‘It’s harder to get into a golf club’ - what is it like to be a Freemason?
- Credit: Copyright: Archant 2019
From secretive rituals to cult-like rumours, the Freemasons is an ancient organisation cloaked in layers of mystery.
And while Masonic chapters - or lodges - are spread across the world, with more than six million members in all seven continents, you don't have to venture very far to come face-to-face with the society's intricate traditions.
Just seconds from Norwich market and the steps of City Hall is one of the country's oldest Masonic sites, the Provincial Grand Lodge of Norfolk, in a quiet building on a historic street.
Billed as a wedding venue, 47 St Giles Street's Instagram page boasts photos of bridal shows, limousines and gala dinners.
But inside its labyrinthine walls, the Grade II listed property hosts up to 17 Freemason lodges, where members gather in inner temples and carry out "morality plays", known as rituals, drinking games, and charitable endeavours.
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And now two members of the notoriously private organisation have lifted the lid on what it's really like to belong to the Freemasons.
Brian Nestor, from Lakenham, who has been a member of Norfolk's Cabbell Lodge since 2006, says he has seen a change in the public perception of masonry.
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"Since I've been a mason it has become increasingly more and more open," the 50-year-old said.
"The word Freemason isn't a bad thing anymore."
When asked if there were any particular myths about masonry that made him chuckle, Mr Nestor said: "There is one about a goat.
"But I've never seen a goat in all my years as a mason.
"Where are we going to get a goat from? There's never been a goat in the Freemasons."
There are currently 76 lodges meeting across Norfolk, falling under the leadership of Stephen Allen - who is also head of a beach toy manufacturers in Great Yarmouth - Norfolk's provincial grand master.
Mr Nestor's lodge meets seven times a year, and he says while the events might start with a ritual, they also involve administrative business, charity donations and dinner and drinks in building's built-in bar.
"We have a bit of fun [but] you're home by 10pm if it's a weeknight," he said.
And the Norfolk masons believe the naval hero Nelson was a former member.
"It's hard to prove," said Mr Nestor, "but we think he was as the doors from his cabin during the Battle of Trafalgar used to hang downstairs."
But Mr Nestor, who is secretary of his lodge and curates the Masonic museum at their St Giles headquarters, remains tight-lipped about the exact content of the mason's infamous rituals, which he describes as "like plays about morality".
He said: "All I can't tell you is the password, the grip and the sign - I've sworn an oath so if I were to tell you that, what sort of person am I?
"It's a bit like going to see a play that you know nothing about and someone telling you the ending."
The rituals involve three levels - known as completing the chair - which can take up to eight years.
Masonic traditions are heavily symbolic - with members known to roll their trouser leg up and bare their left breast before prayer, in order to connect with the Earth - and Mr Nestor added: "It's not as closed as you think.
"All our rituals the public can buy as books.
"People are saying things all the time, and we decided - or the powers that be decided - you're wrong if you do and if you don't.
"So they decided to become more open to the public."
He added: "We have to learn them by heart so we do practice them - I run lines with my wife and daughter."
Meanwhile Terry Larkowsky, provincial grand secretary for Norfolk, said, in his experience, membership was a diverse cohort.
"Is it just middle aged heterosexual men? No, it's open to every man," the 62-year-old retiree said.
"This week I know of a candidate who has been interviewed to come into the lodge who is a native Romanian who has lived in this country for the last 10 years. I know of another who is from Greece.
"I'm trying to think of a nationality we haven't got."
He added: "I believe it's harder to get into a golf club."
Women's masonic lodges do exist, although these are not formally recognised by the United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE).
And Mr Nestor, who cares for his wife, who has a disability, added: "We're not a religious organisation - you have to believe in a supreme being but we have Christian and Muslim members.
"You have to take an obligation to say you'll be a good person and you take that on your holy book.
"It's things like when a brother dies, we'll look after the widow."
Mr Larkowsky also hit back at descriptions of masonry as secretive, and said: "There's the myth - it's not a secret society, it's not a society with secrets.
"It's that we are protective of what we do.
"For every one thing on the internet which is true and factual, there are a hundred which are spurious and unfactual."
Claims of nepotism have surrounded Freemasonry for decades, with suggestions that the network even blocked policing reforms acting as a particular sticking point. Parliamentary inquiries and investigations followed - so is there smoke without fire?
"People always say that it's something sinister," Mr Larkowsky said.
"In every organisation there will be a very small element of people who don't live up to the ideals. People will always make assumptions - if there's something you want to know about Freemasons, just ask."
Just last year, the organisation's chief executive wrote to the Equality and Human Rights Commission about concerns the country's 200,000-plus members were facing misrepresentation and discrimination.
Full-page adverts ran in national newspapers, stating: "The United Grand Lodge of England believes that the ongoing gross misrepresentation of its 200,000 plus members is discrimination. Pure and simple."
And the secretary also insisted claims that joining the society - or failing to do so - could result in a financial or professional leg-up - or step down - were "perpetuated by people who don't understand".
He added: "There's no pecuniary advantage.
"Financial gain or personal gain for masons is taboo.
"Members have the same outlook on life, towards addressing their fellow man.
"It's to make themselves a better person and citizen."
"We make massive contributions to any number of charities, from the lifeboats and the air ambulance and many others in Norfolk - most recently to an appeal for prostate cancer research and to the Nook appeal."
And Mr Nestor added: "The biggest measure of Freemasonry is how much we give to charity.
"To be a mason you have to be of good character."
- Are you a current or former member of a masonic lodge in Norfolk? Do you want to talk anonymously about your experiences? Email reporter Jessica.Frank-Keyes@archant.co.uk