Naturism in Hertfordshire: Would you bare all in the great outdoors?
PUBLISHED: 16:38 20 August 2020 | UPDATED: 17:59 20 August 2020
Credit: Jeff Gilbert / Alamy Stock Photo
Not bothering with clothes has been a trend in lockdown, so what is it about going naked that people enjoy? Julie Lucas bares all at a St Albans naturist site to try and find out
‘Oh my god mum, what are you doing?’ I’ve just gone into my teenage daughter’s room as I would on any other day, only this time I have no clothes on. She’s not impressed. But during the pandemic it seems we have shed our inhibitions and with them, our clothes.
In May The Great British Take Off, a British Naturism initiative, encouraged people to ‘furlough their clothes’. During lockdown the organisation reported a 100 per cent rise in interest in naturism.
Tucked away in the village of Bricket Wood near St Albans is a whole naturist community. Spielplatz – the name means playground in German – has been quietly going about its naked business for 90 years.
It was begun by Charles Macaskie and his wife Dorothy and is one of the oldest naturist resorts in England (the oldest is just down the road, also in Bricket Wood; Fiveacres Country Club which opened three years earlier).
The couple’s aim was to create a family-friendly community open to anyone who respected the naturist way of life. Remarkably, their daughter Iseult, aged 88, still lives at the site. She recalls her childhood as ‘endless summer days, running naked in the sunshine with my sisters and 12 acres of wild beautiful woodland’.
She adds, ‘People often get the idea that we didn’t wear clothes at all and that isn’t the case. We lived just like anybody else, the only difference was, that when they were sitting out in the gardens with perhaps a bathing costume or shorts and top, I would be sitting out with nothing on.’
But what happens if you have teenagers, as I do, who would certainly not feel comfortable about the whole ethos?
‘It’s a community and some people take more part in it at various ages than others,’ says resident Tom Dryer-Beers. ‘Many are employed outside and come back to enjoy the place in the off hours and the weekends.’
I’m taking a walk around this small village of wooden chalet-style homes with Tom, I’m fully clothed, he is not. It was a concern when I arranged the interview of what to wear or rather, what not to wear? He reassured me it was not a problem to wear clothes.
But what is the etiquette with these things? Would my gaze lead to, well you know, certain areas? I didn’t want to offend. I had no need to worry, after five minutes my fears faded and Tom’s lack of clothing wasn’t uncomfortable. The 12a-cre site is home to 57 permanent residents, plus members who come and use the facilities. These include an 18-metre swimming pool, hot tub, tennis courts, outdoor picnic area and residents’ clubhouse with pool table, bar and café.
Spielplatz opens for visitors in the summer season from April to September and there are also seasonal residents. There are sites for caravans and camping.
The resort was used as a location for the 1969 film Carry on Camping and I’m reminded of the scene where Barbara Windsor loses her bra in front of a shocked Kenneth Williams. The residents of Spielplatz wouldn’t have taken a second glance.
For Tom, who moved here from Letchworth with his wife Victoria three years ago, it was a natural progression.
‘Naturism itself didn’t even occur to me when I was younger. What I knew was I didn’t like the feeling of wearing clothes. It took for me becoming a life model [when he was 19] to realise I was comfortable being naked in front of others.’
How did he feel when he took his clothes off in front of people for the first time?
‘I was frightened, as everyone is. That first experience is what keeps so many people from experiencing naturism. Unfortunately, society has so many contrary messages, and those messages ingrained from childhood are what stop many people.
‘Naturism itself is about respect for other people, for the environment and living in harmony with nature. The movement has been around for a long time and the historical roots go back to the millennia where people were living without feeling the obligation to wear clothing.
‘Clothing was reserved for the rich; it was wealth, power and status. The common man and woman didn’t wear clothes unless they were used for protective means or special ceremonies. In many ways, naturism is coming back to what used to be the normal way of life.’
With society’s tendency to body shame, Tom believes the movement is an antidote. ‘When you are around other people you realise that there are no perfect bodies. Nobody has the right to chastise you – you come with what you’ve got. Many naturists do take care of their bodies as they are on show, but it’s not mandatory or expected.’
It certainly has its benefits; no indecision about what to wear, no tan lines and less laundry to name a few.
‘Every naturist I’ve ever met feels that if only more people would give it a go, they would realise how silly some of the stigma that has been laid against nudity is.’
Sitting socially distanced (perhaps there is no other way in a nudist camp), in Tom and Victoria’s garden, I’ve been wrestling with whether to bare all. I decide to go for it and disrobe while Tom gets some drinks.
So how does it feel? Remarkably natural actually, after the initial ‘why am I doing this for an article?’ moment. I am amazed that my body-conscious self does not have the urge to grab the nearest palm frond.
I was however a bit shocked when the postman arrived at the back gate with a cheery ‘morning!’. But it was more that he was fully clothed and I wasn’t.
Am I breaking any laws? Thankfully, nudity in a public place is not illegal unless there is an intention to offend. According to the Crown Prosecution Service, ‘a balance needs to be struck between the naturist’s right to freedom of expression and the right of the wider public to be protected from harassment, alarm and distress.’
‘We are just looking for acceptance,’ Tom says. ‘People are gently pushing the boundaries – taking naturist hikes, cycling in the nude – and I think that is a good state of affairs and gradually acceptance may grow.’
He describes the benefits as huge, both physical and mental, ranging from clearing the senses to taking more time with things.
‘You have the benefit of sunlight, even in this coronavirus time. Vitamin D from sunshine exposure is healthy, fresh air is a good thing, and taking part in nature. But leaving nature aside, physical activity is encouraged, swimming and games and socialising and respecting other people.’
The disadvantages are that naturists sometimes feel they live dual lives and negative comments are inevitable.
‘It’s probably the most annoying aspect of it, as you can’t be as true to yourself as you may wish to be,’ Tom explains. He works in a variety of jobs in retail and still works as a life model.
‘Some people I know and trust I tell everything, others – it’s not worth raising, you just figure I’m going to get a negative reaction. I think the majority are still cautious about who they will tell.’
I mention the climate in England not being particularly conducive to nudity and Tom recalls a phrase he has heard – ‘They may be naturists but they’re not crazy’.
‘When it comes to cold weather or if you need to wear clothes for protection, that’s why clothes exist. But when they are not necessary the naturist will say, why am I wearing them?’
Victoria says it has made her a lot less body conscious: ‘You see what people really look like without their clothes on and you realise that the body beautiful is ridiculous. It takes the pressure off. It’s who we really are and not how we look that’s important.’
According to British Naturism president Mark Bass, lockdown has furthered the cause: ‘People have always enjoyed the thrill of a skinny dip or the relaxation of a spa but social isolation has caused an explosion in naked living. ‘When you shed your clothes you also shed just a few of the burdens of everyday life.’