Thursday 31 May 2007The world of naturism is in trouble. Membership is falling, and fewer young people than ever are getting involved. Has the great nude adventure run its course? Patrick Barkham visits the International Naturists’ Federation Youth Rally in Norfolk
At the bottom of a bumpy country lane, behind sycamores bearing leaves broad enough to conceal the largest of private parts, is a collection of beige static caravans. Birds sing from the boughs above a covered swimming pool and pansies in tubs stand near an alpine-style pavilion. Stripped of occupants, Broadlands looks like a charming, traditional campsite. In the past, campers have been known to drive through its gates five miles beyond Norwich in the expectation of an ordinary holiday. They would erect their tents and race to the pool. They would see that the swimmers appeared different and glance at the tennis courts for reassurance. The players were holding weird wooden blocks instead of rackets. And everyone was naked.
Such innocent mistakes no longer happen now that Broadlands Sun Association has a barrier at the gate and is excluded from orthodox camping guides. We may be surrounded by nakedness on television, the internet and on the foreign beaches, but, more than ever, naturist clubs such as Broadlands resemble a strange parallel universe, where time has stood still and people have mislaid their underwear.
American naturists fear that their way of life is shrivelling into extinction. At a conference convening in Florida next month, the American Association for Nude Recreation will discuss how it can lower its age profile; the average age at its US naturist clubs is typically 55. It’s a similar figure in Britain, where, although one million people may have sampled naturism at some point - usually on nude beaches overseas - British Naturism’s membership has shrunk to less than 15,000.
Our society may be less prudish than ever, but it remains strangely judgmental about those who wander around as nature intended. According to the stereotype, naturists are leathery ladies of a certain age or roving-eyed gentlemen of a certain size. At best, this endangered species is seen by mainstream opinion as a group of let-it-all-hang-out hippies; at worst, as voyeuristic paedophiles. It was the latter fear that had Norwich’s Evening News in a lather earlier this month. “Fury over naturist camp youth rally,” its headline screamed. Broadlands was hosting the International Naturist Federation Youth Rally, an annual event last held in Britain in 1992. A weekend of camping, sports and karaoke for 18-to-30-year-old British naturists and 14-to-27-year-olds from European naturist groups had “sparked fears among family and child protection groups that unsupervised children [would] be easy prey for sexual predators”, the paper claimed. Behind the leaves and the barrier, the reality is less sensational. A coachload of naturists arrives from Holland; there are also enthusiasts from Italy, Spain and Austria. Numbers are down from the usual 150 to 80, despite the subsidised four-day camp costing a bargain £35, and no one under 18 turns up (although the camp still has a dedicated child-protection officer on site).
As games of volleyball and swimming races ebb and flow between fully clothed and completely unclothed young people, the youngest of the young naturists, Leah Thomas, 18, sits on an exercise bike outside the sauna, topless, and ponders naturism’s image problem. “Too many people still say, ‘Oh, don’t tell anyone.’ I’ve always told people. I don’t get bad reactions,” she says. Instead, she gets lots of misconceptions and questions: do people have sex in the open? Do you have to take your clothes off at the door? Do the toilets have doors? (The answers: it’s not an orgy; clothing is optional, so many people stay dressed, especially when it’s not warm; toilets have doors, but showers can be shared.)
Tall and confident, Thomas was taken on naturist holidays by her parents throughout her childhood. It has given her a talent for volleyball (she has played for England under-19s) and friends across the world. Her boyfriend, however, is not so keen. “He doesn’t want me to be a naturist, but that doesn’t stop me. He says, ‘I don’t want other guys seeing you naked.’ He thinks it’s sexual.”
Naturism became popular in Germany in the early years of the last century as a healthy outdoor lifestyle, without the fetters of undergarments - or any garments. The first British naturist club was quietly established in Wickford, Essex, in 1924. When naturists sunbathing by a reservoir in Hendon, north-west London, were attacked by a mob in 1930, the lifstyle became even more secretive. Members-only “sun societies” were established on small plots of land, mostly in the home counties. Unique pastimes developed in these hidden worlds: because most clubs had little more than a couple of acres, naturists built smaller tennis courts and played their version - miniten - with glove-like wooden bats called thugs. Petanque and volleyball were also popular.
The peace, love and nudity of the later 60s may have encouraged new recruits - Richard Daniels, the chairman of British Naturism, began by going skinny-dipping during the Isle of Wight festival - but naturist clubs continued much as before, adding modest swimming pools and having their members tidy their gardens once a month. Today more than 150 such clubs are still affiliated to British Naturism. Some are showing their age. “I’m the only young person in my club. There used to be a lot of twentysomethings, but they’ve all gone now,” says Thomas. “The average age is pushing late 50s, and then there’s little old me.”
Apart from Thomas, who has appeared on the TV chatshow Trisha and in women’s magazines as mainstream opinion struggles with the possibility that well-adjusted young people might want to shed their clothes for reasons other than sex, there are not many naturist role models. The naked rambler, Stephen Gough, is cold-shouldered by naturists, who insist that a desire to remove clothes in public is not naturism but nudism: nudists (according to the naturists’ definition) foist their nakedness on an unwilling society, while the naturists’ mantra is not to impose it on other people.
Back at Broadlands, a diverse group of young people splash about in the pool. There are students, a lawyer, a taxi driver, a policeman, a physiotherapist, a forklift truck driver, a debt collector and a church leader. “It’s a cliche to say that it’s a leveller, but it is. You don’t know whether you are talking to a duke or a dustman,” says Andrew Welch. The full-time manager of British Naturism has the hair and boundless enthusiasm of a likeable David Brent, although you wouldn’t catch Welch crooning Freelove Freeway. “Naturism is not the least bit sexy,” he says. “Just because you’re in a naturists’ place, it doesn’t promote those feelings. It’s certainly not a spectator sport.”
Men easily outnumber women at the rally. Does this gender imbalance make naturism less appealing for both sexes? “Men generally seem to be more attracted to naturism,” says Welch. Some might assume that men prefer it because they are natural voyeurs, but those at the rally insist they like it less for what they see and more for what they can do: let it all hang out. “There’s a biological reason why it appeals more to men,” reckons Welch. “The man’s genitalia are on the outside because if they were on the inside it would be too warm to produce sperm. If you go back to a caveman-type mentality, one of the reasons men are happier to expose their genitals is because it keeps them cool. There’s a fundamental difference there.”
In the Netherlands, however, there are as many women naturists as men, says Debora, 22. “Naturism is generally more accepted in the Netherlands,” she says. Are Dutch women more at ease with their bodies? “We are more liberal,” Debora says. “If you tell everyone you’re a naturist, they want to join in.”
While the men at the rally tend to have taken more solitary routes into naturism, often enjoying being naked in their bedrooms as teenagers before finding societies for their interest online, most of the women say they discovered naturism through their parents or boyfriend. Debora grew up with naturism in her family but, unlike those who shun naturism through puberty, never covered up. She says she has always felt secure in naturist clubs, where members are vetted. She is convinced that naturism is not a ruse for randy men.
"During the day, when everybody is naked, there is no sexual tension at all. At night, when the clothes come on, there is all this sexual tension. In the Netherlands we have an expression: ‘Guys are more sexy with their clothes on.’ "
Welch has materialised at my shoulder in a T-shirt, Ellesse trainers and nothing else. Debora glances at his clothes teamed with flesh and laughs at the male naturist style. “It’s so awful. All the guys do it,” she says.
One naturist who is definitely cool is Neil, 22, a financial consultant who goes naked except for his old Reading festival wristband and breaks from the games to field a call from an anxious first-time buyer. “The mortgage prices have changed a little bit because interest rates have gone up,” he patiently explains as naked people waft past. “Call me on Tuesday and I’ll be able to progress your application for you.”
"Did you think we’d all be social misfits?" he asks. He believes he can pick out naturists even in the "textile" world (naturist slang for the clothed masses) because they will be unjudgmental and egalitarian. He hopes to find a partner who is also a naturist. "A lot of us have had girlfriends who have come along but not joined up. I try and look for someone within naturism, because then you’ve got someone who understands. It’s such a big part of our lives."
At 6.30pm, the group dress before being served a supper of sausage stew. Afterwards there is a disco and karaoke, bristling with all the normal sexual currents of a nightclub. There is, however, something of the church youth group about the wholesomeness of it all and the young naturists’ slightly defensive insistence that they are completely normal. As the evangelical-style car stickers for sale - “Happiness is no white bits” and “Naturists have nothing to hide” - suggest, the young naturists like to stress its more mundane benefits: a good tan and no more silly “towel dance”, where you wobble about trying to get dressed while concealing things. Their attitude to nakedness is not so different from the repressed majority, either: many women clutch their clothes to their chest at the sauna door; many men drape towels artfully over their groins as they wander about naked.
Several, including Neil, are in fact evangelical Christians. “I know lots of people who aren’t naturists but they walk around naked at home,” he says. “The church is similar to British naturism in that a lot of it is very backward-thinking, looking to the past. If you don’t move forward, it’s just going to fall apart.” Many clubs are “very closed”, he says. Some still ban single men; others shy away from advertising.
It seems ironic that something so apparently uninhibited as naturism has fostered such conservative impulses. Are some clubs stuffy? “Yes, they are,” says Pat Thompson, 53, the president of British Naturism. “They do get very staid in their ways. At 11 o’clock Mo will put the kettle on and at one o’clock someone will make the butties.” Thompson has three daughters; all were brought up with naturism, but none currently practises it. “If you’re a mountaineer, your kids don’t like mountains,” she laughs.
Naturist clubs are a million miles from the slick, commercial ubiquity of modern gyms. Some are defiantly ascetic in their insistence that alcohol and nudity don’t mix and refuse to have a bar. Many have a creaking infrastructure. In all of them, members are vetted, to weed out voyeurs. And that brings its own problems. “People don’t want to belong any more. Now we’re an instant society - people want to do something today, ring up and turn up. They don’t want to go through a vetting process,” says Thompson. “Clubs have to change.”
Thompson suggests that clubs reform the traditional custom of demanding that all members turn up on the first Sunday of every month to do chores. Many people work on Sundays; most want commitment-free facilities. “The youth now probably don’t want to come in and sweep the grounds,” she says.
The clubs that Gerry Ryland, 84, has attended with his wife ever since friends took them to a naturist club after just after the Queen’s coronation are “receding”, he reckons. It is hard to say if this is a final defeat or a victory for naturism. “I have grandchildren and great grandchildren and they are on another planet. They talk a different language,” he says. “Times are changing and naturism has to change. I think there will be more nudity and less naturism in the future.”
Welch makes a similar argument. He is convinced that more people have accepted the naturists’ belief in the physical and emotional benefits of a relaxed attitude towards nudity without feeling obliged to join what many still call “the movement”. Young naturists may be meeting and exchanging ideas on the internet, but as groups everywhere, from hockey teams to political parties, are discovering, people seem increasingly reluctant to volunteer for lifelong club duties.
"I’m not sure in the 21st century that people are as keen to say, ‘I am an -ist’, as in naturist," he says. "It sounds too ideological, too fanatical, too eccentric. People don’t feel like they have to join things any more. We will find more than a million people who say they’ve been on a nude beach, but they will not say, ‘I am a card-carrying naturist.’ " Welch pauses. "I’m not sure where they would keep the card."www.british-naturism.org.uk
This article was amended on Wednesday 26 August 2009 and Friday 19 March 2010 to remove personal details.