I am proud to have become one of the first volunteer ambassadors for Bridgend County. Where’s that and what’s it all about?
The county covers 110 square miles, lying at the geographical heart of south Wales, roughly equidistant between Swansea and Cardiff.
It’s a diverse area stretching from the upland, rugged former coal mining valleys in the north down to the undulating countryside and attractive coast in the south. The county is an area of contrasts, rather than a single coherent destination.
So why does it need ambassadors?
There are numerous places of interest and untouched natural beauty on our doorsteps, but they are taken for granted by many of us. The idea underpinning the ambassador scheme is to create a small community of like-minded individuals who can harness local knowledge and channel their enthusiasm to make more people aware of what Bridgend County offers its 140,000 residents and the 4 million visitors who come each year.
Ambassadors do this through writing; using social media; promoting and attending events; meeting visitor groups; offering detailed local advice, and generally getting the message out there about things that are special and unique about the area.
Whilst laudable in itself, fluffiness is not the sole purpose of the scheme: it also has a sound economic core. More visitors mean money for the local economy: promoting the county as a visitor destination encourages people to exit the M4 and stay, spend and hopefully invest locally.
Make no mistake: tourism is an important contributor to local prosperity and quality of life in Bridgend County. Over 4,000 local jobs and £268m of much needed revenue depend upon a thriving visitor economy.
So the ambassador programme is all about destination management – the process of coordinating all aspects of a destination that contribute to visitor experience, taking account of the needs of visitors, local residents, businesses and the environment.
It embraces the idea of sustainability, focusing on tourism which brings economic benefit, is sensitive to the environment, is welcomed by the community, and results in satisfied visitors.
Delivering a quality experience to the visitor is a priority – and that’s where ambassadors come in.
The professionally devised and expertly led ambassador training programme has covered knowledge about the history, folklore, heritage, culture as well as the natural delights of Bridgend County. Speaking, listening, and customer service skills have also been included.
The mission is to improve the quality of visitor experience to residents and travellers alike, and of course to grow the numbers of each cohort who sample what the county has to offer.
I don’t have an ambassadorial limo with diplomatic plates. But I am looking forward to making a contribution to my community in what promises to be an interesting and worthwhile role.
But let’s step back a little. To what extent did freemasonry contribute to British global supremacy in the 18th and 19th centuries?
I recently came across an excellent book on this subject: Builders of Empire: Freemasons and British Imperialism, 1717-1927 by Jessica Harland-Jacobs. This eminent professor argues that freemasonry proved central to the building and cohesion of the British empire: it presented the means and had a motive.
The means were clear. The fraternity constituted one of the first global institutional networks that linked far flung Britons to one another and brought them into contact with other European imperialists throughout the world with whom ideas were shared. Freemasonry fulfilled the role social media does in society today.
The motive is also apparent. As a movement freemasonry aggressively affirmed its loyalty to the Crown with public demonstrations, orations, charity, and military service; and of course it readily identified with the ideals of Enlightenment cosmopolitanism, such as universal brotherhood, sociability, tolerance, and benevolence. Freemasons were dyed in the wool imperialists.
A tour of masonic London in the charge of WBro Mike Neville reinforces the notion that freemasonry and the establishment of the world’s largest empire were synchronous and closely aligned.
The walk is very much a canter through selected personalities and the geopolitics of freemasonry against the backcloth of an ever expanding British empire. Many, if not most, movers and shakers of the time were, it seems, members of the fraternity.
Our walk began at Wellington’s statue in central London (yes, Wellington was a freemason), adjacent to the Bank of England, where we were surrounded by icons of masonic history. The Bank’s architect was Sir John Soane (1753-1837), also a freemason, who as an aside did great things architecturally to Freemason’s Hall.
Sir Thomas Gresham (1519-79), a London merchant, financier, liveryman – and of course freemason – founded the imposing Royal Exchange. It made him a rich man, wealth he bequeathed to the foundation of Gresham College, which opened its doors in 1597 as the first institution of higher learning in London.
The walk took us on to Cheapside and Mason’s Avenue, so named to mark the site of the first Freemason’s Hall. A diary left by Elias Ashmole (1617-1692), founder of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and founding Fellow of the Royal Society, offers one of the first recorded insights into active freemasonry in seventeenth century England.
Ashmole was a prominent freemason most of his life. His diary entry for 1682 reads: “About 5 H: P.M. I received a Sumons to appeare at a Lodge to held the next day, at Masons Hall London.”
The following day, 11 March 1682, he wrote: “Accordingly, I went … I was the Senior Fellow among them (it being 35 yeares since I was admitted) … We all dyned at the halfe Moone Taverne in Cheapeside, at a Noble Dinner prepaired at the charge of the New-accepted Masons.”
Next stop was St Paul’s Churchyard, and to the site of the Goose and Gridiron Ale-House. It was here on 24 June 1717 that four lodges met and founded the Grand Lodge of London and Westminster. A plaque marks the spot.
And so to the river and Somerset House where we learn of the masonic patron Thomas Dunckerley (1724-1795). If freemasonry began as a sort of Enlightenment social club, as a means of connectivity, support, and personal advancement, Dunckerley was in many ways its personification: for in him we have the juxtaposition of naval power, overseas expansion, freemasonry, and royalty.
Dunckerley, a Portsmouth based naval officer, was a hugely influential freemason, being appointed Provincial Grand Master of several provinces, founder of Mark masonry, and responsible for fusing Royal Arch to craft masonry. True to type, he was also a bellicose advocate of British imperialism. Dunckerley also had the distinction of being the illegitimate son of King George II.
Our tour pondered the Ancient Egyptian obelisk on the Embankment that is Cleopatra’s Needle. The granite edifice, towering above the Thames at 69 feet and weighing in at 224 tons, dates from 1450 BC. It was presented to the UK Government in 1819 by the ruler of Egypt and Sudan to commemorate Nelson’s victory at the Battle of the Nile.
The government of the day was reluctant to fork out the funds necessary to bring the ediface to London, and so the obelisk remained in Alexandria until 1877 when Sir William James Erasmus Wilson, a distinguished dermatologist to whom we owe today’s popularity of saunas and spas, sponsored its transportation to London at the then colossal cost of some £10,000. The masonic connection? You guessed it – Sir William was a prominent freemason.
Cleopatra’s Needle and the plaque to Erasmus Wilson at its base
Our final character to consider was Sir Augustus Henry Glossop Harris (1852 –1896), British actor, impresario, and dramatist. As manager of the Drury Lane Theatre he was known as the ’Father of Modern Pantomime’.
And so we learn that this great bon viveur, member of London County Council, founder of the pantomime, was an active freemason for most of his adult life. He’s commemorated by a publicly funded memorial fountain featuring masonic symbols next to Drury Lane Theatre.
WBro Mike Neville’s walking tours and lectures are commendable. I thoroughly enjoyed the Masonic London walk, and found it informative and entertaining in equal measure. What’s more I learned that Mike has raised over £25k for masonic charities and other good causes – even more reason to support his efforts.
For more information on Mike’s tours & lectures visit http://iurl.no/0257d
One of the joys of living in London is stumbling across a part or aspect of the city which you hitherto had no idea existed.
I recently joined a group to be given a guided tour of Temple Church in the heart of the city – the medieval Knight Templars’ headquarters in Britain.
Despite its central location, the church is not easy to find, lying off street betwixt Fleet Street and the river, amidst an oasis of ancient buildings, courtyards and gardens that make up the legal epicentre of London – a village within a city.
Here we were surrounded by 800 years of history. Temple Church is truly one of the most historic, atmospheric, and beautiful buildings in London.
The Knights Templar order was very powerful, with the Master of the Temple sitting in Parliament as primus baro (the first baron of the realm).
In the mid 12th century, before the construction of the church, the Knights Templar in London had met at a site in High Holborn in a structure originally established by Hugues de Payens (the site had been historically the location of a Roman temple).
Because of the rapid growth of the Order, by the 1160s the site had become too confined, and the Order purchased the current site for the establishment of a larger monastic complex as their headquarters in England.
In addition to the church, the new compound originally contained residences, military training facilities, and recreational grounds for the military brethren and novices, who were not permitted to go into the city without the permission of the Master of the Temple.
The church was used for Templar initiation ceremonies. The ceremony, which was a closely guarded secret, involved new recruits entering the Temple via the western door at dawn. The initiates would enter the circular nave, and then take monastic vows of piety, chastity, poverty and obedience.
It is easy to feel the masonic connections of Temple Church, so well enunciated by the Dan Brown novel and film The Da Vinci Code (part of which was filmed here).
This is a numinous space and enjoys, we were told, a wonderful acoustic for singing.
A terrific way to spend a summer Saturday morning.