It was summer 2021 and Nick Mayhew-Smith pressed into the bosky depths of ancient woodland outside Hastings. When he got to the centre, he undressed and perched on an accommodating mossy log. Slowly, he recalls, nature started to quicken around him. It was like a romantic tableau of a nude in the woods, he says – except the naked human subject was carrying a packet of nuts and a sensible backpack.
The pandemic had left the 53-year-old London-based guidebook writer run ragged with work and homeschooling, and a naked stroll in a quiet woodland seemed just the ticket to restore his shattered nerves. “If you sit somewhere remote, fully naked and perfectly still, wildlife starts to get used to you,” Mayhew-Smith, a naturist for three decades, explains. “Birds hop closer, squirrels and badgers emerge: you become, and this is the best way to put it, part of nature. It’s a magical experience, and it really comes into its own in times of stress.”
Mayhew-Smith is one of an estimated 1.3 million Britons who embrace the life-affirming joys of going publicly unclothed (roughly on a par with the membership of the Church of England). During the first pandemic lockdown in 2020, British Naturism saw the fastest growth in new members since it was founded in 1964, and Google searches for the term “naked sunbathing” surged by 384% during the spring 2020 mini-heatwave.
Now there are naked virtual yoga and book groups and pastimes such as #buffbaking, as well as a nude WFH subculture (the Reddit/r/Nudism chews over hacks to avoid Zoom-flashing one’s boss, from canny camera tilts to white lies about malfunctioning webcams). This summer, as the mercury rose, British businesses, from lidos to pubs with nice gardens, realised it made good financial sense to “cater to the buff pound”. There were regular clothes-optional events at holiday resorts, from Croatia to Sardinia, as companies sought to tap into the burgeoning market for naked getaways by advertising designated naturist-friendly trails, hotels and resorts.
Our current moment, says academic Annebella Pollen, author of Nudism in a Cold Climate, echoes the era when naturism first emerged. “After the First World War and flu pandemic, there was this huge appetite to find new ways of living, explore new social structures and to feel free,” she says.
Facebook Twitter High point: Beatrice Berry. Photograph: Pål Hansen/The Observer
Naturism has its roots in Germany in the 1890s, when freikörperkultur, or “free body culture”, emerged alongside rambling, as a reaction to rapid urbanisation. Freikörperkultur emphasised being naked in the outdoors, and communalism, as the health-giving antidotes to dirty industrial towns. The movement, then better known as nudism or “gymnosophy”, arrived in Britain in the roaring 1920s.
“It was strongly associated with health and vegetarianism, and was centred around small naked gatherings, or camps,” Pollen says. This early scene attracted middle-class intellectuals engaged in a then-fashionable enquiry into the nature of bodily shame. By the outbreak of the Second World War, there were an estimated 40,000 practitioners in Britain. After the war, freikörperkultur’s association with Nazism prompted an effort to rebrand naturism as a parochially British pursuit. Pollen’s book depicts early postwar naturists putting up tents, taking afternoon tea in sandals and planting vegetables.
“Naturism” also came into common usage after the war, partly in an effort, Pollen notes, to set the tradition apart from pornographic nudity and the 60s free-love movement (a fault-line that still runs through naturism today, adherents being quick to emphasise that sexual arousal has no place in the naturist scene). Today, the traditional naturist scene is anchored around long-standing “sun clubs”, such as Spielplatz in St Albans (established in the 1920s); naturist-friendly beaches such as Studland in Dorset and Pedn Vounder in Cornwall; and an informal roster of clothes-free pub nights.
Helen Berriman, 46, from Bromley, describes herself as “a pandemic nudism convert”. When she met her husband, Simon, a naturist for the past 15 years, he made it clear that he was into a “clothing-optional lifestyle”, but Berriman was nonplussed. “I thought it was a bit weird. I’d come home from work and find him at home naked at his desk and we’d have a robust conversation about it and he’d pull something on and that was that.”
This changed in July 2020 when Berriman, on furlough from her job as a retail manager at an opticians, agreed to take part in an event organised by nudity campaigners Normalising Nudity. “It was a kind of reverse life-drawing class where all the artists were naked and I was the fully dressed model,” she explains. As she posed, sitting primly in her shin-length yellow sundress, Berriman began to feel “really a bit silly” being covered up. Ten minutes later, she drew a deep breath and stripped off. “To my great surprise the world had not stopped and I was naked and felt really quite wonderful.”
In March 2021, Berriman handed in her notice at the opticians and now works for British Naturism. Today, she credits her passion for social nakedness with a wholesale improvement in her physical and mental health. “I have an all-over tan, I’ve come off antidepressants after a decade and I’m really accepting of other people,” she says. “Looking back I think I was quite judgmental.”
Facebook Twitter ‘People think it’s about exhibitionism, but it’s not’: Donna and John. Photograph: Fabio De Paola
When it comes to the claims around naturism and wellbeing, it seems the Germans were on to something. “There’s a growing body of literature showing naturism has physiological and psychological benefits,” says academic and queer naturist Dr Helen Bowes-Catton. “From lowered blood pressure to improved self-esteem and lowered stress levels. People think naturism is about exhibitionism, but it’s not. It’s about how amazing it feels to have the sun and breeze on your skin.”
But even committed fans admit that naturism has suffered something of an image problem, titteringly elided with suburban swinging, or worse, conceived of as fuddy-duddy. Also, it’s overwhelmingly heterosexual and male. Although that is changing.
Rick Stacey, British Naturism’s LGBTQ+ and diversity officer, estimates that, historically, LGBTQ+ attendance at social events was, at around 2% of the naturist corps, far from representative of broader British society. “Happily this is changing quite quickly,” he says. “We’ve recently been approached by prospective gay Muslim members.”
Population ageing is another worry, says Paul Rouse, 63, who also runs Naturist Travel, a travel review website. “There’s this abiding fear that the older naturists will die off and all of the cherished social clubs would ‘go textile’,” he says, employing the naturist lingo for going over to the (fully-clothed) dark side.
British businesses are now catering to the buff pound
Beatrice Berry, 27, a warehouse operative based in Hertfordshire, is representative of a new generation of naturists who prefer naturist social media to traditional in-person social clubs, and small-group activities, such as naked trekking with clothed friends. It’s a looser form of public nakedness that’s sometimes described as “free-range naturism”.
“I’m an introvert at heart, so I’m quite wary about who I get involved with in any aspect of life,” she says. Her timidity doesn’t extend to Instagram, where, as @beatriceelizabethberry, she greets her 43,000 followers with her naturist portraits, conquering the summit of Pen Y Fan in Wales, naked and peeking through the windows of a red phone box, and striding about unclothed in various sun-dappled woodlands.
Berry discovered naturism at the same time as millennial body-positivity discourses and uses it to heal her own mental health and body-image issues. “I can’t be arsed to go to the gym to get a six-pack or whatever,” she says, “and honestly I really don’t think any of that stuff is healthy. It’s ‘Here I am, with my clothes off, take me as you find me.’” She explains that she always travels with a sarong to hand for an impromptu cover-up. “Saying that, I think it is good, in a way, for families with kids to encounter me, just this normal-looking naked woman walking in the woods.”
Naked festivals such as The Naturist Foundation’s Party in the Stark (held at their holiday park in Kent) and Nudefest at Thorney Lakes in Somerset, where hundreds of naturists will gather for naked yoga, axe-throwing and naturist trips to the East Somerset Railway, cater to a generation of youthful and less committed naturists, as do charity events such as World Naked Bike Ride and Naked Run. For some, these events might be a stepping stone to naturism as a way of life.
Facebook Twitter Net gain: fun at Brocken Hurst. Photograph: Pål Hansen/The Observer
“You might take part in a charity skinnydip and realise it is actually rather wonderful to swim naked and surprisingly natural to be naked around other people,” Rouse says. “Young naturists are less club-centred, but also much more public about their naturism and I think that’s OK: social movements have to move forward or they stultify,” he adds.
Berry and her boyfriend hope to launch a series of small-scale events and overseas holidays that are inclusive of bodies with tattoos and piercings, which can, they say, be disapproved of on the traditional naturism scene. “It can be conservative like that and it does put my generation off.”
Free-range naturism, too, has its drawbacks, says David Salisbury, 47 and a gay naturist of Asian British heritage. “Some naturists, particularly women naturists, struggle to feel safe in an uncontrolled environment, so the traditional clubs offer a safe space where diversity can flourish away from the gawkers that you can find at nudist beaches,” he says. Sun clubs often have strict rules that have been set down for decades. At other venues, an unspoken etiquette holds sway, says Fiona Discombe, naturist travel blogger and manager of Sussex naturist retreat Max’s Garden. “When you’re talking to people, you have to talk to their faces rather than their breasts or bits,” she says, “and that can take effort at first. There’s no videoing or taking photos: phones are left at the door.”
Partly, of course, the fabric of social clubs that have grown up around naturism is down to the climate: Britain lacks the sun-blessed, naturist-friendly coastlines of Croatia and the Côte d’Azur but, in other senses, is a warm climate for the unclothed. Being naked in public is not a criminal offence in England and Wales, unlike in some countries and many US states, although under Section 66 of Sexual Offences Act 2003 an individual can be arrested if it is proved they went naked with an intent to shock or cause distress.
Salisbury, whose partner Rich also dabbles in naturism, sees himself as a “functional naturist”, fond of living as much of his life as possible unclothed and never happier than when he’s swimming naked in an Alpine lake. Having lived in Germany and seen both naturist cultures close up, he now views naturism as something of a social-spiritual tonic.
Facebook Twitter Water ways: Nick Mayhew-Smith. Photograph: Nick Mayhew-Smith
“Naturism improves your emotional wellbeing, definitely, but I wonder whether it’s nudity that’s good for you or, rather, that there’s a widespread complex around the body that’s profoundly damaging to our self-image and that naturism is an inoculation against this,” he says.
Donna Price, 57, also sees naturism as the simple gesture of going about one’s ordinary life without clothes. Price and her retired husband John, 72, have been keen naturists since they chanced upon a nudist beach on holiday in New Zealand in 2010. Price is a committed naked gardener and buff baker, posting her experiments on her Twitter account, @nakedfreestyler. In 2019, the Prices moved from Kent to Lincolnshire so they could potter naked in the garden without upsetting their suburban neighbours.
The pandemic has also seen them turning their hands to naked house-painting, which Price admits requires a certain dexterity. “During the pandemic people started enjoying the feeling of being naked when they were doing really normal things, such as office work, gardening, cooking and housework,” Price says. “And I love that.” She recently spoke to the WI, naked via Zoom, as an ambassador for women in naturism, and believes that the souls of middle England are ripe to be captured.
“The members were really receptive, so I really hope we see a rash of WI naturists,” she smiles.
Following her Damascene conversion, Berriman believes that all of our lives might be better lived in the buff. “You won’t understand the absolute feeling of freedom and acceptance that comes from being naked in public until you try it,” she says. “Yes, your body is saggier and older than it ever was, but this is the body you’re travelling through this life in. Why not embrace it and start living?”