On a secluded campsite on the south coast, my friend Rosie and I are watching two septuagenarians run around a tiny tennis court in 30-degree heat. They’re wearing nothing but trainers and we’re wearing nothing but sun cream. On the court, bodies flap and judder. “Who’s Federer and who’s Nadal?” I shout, between sips from the courtside drinks we’ve carried over from our holiday home. Bernard grins. Linda shouts that she’d be a player we’ve never heard of (she’s currently losing the match). “GO ON, LINDA!” my friend Rosie screams.
Miniten, which is essentially a miniature game of tennis, is “the” naturist sport and — as newbies to this lifestyle — Rosie and I have been invited to learn how to play by the pair, who have lived naked at weekends and during holidays for decades. But they aren’t the only veterans who have taken us under their wing. We’ve been at the Apollo Sun Club, a naturist camp near Brighton, for two days and have been invited to so many soirées at the chalets on site that we’ve almost seen off a box of soave we thought would last all week. “Thank God we got two boxes,” Rosie says, as we walk over to Tim and Doris’ — a couple in their sixties — that evening. “Yeah naturists drink a lot,” I agree.
Rosie and I aren’t the only ones interested in daring to bear. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 1,700 new members have joined British Naturism [BN], taking the organisation’s numbers to more than 9,000. Even the celebs are at it, 44-year-old actor Orlando Bloom just shared a snap of him enjoying a dip in the nude five years on from that naked paddleboarding episode. “We’ve seen even more new members joining this June than last June,” Andrew Welch, the commercial manager of BN says. “We put it down to eroding taboos — but also to the pandemic. With people wanting to be outside in nature after a lockdown; dressing more casually because they’re not going into offices; the great weather and of course not being able to go abroad to the European sites which are so popular. Taking your clothes off is about many more social conventions than just getting a great tan, it’s about feeling free.”
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Launched in lockdown, British Naturism’s programme of online events — including cooking demos, yoga and exercise classes, quizzes, reading clubs and coffee mornings — was a gateway for many naturism-curious. Since then, in-person events such as naked runs and swims have been mobbed with new recruits — who include 27-year-old Laura from Cambridgeshire. She joined BN last month after missing out on tickets to a quickly sold-out naked swim at a Pembrokeshire lido.
“I’m what you’d call, in a politically-correct way, ‘curvaceous’ but being overweight has meant I’ve always felt more comfortable naked than in clothes that never fit me as well as they fit mannequins in shops... I still live with my parents, so unfortunately I don’t get to be nude much at home — try to respect their wishes not to see their grown-up daughter with nothing on — but on holidays I take my clothes off as soon as I get home. Naturism has always interested me, I guess. My parents think it’s pretty cool — my stepmum said ‘each to their own’. My dad said it was probably better than being into drugs.”
For Laura, joining BN was about meeting new, like-minded people and she’s been to two naturist days in the last fortnight. “The first time I went to my local club, the Cambridge Outdoor Club, I was nervous to start with. But then the clothes came off and I felt like I’d smiled for the first time in a long time. I felt relief, happiness, freedom — it’s a strange sensation adapting to no one caring that you’re naked but I found people were more interested in my accent and my tattoos than my body. I find it an amazingly relaxing experience and older naturists I meet say I’m lucky to have found it so young. They feel they’ve missed out on 50 years of fun by finding it later in life.”
Having once lived on a naturist site near Amsterdam for a month (an ex and I needed somewhere to live and it was cheap in January) this naturist holiday is not my first nude rodeo — but Rosie has only ever been to naturist beach. As a total newbie to the scene, Rosie has a lot of questions. “Do you think we’ll be the youngest there? Do you think everyone will comment on our hot bods? I feel a little bush would go a long way in this environment?” she messages before we set off and I answer (from my prior experience): “Definitely yes; definitely not; definitely.”
At the club, we’re shown to our chalet and suddenly feel nervous so we decide to have lunch before contemplating “the big strip”. We pour a glass of wine and watch a slow mid-week day unfold. A woman with cool, cropped hair and large breasts clears the pool and several naked, very tanned campers recline on deck chairs outside their caravans.
The Apollo Sun Club — a small, members-run site with a camping pitch of about six plots and 100 members — is bordered by Seventies-style chalets and their owners come as often as possible in season, April to October. Otherwise, the place operates just like a campsite and has that shared, friendly feel. On a weekday, it’s quiet with no more than a dozen couples enjoying the sun. Weekends, when more day visitors descend, tend to be busier and there are bonfires and barbecues. Next month, there’ll be a “tea at the Ritz” event with scones and sandwiches and “a glass of champagne for £2.50”. “It’s Cava,” one woman whispers, when I mention that maybe I’ll come back for a bargain glass.
At 30 and 31, Rosie and I the youngest here by a long way but members range from about 30 to 90, and three of generations of one family come here, too.
The rule is that newbies are given time to get into it and after a glass of wine, Rosie and I are having lunch in bras and jeans. After another glass we’re in just underwear, and by a third we’re naked and smoking in the heat. “We just played strip poker without the cards,” I tell her and we congratulate ourselves on getting into the spirit of things within two hours. “It definitely wasn’t this easy in -5C in Amsterdam,” I add, as we walk to the pool, waving to the naked campers and feeling anxieties replaced by excitement and freedom.
From then on, the other campers come one-by-one to introduce themselves and we hear a dozen stories of their own introductions to naturism. Most of them started on beaches, realising how much they liked swimming naked and hated the way swimwear clings after a dip. Indeed, this seems to be the primary reason for taking everything off to begin with.
A very bronzed man wearing dark sunglasses rides his mobility scooter over to our deckchairs and tells us he first realised he liked sunbathing nude when he was in the Merchant Navy. “In the Sixties I used to sunbathe naked on the deck of the P&O cruises we sometimes travelled on if I could find a quiet spot — several of us did. The gay men on the crew used to say ‘we’ll be accepted before you’. They thought we were perverts, but they were right about the acceptance. From then it took two years for homosexuality to be legalised.”
Sixty years later, there’s still a stigma around naturism and many of the regulars at the Apollo keep it a secret from their families and friends. “We’re in the Cotswolds this week,” Stanley tells us one evening as we have drinks at the chalet he shares with his partner Anne, both in their fifties. “What?” I ask, confused. “Every year we go to the ‘Cotswolds’ for a holiday because my family don’t know we’re naturists,” Anne explains. The couple met later in life and Stanley — already a member of the Apollo — introduced it to Anne. “Earlier, the grandkids tried to videocall me and I had to run home to put a top on,” she says, dropping her mouth in mock horror. “When people ask how I manage to avoid tan lines, I just tell them I drive with the top down,” she adds, as we burst out laughing.
Traditionally, it does seem to be the men that find the lifestyle first — perhaps because women may feel less safe naked on their own. Yet Rosie and I agree we’ve both felt more comfortable here than we have felt clothed with men in other environments. “When no one is wearing anything, conversation is all about eye-contact,” people tell us, which is true. And realising that no one cares what you look like is beyond a relief when you live in the Instagram world.
It’s hard to imagine how quickly you become used to living like this, but you really do. Within a day, Rosie and I have decided that we could easily come back every year to kick-start a tan without any lines. We spend our final night sitting around a bonfire, dressed — as is the preference with most in the evenings when the temperature drops —with Bob Dylan playing from speakers and our new naturist mates handing us beers and discussing the Harry Styles cop drama filmed in Brighton, My Policeman. We could be anywhere, but the rhythms of the camp have already appealed to us. “You got into it quick,” Anne says. “We were watching — not in a weird way,” she adds quickly. “But you do wonder how people are going to get on when they first arrive. It took me a bit of time to strip off because there were things about my body I didn’t like until I realised no one cared.”
New to the game, Rosie is also completely sold. “It’s the sense of community that I love — I feel like I’ve been looking for that for quite a while, but I didn’t expect to find it here,” she shares as we sit around the bonfire. “And you really do feel more confident about yourself by the end of it, it’s a great boost for self-esteem.”
“The sun made a massive difference,” I agree. “But what do you do when it’s raining?” I ask Steve. “We wear see-through boiler suits,” he tells me. “Really?” I ask. “No!” Sarah answers. “We’re naturists not nutters.”
*Some names have been changed.
A naturist’s holiday guide do’s and don’ts
Always sit on a towel
Bring enough booze
Dress up for dinner (or at least dress) if you feel like it
Pack strong suncream for the bits that never see the sun
Leave your chalet doors open and unlocked — it’s a safe, trusting environment
Call it a “nudist” camp (nudists are seen as more “exhibitionist” than naturists)
Worry about the shape you arrive in
Take photos without permission — voyeurism is a big risk
Assume friends or partners wouldn’t be interested in this style of holiday
The Apollo Sun Club
The guest chalet on this un-intimidating campsite is a bargain £50-a-night and is located in the pretty town of Hassocks near Brighton.
The Naturist Foundation
Located in Orpington, this bigger site has a covered, heated pool and 50 acres of woodland.
Clover Spa and Hotel
Less campsite, more spa break with holistic massage and facials, plus a pool and luxurious accommodation. Closest city: Birmingham.
With similar chalets to the Apollo, this site is surrounded by National Trust forest and has a sauna, steam room, swimming pool and hot-tub.
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