If you know anything about the Freemasons, you know it is a society steeped in myths, legends and rumours.

Taking Google as your guide, the 401 year-old fraternal organisation is variously considered a descendent of the Knights Templar, to be pulling the strings of society as part of an elaborate historical network that stretches from Napoleon Bonaparte to Franklin D. Roosevelt and a key member of a Zionist plot for world domination.

Find a conspiracy theory of near any flavour, and you can be sure it has ties to the Freemasons if you follow the threads back far enough.

As pleasing as abiding myths of such a shadowy nature are, it is difficult to square the modern day, public face of the Freemasons and their want for raffles and charity bake sales with this cloak-and-daggers reputation.

It is equally difficult to work out the connection between a group charged with physically carving Masonic symbols into Washington DC’s street plan, and a small hall a couple of hundred metres down from Chingford station.

“Put simply, we are not a secret organisation,” explains Colin Felton, provincial charity steward and communications officer for the Essex Freemasons, and one of the men charged with offering the organisation some transparency as it enters its fifth century.

Prior to our meeting, an invitation to have a snoop around the Masonic Hall from Rodney Bass OBE – the county’s provincial grand master – had dropped into my email inbox.

“We have finally lost patience with those that continue to publish and spread unfounded rumours, fantasies and in some cases – outright lies – about an organisation that has proved to be nothing but a force for good across the Globe,” he wrote. “Enough is enough.”

Rising to Rodney’s challenge, accepting a Masonic cup of tea and taking a good look inside the Chingford branch, my overall impression on a rainy Wednesday afternoon was that the Freemasons both despair and revel in their myth-heavy reputation.

On the one hand, they are an open and welcoming organisation.

“We represent every religion, every race, every creed. Some lodges have seven holy books,” Colin tells me.

As well as welcoming all but those without a believe in a higher power, the Freemasons strictly distance themselves from talking politics during their meetings and from taking advantage of business connections that crop up in the lodge.

They are – with 10,000 members meeting in 307 lodges across Essex – an organisation as wide spread and family friendly as the scouts, capable of raising £1.75m for good causes last year alone.

Jack Saunders, a member of the young Mason’s group Cornerstone, explains his motivations for signing up.

“The main tenants are brotherly love, belief and truth,” he says.

“Wanting to do good for yourself and others. I'm a nurse. I work with women a lot. My dad died when I was younger. I was surrounded by women at home.

“The opportunity to socialise and be with men was really appealing for me.”

Others around the table agree, expressing various versions of a desire for comradery, learning to speak publicly and given something back to society.

But then there is the secret stuff.

Down the corridor from the typical village-hall-like entrance, there is a room filled with dark wood panelling, with three, increasingly grand chairs standing at the ends. These are where the senior ranked Masons sit, in front of a carved stone block that harks back to the society’s medieval roots as an early kind of trade union.

A Star of David and painted sun sit above the grand masters as they welcome new recruits into the guild. In recent times in Essex these have included well known rappers, who remain nameless so they can continue to “relax” in their lodges, Colin explains.

It is within this grand setting that one of the best-known aspects of Masonry is played out – the secret handshake.

“There are lots of funny handshakes,” Colin admits. “There are different ones for different ranks.”

Where once the greetings helped stonemasons prove their technical worth as they travelled across the country to find new work, now they are a symbolic relic of the past. Practically useless, but a key part of the enduring myth of masonry.

Jack Gilliland, a junior doctor and the leader of the young Masons lodge, best explained the societies hot-and-cold relationship with transparency and myth.

“As a child I remembered my father and grandfather going off to meetings and enjoying it,” he says.

“I got quite attracted to the mysticism of it. I was also quite heavily involved in scouting and it followed on naturally from that.

“They wouldn't tell me the secrets, but they are all open and available online if you want to find them out.”