Blink and you could miss it. There’s no big sign and the doorway is to one side. Cardiff Masonic Hall, does not advertise its presence.

Members say they are not trying to be opaque. In 2021 they want to be more open, welcome applications to join and are ready to hire out rooms as soon as lockdown eases.

Freemasonry has long been known for secrecy, funny handshakes and mysterious ceremonies known only to members.

There have been claims and counter claims about undue influence in the workplace and corridors of power. This is strenuously denied by the organisation which has made efforts in recent years to be more transparent about what it does and doesn’t do.

Masonic lodges and halls have active and open websites where information from joining to charity donations is displayed. In Wales there are around 5,000 Masons belonging to hundreds of lodges with members including students, actors, prison officers, businesspeople and shop workers. There are also several hundred women belonging to the separate Order of Women Masons.

As members readily affirm, Freemasonry is “a society with secrets”, but add that it’s not a secret society.

Very Worshipful Brother Melanie Hooper

In a world where you can share almost anything at the touch of a button, it seems counterproductive to hide in the shadows and you can click on lodge and hall websites to express an interest in joining or finding out more.

And so it is that after approaching a member I am welcomed into the impressive, theatrical surroundings of Cardiff Masonic Hall.

The former 19th century Methodist church building is now a vast space with three masonic temples, a rabbit warren of meeting rooms and a catering sized kitchen.

A staircase sweeps down into the large, pillared entrance hall and at second glance there are symbols everywhere, on the tiles, the banisters, the walls and window panes.

All of these have meanings, most of which can be looked up on the internet and in books, although some may only be clear to the initiated, which, as a woman, I cannot become, unless I join the entirely separate Order of Women Freemasons.

This is something I was keen to learn more about when I asked if I could step inside the world of the Masons for a while.

Twenty years ago I interviewed women Masons in Wales who at that time did not want to be identified. Since then things have moved on. In 2021 some men and women from their separate orders are happy to say who they are, what they do and why.

Others feel they may be misunderstood and prefer to speak anonymously fearing that it might have a bad effect on their work, rather than the opposite. Such have times changed.

And now, like all of us, Masons face more changes to their traditions and lives wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.

William Jenkins Deputy Provincial Grand Master for the Masonic Province of South Wales.

Given that this is a “brotherhood” where meetings, ritual, socialising, fund raising and shaking hands are all important, where has the pandemic left them?

Masons join lodges which meet several times a year, or more, as well as gathering for ceremonies, meals and events in masonic halls up and down the country. One of their core purposes is holding fund raising events and the focus is on meeting up. For the last 12 months none of that has been possible. Even the symbolic handshake has gone.

“It’s been very difficult for us through the pandemic,” admits William Jenkins Deputy Provincial Master for south Wales.

“We have more than 160 lodges and 60 chapels just in south Wales. We have lost 700 meetings and at each of those we would have had a charity collection and raffle.

“It is difficult to do at a social distance. One thing Freemasons are known for is rolling up their trousers and shaking hands. It’s no secret it comes from old masonic lodges as ways of identifying people.

“The handshake is part of the problem. We have not been able to do anything in lockdown for 12 months.

“We will have to make provision to hold socially distanced meetings. That’s really difficult because meeting is the whole ethos. We are waiting for the OK to hold meetings to start again.”

Naunton Liles, Chairman of Cardiff Masonic Hall Ltd, organist and member of Loyal Commercial Lodge, Cardiff

Sitting alongside us, at a more than two metre social distance in the vast, airy space of the high ceilinged hall, is the Very Worshipful Brother Melanie Hooper, also grand treasurer of the Order of Women Freemasons for England and Wales.

Melanie Hooper, like me, is a guest in the building. Her masonic temple is in Llandaff north.

Much of life is now conducted via Zoom , but ceremonies or lodge meetings cannot be held on it. Melanie believes this may have to change for her order at least.

“We talk on Whatsapp groups and throughout Covid we have had quizzes and socialise on Zoom. But you can’t have a lodge meeting on Zoom because they are ceremonies you are guided through and you can’t do that online,” she explains.

“Ceremonies are a learning path you are led through. If this pandemic and lockdown continues we might have to look at some way of moving with the times and find a way to do that on Zoom though.

“A lot of things have been lost in the pandemic. People have stopped learning and it’s not as social. Normally we would meet at least once a month and raise money for charity at events.”

While I wait to learn more details a younger mason of six years standing, a relative newbie in masonic circles, shows me around the impressive building and explains a bit about what masons do in Wales in 2021, who they are and why they join.

He dismisses any suggestion that becoming a member advances careers or influence and points out that is actually forbidden.

Symbols in the staircase at Cardiff Masonic Hall

Anyone aged over 21 (or 18 for university lodges) from any race, religion, political or economic standing can become a Mason but to join you must believe in a higher power, so Atheists would not be admitted.

Those applying must also be willing to be active and fundraising is key. After the National Lottery the Masons are the biggest single donator to charity in the UK. In the last year Masons have donated more than £1m to the NHS. Recent local donations include £25,00 to the Huggard Centre for the homeless in Cardiff while women masons in South Wales alone have given more than £300,000 to the NHS, Children in Need, women’s shelters, food banks and St John’s Ambulance in the last year.

Members insist they are not elitist. Members’ professions in Wales include teachers, prison guards, shop workers, academics, car salesmen, tradespeople, businessmen, actors, doctors, students and stay at home parents.

As a relatively new member the young Mason showing me around prefers not to be identified but wants to dispel what he says are unhelpful myths and says: "It's a society with secrets, not a secret society."

“We are not elitist. Anyone of any race or religion can join and we have Muslim, Jewish and Christian members, as well as people from other religions in Wales. You don’t have to believe in a religion, but you have to believe in a higher presence, so there would be no point in Atheists joining.”

He had relatives who were Masons and was asked to join, but stressed that anyone who wants can freely go online and apply. After that there is an interview process, but there is "nothing secret" about this.

While most Masons in Wales are aged over 50, before the pandemic the organisation went openly to university freshers' events recruiting younger members every year, some who stayed in Wales and others who moved on.

Those who join are admitted into the ceremonies that “guide” them through the mysteries, traditions and history of being a Mason. Outsiders cannot attend these ceremonies and details cannot be divulged to non-members. This knowledge learned is one way Masons identify one another.

Describing being a Mason as "a haven" Melanie Hooper agrees that in an often uncertain world the pageantry and order of ritual offers escape as well as structure.

Shown into one of Cardiff Masonic Hall’s three temples with a chess board floor laid out with symbols ready for a ceremony - which now cannot happen under lockdown - I am keen to hear about what they mean, but am told that cannot be revealed to a non-member.

"Ceremonies are scripted and you learn different things,” the young Mason showing me around explains, apologising that he can’t elaborate.

“We have ceremonies but the focus of masonry is to help your fellow man. There is a lot of learning. That can be quite stressful. There is a thespians lodge and they find it quite easy to learn the scripts. I find it quite hard, but learning scripts is good brain training.”

The ritual of donning masonic regalia to take part in ceremonies is something that binds members together and the secrets learned and imparted in these “degrees” was at one time a way for stone masons to prove they had the credentials to work, before formal qualifications.

Cerermonies take place in temples

Freemasonry evolved from guilds of stonemasons and cathedral builders in the Middle Ages.

The exact origins aren’t known but national organised Freemasonry began in 1717 with the founding of the Grand Lodge, an association of Masonic lodges in England.

Freemason societies existed long before that, based on the stonemasonry guilds where stonemakers discussed their trade and used signs to show they knew their craft.

With the decline of cathedral building, some lodges began to accept other members.

Trappings of ancient religious orders and chivalric brotherhoods were adopted in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Order of Women Freemasons was founded in 1908.

Members say that beyond the ceremonial pageantry, the comradeship and common purpose they also appreciate the order and structure of the rituals and ambience.

“There is an aura about the masons. We call each other sir. There is old fashioned respect. You come here on a Saturday and it’s a haven of peace and tranquillity in the centre of the city,” says William Jenkins.

“What attracted me to it was raising money and having fun. The biggest part is fundraising. We instil in our brethren that they are here to serve society and respect others.

"People always want to say something negative but you can just go to the provincial website and apply for membership.”

Melanie Hooper, a personal assistant at Admiral Insurance and mother to two daughters in their 30s said joining as a young mother 30 years ago gave her something for herself while also helping others,

“Being a mason takes you away from daily life. It’s an escape from life you know.

"It’s something for yourself. You are not someone’s daughter, mother or wife but an individual doing something for yourself and others outside that. It brings a sense of about companionship and belonging.

“Because it’s about learning and progression you get to the next stage and there’s an eagerness to go up and learn for your goal. Some passages you have to learn are 15 to 20 minutes long speaking. My brain has turned to fog during lockdown not doing that.”

She, like the men, is frustrated when people assume joining the Masons is a career move or for personal gain.

“It’s a myth that being a mason helps your job. There is always talk about if you get into trouble they can help you too. I have not seen it work like that and don’t think it exists. It’s a myth I have not seen any women masons I know gain from it like this.”

All three stress that people join the Masons, like they join other societies and clubs, to meet people, to help others and expand their outlook and interests.

Unlike some other societies there are also more roles available and you are always asked to progress and be active, says Naunton Liles, who joined more than 60 years ago aged 21.

The organist and retired businessman, whose “mother lodge” is Loyal Commercial Lodge Cardiff, has played the organ for ceremonies at more than 100 masonic centres across Europe.

He was grand organist for the Freemasons in France and has met masons from Portugal to Romania learning first hand how Freemasonry was forced underground in former Communist countries.

“You might join because someone asks you and it seems fun. You are interviewed and then it’s about joining and doing good work. There is a lot of fund raising and socialising.

“It takes you away from the daily grind and introduces you to a whole new circle of friends you would never have met. It is also very gentlemanly and I like the formality.

“I enjoy playing the organ and the companionship and good company. I could get that at a golf club and I was a Rotarian for a while but generally there are only positions for chairman, secretary and treasurer. In the Masons there are more roles. It is not elitist and there are people from all backgrounds.”

While Covid has turned the world, including that of the Masons, upside down, members are confident about the future.

The waiting list to join in south Wales alone has grown to 200 during lockdown and Naunton Liles is convinced that when restrictions ease people will be desperate to get out again and join not only the Masons but other organisations.

“We are missing it terribly,” he says, “Halls have been shut since last March. We don't know when we can open again but there is a future for the Masons. I am certain of that.”

All are waiting hopefully for meetings to be able to resume again as lockdown restrictions ease.. In an organisation steeped in tradition and a precise way of doing things they are hoping Covid won't alter those traditions for ever. Even if the women are considering ceremonies on Zoom.