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The raw recruit

By Stephen Moss
August 20, 2003

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Throwing caution - and clothes - to the wind, Stephen Moss checks outs a growing phenomenon - nude walking.
Picture: Cumbrian Newspapers

The Tilley Hat has lent me a subtle air of insouciance and elan, which has hitherto eluded me," said one of the testimonials tucked inside my rather lovely new Tilley Hat (£41.99 - $A104 - from Field and Trek of Brentwood, Essex). This was reassuring as just then, standing naked in Epping Forest apart from the hat, a stout pair of newly acquired Meindl Borneo trekking boots (£115 ditto) and a pair of thick woollen socks, I was having a definite insouciance crisis.

The Great Epping Forest Trek - actually a 45-minute hike between the A104 and the A121 - was inspired by a recent rash of stories about nude hiking (aka "boots-only hiking" or "skinny walking").

Last week, one, or perhaps two, men with athletic builds and all-over tans were spotted in the Yorkshire Dales and are reckoned to be attempting an unclothed traverse of the 400-kilometre Pennine Way. Clearly, a 45-minute walk between two A-roads in Essex is not in this league, but the embarrassment factor is surely the same. Indeed, in my case, greater, as I cannot claim an all-over tan or an athletic build.

The first 10 minutes are the worst: stripping off in the middle of the wood, lacing up the £115 Meindl Borneo boots (this takes about a quarter of an hour), taking the first tentative steps through the crunchily leaf-strewn wood. Every sound constitutes a potential threat and I become convinced that the helicopter hovering overhead has spotted something untoward (unlikely from 10 metres, let alone 300). But gradually I relax and, in a perverse (but not perverted!) way, start to enjoy it.

It was hot in town, but here, in the shade of the forest, a cooling breeze plays lightly across my buttocks and a walk through a field of thigh-high ferns offers its own ticklish pleasures. Sitting on a log to eat a baguette is painful, but - apart from the occasional nettle, an insect bite on the arm and the nagging fear that a fully clothed rambler might appear at any moment - it is a pleasurable, yes, even liberating, experience.

The nagging doubts reflect the fact that the police have yet to decide what they think about boots-only hiking. Clearly, the sight of a man prancing around naked in woodland brandishing a pole could have sinister overtones. It wouldn't take the imagination of the Brothers Grimm to see a tubby, red-faced man with a rucksack as a potential threat. Which is why the insouciance is important.

"A common error that newcomers to naturist walking make is that they dive into a bush when they see someone," says Tony Baldwin, chairman of the Singles' Outdoor Club, which was formed in 1981 as an activity club for naturists. "That makes quite the wrong impression. People think, 'What on earth is that fellow up to in that bush?' Whereas, if they see you're a fellow walker and you don't wish to cause them any threat, most people are perfectly pleasant." So, if you meet a passerby walking their rottweiler, just raise your reassuringly expensive Tilley Hat (which also comes with a testimonial from Sir Edmund Hillary) and say a cheery "good afternoon".

"I have never had an embarrassing moment," says Baldwin, who is 67 and a retired hospital physicist, "and I have been walking for some 12 years. I have never had any complaints from the public, though I have met hundreds of them. The general reaction is pleasant. The vital thing is not to make them think that you're a pervert on the loose or that you intend them some harm." I remember not to brandish my baguette in a threatening way.

The police, however, are not yet satisfied that boots-and-baguettes-only hikers pose no threat to the public. "These incidents might be quite tame, but the police are taking them seriously due to the distress they have clearly caused to the public," says acting chief inspector Tadeusz Nowakowski, who is leading the hunt for the intrepid hiker or hikers attempting a naked crossing of the Pennine Way. "Imagine if your wife was stuck up on her own in the dales, having her sandwiches and a bit of a nap, when suddenly this man comes bumbling around the corner."

In June, as the nude rambling season was getting into full swing, Steve Gough - a 44-year-old former truck driver and father of three - was arrested as he began a nude walk from Land's End to John O'Groats. He was ordered to appear at Truro Magistrates Court and rearrested when he turned up on time, but still naked. Gough says he has embraced a life of "public expression", and the courts in Truro eventually agreed that he hadn't committed a criminal offence.

It took Gough a week to get out of Cornwall and a fortnight ago he ran into trouble at the other end of the country when, soon after he had crossed into Scotland, he was arrested on the A68 wearing only socks, boots and his trusty rucksack. Then, two days later, he was picked up again on the A7 outside Hawick. On his website, some correspondents claimed that Gough, who is campaigning for a change in the law on nudity, was also the man on the Pennine Way. Reports said he had been taken from Hawick to Newquay, where he was also wanted on charges arising from naked hiking, and then headed back north. Gough is fast becoming the standard-bearer of this burgeoning movement, and his exploits have won him considerable exposure, though a planned BBC interview earlier this year had to be abandoned when he turned up wearing only a name badge. Undeterred, Gough posted his philosophy on his website, instead.

"How did I become involved in all this naked stuff?" he asks rhetorically. "Well, when I think back, I suppose I was going along with the way most people cover themselves up without thinking much about it: it was just what I did because everyone else did it. Then one event that really sticks in my mind is after visiting Studland - a naturist beach on the south coast of England. I was sitting with my family and friends on a 'normal' beach and I started to think, well, why not here?

"So I stripped off and enjoyed the sun to its full extent. The only remark I recall, on quite a busy beach, was on leaving the water, a man passed me and uttered 'pervert' in my direction, an insight perhaps into what for many people the naked body represents in this sick society."

"We keep a lower profile than Steve," says Baldwin of the Singles' Outdoor Club, "but I am supportive of him. By attracting the attention of the law, he will hopefully get a resolution. He's really determined to put his point of view forward and I sympathise with him, though I'm not so determined that I'm prepared to get arrested to prove my point. If he wants to walk from one end of the country to the other, good luck to him. It takes a lot of courage."

Baldwin says there is no law against being naked or walking naked, but the police, especially if they receive a complaint, may act under public order regulations. "But why would they think you might be causing a breach of the peace?" asks Baldwin. "You're just walking around like anyone else. We select walks that we know to be slightly more out of the way. We choose the route with a view that we should run into as few people as possible. We do put our shorts on if we see anyone coming, but it's a damn nuisance to keep stopping to cover up and we would prefer not to have to do it."

I don't, unfortunately, have a pair of shorts with me, and trying to get a pair of trousers on over a pair of size 10 Meindl Borneo boots would present a significant challenge to the growing insouciance with which I am now striding through Epping Forest. So I stay within the ferns where possible, give a wide berth to the A104 and A121, and try to ignore that persistent helicopter. As far as naturism goes, I appear to be a natural, though I may not yet be ready to join Gough's militant wing.

Baldwin is disappointed that, so far, boots-only hiking appeals mainly to men, and the fact that the ratio of men to women in the Singles' Outdoor Club is 6:1 is posing problems. "I don't know whether men are more outward-going, less inhibited about being seen naked, or there are generally more men than women who are interested in naturism," he says. "There may be something about walking publicly that is inhibiting for some women, though I'm sure, if they were to try it, they would enjoy it."

Come on, girls, you have nothing to lose but your chains.

Baldwin reckons that thousands of people have discovered the joys of naked walking and believes that boots-only hikers are winning the argument.

"Clothes are a darned nuisance," he says, "unless you need them to keep warm or to maintain a reasonable equilibrium in society - if you were going to the shops, for example. If you're warm enough, it's much better not to wear clothes.

"Out in the countryside, I do feel much more in tune with nature. I can feel the breeze on my skin and the sun on my back. It's like being back in paradise. But make sure you wear enough sun cream."

- Guardian

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