I Went Skinny Dipping Through London to See if the UK Is Ready for Naturism
The British Naturism society want September to become "Septembare", and for Brits to strip off in their droves. But is the country ready for a nudist revolution?
Dawn has just broken outside Kensington Palace: the perfect time for a naked swim. Queen Victoria looks down stonily as I strip off, but except for her, the swans, ducks, geese, joggers, dog walkers, sleepy-eyed shift workers and the small army of police guarding the royals, we are completely alone. The pond beckons.
This weekend, as you are no doubt already aware, witnessed the watery birth of The Great British Skinny Dip. It's a gimmick thought up by British Naturism – the national society for social nudity – to promote their cause. By now – the hope will have been – the beaches, lakes and leisure centres of this country will have seen more naked arses than a Brentwood bikini waxer. The organisers hope it will be the start of a whole month – if not an era – of public nudity. They've even given it a name: "Septembare".
It's a cute effort, but is our cold and hateful little island really ready for this nude dawn? We might have permitted ourselves a tiny rush of titillation when we heard, in June, that a clothes-free restaurant had opened in London, but we've made up for it by keeping Stephen Gough, "the naked rambler", in prison for a total of ten years.
Our priorities are all messed up: at one of Britain's few nudist beaches, in Dorset, located conveniently on the site of an old WWII training ground, the signs warning about the eyeball-melting dangers of naked people are at least ten times bigger than those alerting visitors to the presence of unexploded bombs.
So: being naked in public – harmless fun or more hazardous than a Nazi firestorm? I decided to skinny dip across London to find out.
Except for the great, dirty, deadly river that slices the city in half, and all the toxic canals, there aren't very many public bodies of water to choose from. In general, if you wish to splash around in the buff, officially sanctioned spots are few and far between: swimming pools in the dead of night; beaches miles from civilisation. Naturists may have shed their clothes, but society conspires to keep them in the shadows.
Standing naked in the harsh and unforgiving light of day, it's hard to see why they need to stay hidden. Nobody seems to be batting an eyelid. Perhaps the early morning commuter crowd rushing through Kensington Gardens just don't have the energy for fits of apoplexy. Internally, they may very well be boiling with rage, like little suited and booted volcanoes. Externally, all they seem to be able to muster is an indulgent smile, a mild tut.
The Round Pond – an ornamental lake created in 1730 by King George II – is about as public and inappropriate a swimming spot as one could hope to find. But not even the swans are perturbed when I launch myself at them. They gather around in a curious and not at all threatening or frightening manner as I thrash clumsily through their home.
The lack of noticeable outrage is almost disappointing. A flock of geese angrily shriek from the sky, but I think they're more upset at me for having stolen their spot than out of any sense of avian propriety. It's not that I intended to cause alarm or distress – that would be in contravention of section 5 of the 1986 Public Order Act – but I have a feature to write, and happily floating around without a care in the world just doesn't make great copy.
Sadly, it looks like the flaming torches and pitchforks might be in short supply. According to Andrew Welch, spokesperson for British Naturism, Britain could – after almost two centuries of self-hatred – finally be shedding its miserable Victorian values.
"We are in the second decade of the 21st Century and things are starting to change," says Welch. "The idea of being naked on a beach isn't the shocking, eyebrow-raising dinner party subject that it used to be. There's a lot of that old fashioned attitude still around, but you just have to keep chipping away. The principle thrust behind [Septembare] is that we want the world to know that naturism is something they should consider as a good thing, not as a bad thing. What we are doing is good and healthy."
There is absolutely nothing good or healthy about our next "swim". Driving east through central London and towards the financial sector, we stop at the Barbican, a brutalist monolith built to plug one of the many vast holes left in the city by the Blitz.
From a distance, the lake at the centre of the complex looks idyllic. Reeds sway gently in the wind; a naked fish leaps happily from the water. We get closer and the fish leaps again, more desperately this time. And then it shudders and sinks back into the scummy murk. Soon I will be that fish.
It's barely even 9AM. All I want is hot coffee, but my good and kind friend, photographer Sarah Lee, has become a cold-hearted monster. "We can have a nice breakfast in the café afterwards. If you just get in here," she says, testing the light and gesturing towards a puddle of dysentery, "everything will be fine."
The Barbican Estate contains over 2,000 flats. A disconcertingly large proportion of them seem to have lakeside views. I know, in my heart-of-hearts, that there won't be any breakfast in the fancy café afterwards. The best we can hope for is not to be thrown from a high window when they inevitably cast us out into the street.
As people watch from the myriad walkways and windows, I strip and step gingerly into the unknown. The water barely rises above my ankles. There is no swimming to be had here: only a sort of slimy slither as I drag my naked body over the wet gravel. This is truly disgusting. I eagerly await the alarm bells and sirens and the warm, dry embrace of a security guard or two.
But they take their sweet time. It's only when we start setting up comedy diving shots that the authorities reluctantly take interest. "I'm very sorry, but I'm afraid we are going to have to ask you to leave," says a security man, sounding genuinely apologetic. "We've had a complaint, you see."
No anger. No outrage. Not even any particular curiosity. Just protocol: one of the 4,000 or so residents has raised a complaint, and so we must be escorted from the premises. We don't even know if it was about the nudity; it could have been the fact we were disturbing the ducks.
As we're hurried into a lift and (very politely) herded out of the building, I pause for a moment to consider how tolerant the city has been so far. We've already skinny dipped halfway across town, and far from being shouted at, shamed or told to cover up, our only real punishment has been denial of breakfast.
Even so, I feel like a coward for leaving so quietly. Public nudity, after all, is no crime.
"Legally, you are quite within your rights," says British Naturism's Andrew Welch. "The law is very much in favour of naturism. There's nothing illegal about it. Attention might be paid because it's unusual behaviour. Someone might think it's illegal behaviour and call the police, and by then the damage is done. People should download our legal crib sheet."
The idea of having to argue the finer points of the law with the Metropolitan Police – not always the most reasonable bunch – without my clothes fills me with dread. Luckily, a lawyer friend decides to join us at our next destination.
The Basin – a cleaned-up shipping yard the size of two football pitches in the Docklands – is our final stop. If we can strip here without getting tasered or arrested, our mission will have been accomplished and London can officially be declared the nudist capital of the world.
And if the police do turn up, there's nothing like a living, breathing lawyer standing stark bollock naked beside you to really ruin their day.
"What we are doing is perfectly legal," says Paul as he takes off his pants.
Overlooked by some of the city's most iconic erections – the Gherkin, The Shard, and Canary Wharf – we join hands and plunge into the deep, dark water of the Thames. Nobody says a thing.
The evidence is incontrovertible. Britain is ready. It's past time we let naturists in from the cold. And gave them a hug and said sorry, too. No more isolated beaches hidden from sight, no more police and certainly no more prison.
Swimming naked isn't a sexual perversion. It's natural and fun. Londoners might not have leapt out of their suits to join me, but nor did they pelt us with rocks like incensed Medieval peasants.
Deciding whether or not to wear clothes might not be as important a human right as, say, having a free press or the right of assembly – but it is a choice people deserve to have. And I will unleash the naked lawyer on anyone who dares disagree.
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