‘Our weekend mantra? Grin and bare it!’

What makes nearly four million Brits want to go naked in their spare time? Members of the naturist community tell (fully clothed) Eimear O’Hagan why losing their inhibitions helps them strip away their troubles, too

Naturism – the practice of social nudity – has seen a huge surge in interest over the past 18 months. British Naturism, one of the sector’s leading organisations in the UK, reports it has gained 2,000 new members since the beginning of 2020 – a figure which far exceeds its usual membership uptake.

Fiona Discombe and her husbnad Michale, photographed at naturist retreat Max’s Garden, West Sussex

It’s perfectly legal to be a naturist in the UK – the 2003 Sexual Offences Act excludes naturism providing the naked person doesn’t intend to cause ‘alarm and distress’ – and the most recent survey into the lifestyle choice revealed there are around 3.7 million naturists stripping off in their spare time.

The timing of the 2020 lockdown during the spring and summer months was significant, according to Andrew Welch, a spokesperson from British Naturism, which currently has 9,160 members in the UK (its highest number since 2013). ‘The sense of freedom and empowerment nudity brings has been a very effective antidote to the feelings of being trapped and out of control many of us have experienced since the pandemic began.’ Overleaf, naturists reveal how going naked has changed their lives… for the better

Helen Berriman and her husband Simon are fans of nude sunbathing.

‘OUR NEIGHBOURS ARE USED TO IT’

Helen Berriman (above), 46, is a carer and lives in Bromley, Kent, with her husband Simon, 46, and Helen’s 14-year-old daughter from a previous relationship.

As someone who only discovered the joy of being naked last year, it’s still a source of amazement to me how good it makes me feel. Like many British people, I was brought up to believe being naked was a private act.

I met Simon in 2015 and one of the first things he told me about himself was that he lived a ‘clothing optional’ lifestyle. I didn’t pay it much attention until he moved in with me and my teenage daughter later that year. He works from home and if I got back from work earlier than expected, he’d often be naked at his desk. I loved him but felt very uncomfortable about the nudity. We married in 2017, by which point we’d reached an understanding that naturism was his ‘thing’ but he was only to be naked when home alone or in our bedroom with me.

During the first lockdown, when I was furloughed, I came across an ad for women of ‘all ages, shapes and sizes’ to take part in a lingerie campaign for an online retailer. I don’t know what came over me, but I decided to apply. To my surprise, I was chosen and featured in the ad campaign which was a real confidence booster.

Last July, we went to a photoshoot at a naturist resort. At first, I kept my clothes on, but after a while I felt silly because everyone else was naked and they all seemed so comfortable. Taking a deep breath, I stripped off and posed with Simon. To my surprise it felt so liberating.

Just over a year later, I love to sunbathe naked in our garden – our neighbours are used to seeing both Simon and I nude.

‘I USED TO BE PRIVATE, BUT NOW I’M PROUD’

Fiona Discombe (centre below), 52, is the manager of naturist retreat Max’s Garden. She lives in Pulborough, West Sussex, with her husband Michael, 49. From yoga to table tennis and water polo,

I love getting involved in the activities at Max’s Garden in West Sussex that Michael and I have managed since 2019. I feel so lucky that my job allows me to enjoy a naturist lifestyle – it’s a dream come true.

I wasn’t always this confident about my body, but everything changed 20 years ago on holiday in Greece. Michael and I had planned to spend the day at the beach but it was so crowded we walked up the coastline searching for a quieter spot.

When we stumbled upon a nudist beach, we were both taken aback – but we agreed to give it a go. I felt nervous as I peeled off my swimming costume but I quickly realised nobody was paying any attention to me. As the day went on, I felt more comfortable and confident. Now, naturism has become an important part of my life. In 2019, we holidayed at Max’s Garden. We loved it but felt it was a bit run-down. We approached the owner and said we believed we could help make it a more popular naturist destination, and soon after, we took over as managers.

Since then, the retreat has won an award for Best UK Naturist Venue, and we welcome guests from all walks of life. Nudity is such a leveller: everyone from doctors to digger drivers holiday here. Since the pandemic began, we’ve had new guests staying with us who are recent converts to naturism. It’s wonderful to help them enjoy their first naturist holiday, and they all insist it won’t be their last. I used to keep my love of naturism private. In my previous job in the NHS, I would never have mentioned it to colleagues for fear of being judged.

Now I’m very open about my lifestyle. I’m proud to be a part of this community and through it I’ve grown to accept, and appreciate, my body.

Max’s Garden managers Fiona and Michael Discombe (centre and far left) with owner Mark Cleaver and guests Alana Peterker and Jan Grobler

‘I WANT TO GO ON A WORLD NAKED BIKE RIDE!’

Alana Peterker (above, seated), 19, works in hospitality and lives in Sunbury, Surrey, with her mother. She met her friend Jan Grobler, 39, while working at a restaurant.

I’m quite new to naturism. I was introduced to it by my colleague Jan just before coronavirus hit, when he convinced me to tag along to Max’s Garden. The first time I went, I was a little uncomfortable. There were naked people everywhere as soon as I walked in, but after a few minutes I started to relax. Now, whenever I see all those natural bodies, any negativity that I have towards my body just disappears.

Swimming is probably one of my favourite activities to do naked, either on my own or with some friends ‒ for me it feels like a normal day out. Some people go shopping, we go naked swimming. The environment is very different from everyday life – it’s freeing and helps clear my head.

Due to the pandemic, I haven’t yet been able to fully explore the lifestyle. I would love to participate in one of the World Naked Bike Rides, visit the beaches in the UK, and go abroad to experience naturism in different cultures. Instead, I’ve had to experiment around the house and at resorts such as Max’s Garden.

I’ve just finished college so I still live at home. I grew up in a family that is very open about bodies, although my mum did need convincing when I told her about wanting to go to the spa with Jan. I think she was apprehensive about our age gap, but now she knows that he’s a decent person and we’re in a safe environment, she’s accepting of it.

All-weather naturist Beatrice Berry enjoys walking and swimming naked in the countryside

‘I LOVE BEING NAKED IN ALL WEATHERS’

Beatrice Berry (above), 26, works in hospitality and lives in Herefordshire with her parents.

My first proper naturist experience happened in 2014 when I was in my late teens. On a boiling hot summer day, I headed alone to a lake near my home for a swim. On a whim I took off all my clothes. Plunging into the water completely naked was a euphoric moment I’ll never forget. I began going for naked country walks, or sitting for hours in the woods just listening to the sounds of nature around me, feeling connected to the earth with no clothes as a barrier.

Unlike some naturists, who enjoy being naked in groups, for me it’s mainly a solitary activity. It’s time to think, reflect and appreciate my body and nature, walking through fields and swimming. And I’m a 365-day-a-year naturist. I love being naked in all weathers – I once climbed Hay Bluff in the Brecon Beacons, Wales, in a light blizzard! I’m conscious that I’m a lone female, naked in secluded locations, and I do try to choose my naturist destinations carefully to ensure I am alone and safe. I have been disturbed in the past, once by two gamekeepers and another time by a man walking his dog. Thankfully, they all carried on walking and it hasn’t deterred me.

In contrast to my preference to be naked alone in real life, I share my naturist activities virtually with over 30,000 followers on Instagram (@beatriceelizabethberry), posting images of myself naked in the countryside.

Mostly I get supportive comments from women and men who’ve been inspired by me. Inevitably, I also receive sleazy messages and photos from men but I just ignore them.

For me naturism is so important to my emotional wellbeing. On days when I feel down, I know a couple of hours naked in nature will lift my spirits. Now, when I wear clothes and make-up I feel as though I’m performing a part. Being naked and barefaced among the trees is where I feel most comfortable and content.

For more information on naturist events, locations and communities, visit anaturistworld.com

Photographs: Pal Hansen. Additional Reporting: Charlotte Vossen