During his long period of service he was made Chairman of Maldon District Council and became Chairman of Essex County Council for two years and from 2010 to 2012 was Chairman of Essex County Council. He was recently elected an honorary Alderman of Essex.

ugle logo          SGC logo