Would you go skinny dipping with total strangers? It’s Britain’s cheekiest new craze. Sara Lawrence bravely took the plunge…
Lost in thought, I surrender myself to a feeling of blissful peace and contentment, as the warm afternoon rays of the September sun beat down on my exposed skin.
In the distance, I can see picnicking families sprawled out on their Cath Kidston rugs, hear the muffled squeals of excitable toddlers and make out the blurry forms of yummy mummies chasing after them.
I’m on Wimbledon Common in London, which is the epitome of Saturday afternoon, middle-class contentment.
Everyone, including me, is here to make the most of summer’s last throes.
Unlike everyone else though, I am not nibbling on a sandwich or throwing a stick for a dog to chase. Neither am I dressed in a pretty Boden frock and designer flip-flops. In fact I’m not dressed in anything — I’m as naked as the day I was born.
Yes, that’s right, I am in a park in broad daylight, with not a stitch of clothing to cover my modesty. Not only that, but I’m floating on my back, in a lily pond.
Horrified? All I can say is don’t knock it before you’ve tried it. Because no one is more surprised than me to find it feels pretty darn good.
So how have I come to be stark naked on Wimbledon Common? Whisper it, but I have joined a secret society of people who like to ease the stress of modern-day living by enjoying the freedom of swimming naked in beautiful, scenic places.
The Secret Swimming Club, the brainchild of entrepreneur Fabien Riggall, 36, from West London, is open to anyone who fancies bathing in the buff in rivers, streams, reservoirs and iced lakes.
‘This swimming club is about breaking away from the formulaic, about going out on an adventure. Our lives are too organised, too regimented and going swimming in the wild with a group of like-minded people is liberating and exciting,’ says Fabien.
Those gung-ho enough to take part meet once a month to relax, chat, unwind and — of course — frolic naked in the great outdoors. They do not need to be too concerned about being tickled by the long arm of the law as it is not an offence to be naked in public in England and Wales unless it can be proved someone has been left distressed, alarmed or outraged.
After reading about the club in the Daily Mail recently I was filled with curiosity. It all sounded so daring, so exciting and, let’s face it, so thoroughly un-British.
Bathing in the buff: The Secret Swimming Club, the brainchild of entrepreneur Fabien Riggall, 36, meets once a month
Those who know me will testify to the fact that I have been known to partake in drunken skinny-dipping episodes and think nothing of sunbathing topless on the beach.
What’s more, I boarded at Roedean, a girls’ public school in Brighton, where getting naked in front of the others in the communal shower block or changing rooms was commonplace.
But I’ve never been tempted by naked rambling or nudist camps — I imagine they involve overweight men with saggy bottoms and beer bellies.
Yet somehow the Secret Swimming Club appeals to me.
It conjures up sensual images such as the glorious scene in the film Atonement when Keira Knightley disrobes on a steamy summer’s day and dives into a fountain.
However, the reality isn’t quite so romantic (or artfully lit).
Walking towards the meeting point, still fully-clothed, I am gripped by terror as I realise that I will soon be naked in front of a photographer and 40 strangers. The instinct to flee overwhelms me. Why, oh why, can’t I just feed the ducks?
Taking the plunge: Sara Lawrence bared all for an afternoon with London’s Secret Swimming Club
Like most women, I have certain hang-ups about my body. I had convinced myself that I would emerge more self-confident after this. But suddenly, the wobbly bits which decorate my size 12 frame are all I can think about. Why had I ever believed that showing them off to naked strangers was a good idea?
Shaking with nerves, I decide to talk to one of my fellow ‘nakedees’. Emma tells me she is a 35-year-old mother-of-two from Kent. ‘Until I started doing this, the only person who’d seen me naked in the last ten years was my husband,’ she says.
I tell her how anxious I feel. She does her best to reassure me. ‘Soon you’ll start to feel incredibly free and innocent,’ she says. ‘It’s almost like a rebirth.’
Standing by the edge of the pond, I watch men and women of all ages, shapes and sizes glorying in their nudity. I might be paralysed at the thought of stripping off but suddenly being the only one fully-dressed makes me feel ridiculous.
I look around at my fellow swimmers and note there are a few more women than men.
Most are in their 20s and 30s, a handful are in their 40s and 50s, while two look old enough to be travelling home on their free bus passes. There are a couple of groups of hippyish girls and a few guys who are obviously friends. There’s the one older couple and a smattering of singletons. All in all, we’re a mixed bunch.
Enough procrastination! It is time for me to jump into the unknown.
I steel myself, take a deep breath and whip off my top, unhook my bra and step out of my shorts and knickers. A burst of confidence overwhelms me and I don’t even suck my stomach in. I am what I am, I tell myself. Today is a day to feel free.
Unsurprisingly, our group has attracted some attention and I can feel eyes boring into my back (at least I hope it’s just my back.)
I turn to see a dog walker staring intently, clearly undecided as to whether he should be outraged or admiring. But I don’t rush to conceal my nakedness. Instead I smile and carry on.
Staring into the murky depths of Queensmere Pond, I wonder how clean the water is and whether it will make me ill if I swallow any. Will it be squelchy? Muddy? Slimy? There’s only one way to find out.
Scenic: Sara took a dip in Queensmere Pond with the Secret Swimming Club, which invites people to swim in wild, beautiful locations
I hold my nose, jump in and scream as the icy water hits my naked flesh. After the initial shock, I allow myself to enjoy the feel of the silky water against my skin. It isn’t slimy, just fresh and exhilarating.
Some of our group opt for vigorous swimming, some chat while others, like me, opt to float in solitude, drifting off in our own private world.
After half an hour I start to become cold and decide to bring my skinny-dipping adventure to an end.
I return to my clothes feeling more refreshed, more alive and more empowered than I ever have following the silly spa treatments I usually spend a small fortune on.
The experience also reinforces my belief that hang-ups or a negative body image are a waste of time, because in this waning light everyone looks beautiful. None of the people here is worrying about their lumps and bumps, they’re just having a great time.
I always thought naturists must be getting some sort of sexual kick out of their hobby. But there is not a whiff of sexual tension.
‘Water is healing,’ explains Anton, a 41-year-old architect from South London. ‘Swimming with a like-minded group in this beautiful setting is liberating.’
‘I feel a bit more able to relate to other people,’ says Katy, a secondary school teacher from York. ‘I wish I could bring my class down here and make them all go swimming naked together — I think a lot of the bullying would stop.’
As the light begins to fade, the rest of the swimmers clamber out of the pond. I wonder if the inhibitions people lose in the water might return, but there’s a definite sense of camaraderie as people get dressed.
Of course there will be those who think nudity has no place in public. But I find myself agreeing with Katy. Take away the barrier of clothes and, suddenly, people are a lot nicer.
When I arrived on the Common and saw the glamorous mothers in their designer dresses and shoes, I formed an instant opinion of them, not something I was able to do to any of the naked swimmers.
Once you remove the designer labels it makes it easier to speak to each other. As the old saying goes, the only thing to fear is fear itself, and having conquered mine I feel like I can take on the world.
With autumn around the corner, I doubt I’ll be brave enough to skinny dip again this year, but come next summer, I will definitely do so.
If you’re appalled by the idea, then look away if you encounter a group of carefree, naked swimmers — if not, peel off your clothes and jump in, you might be surprised how much you like it.