Skinny dipping’s wild rapture isn’t all bollocks

by Rowan Pelling

I was brought up in a beech-wood forest on a hill in Kent, but my soul has always pined for water. Show me a river, lake, waterfall or sea and I’ll throw myself into it. Like Tom in The Water Babies, I feel an overwhelming sense that if I plunge into the beckoning depths something grimy will be washed clean from my soul.

Nowadays this impulse is termed “wild swimming”, but I grew up in the olden days – AKA the 1970s – when it was just having a dip outdoors. No one wore wetsuits or protective gear back then, or bragged about their best time across the loch. Sufficient honour was won by exposing lily-white skin to icy water and not exiting until every inch of your body was numb. You didn’t have to be all that macho; screaming was encouraged, and I still think it helps with the challenge.

I didn’t go abroad until I was eighteen, so had no idea things could be otherwise; that our Mediterranean cousins swam in sea like a tepid English bath. Where’s the pluck in that, I wondered? Especially if, like me, you think wild water is best faced naked. Few Greek women will ever know the piercing pain of nipples turned blue in the Irish Sea, before their resuscitation by hairdryer in a Donegal guesthouse.

Which sounds like torture, and I freely admit that escapade makes a better anecdote than actual lived experience. But I’d still say there’s something purifying about glacial water (and I knew this years before Wim “the Iceman” Hof taught acolytes to take freezing showers in the pursuit of wellbeing). First there’s the heart-stopping shock, followed by stark disbelief, and finally pure exhilaration.

For maximum rapture, wild skinny-dipping works best as a solitary pleasure – or undertaken with a lover in the glory days of your passion. That way you can commune with nature, rather than overwhelming it with herds of buttocks. If there’s a crowd it feels like you’re extras in a remake of The Wicker Man, and a man in a goat’s mask is about to make a human sacrifice.

I had one boyfriend who trekked round Britain with me, seeking legendary swimming spots. We once stopped off on Dartmoor at twilight to hike along the Dart to the Arthurian-sounding Pool of Sharrah for a swim and an alfresco tryst, encountering other questers slipping home, tangle-haired and glowing. At the pool the only life forms were swooping bats: the witching hour. Nothing much had changed over thousands of years, and there was sanity in knowing you were a blip in the fabric of time. The rocks would outlast you. Your only job was to not fuck this up – the planet, that is – and pass the swim down to your children.

Wild skinny-dipping has exuberant aspects too, quite apart from the sacred guff. I make one notable exception to my no-crowd swimming rule, as a devoted member of Cambridge’s Newnham Riverbank Club. This idiosyncratic spot is the only naturist club I know that permits costumed members to dip alongside the stark-bollock-naked ones. And it is usually bollocks, as not so many women bare their bushes on the sunbathing lawns.

He went pale and said, “Oh God, you’ll have seen dad naked.” It was true; I’d only ever met his lovely father nude. The hoary club joke is, “I didn’t recognise you with your clothes on!”

The club was officially founded in 1997 on a stretch of university-owned riverbank close to Grantchester Meadows, where people had been bathing nude for well over a century (just as Byron used to skinny-dip in the mill pond a mile up river). A secret path leads you down through hawthorn and elder trees, nettles and cow parsley, to a tall fence with a locked wooden door. Just beyond you might hear faint laughter, or the splash of an oar. The naturists share their facilities with the University’s canoe club. At first it was a men-only society, frequented by academics. Then the wife of a local grounds-man asked if she could sneak down for occasional swims – and was swiftly followed by her friends. The middle-aged ladies in bathing suits mingled happily with the chestnut-brown naked blokes. Soon other Newnham locals followed suit and families arrived with their children.

To this day it’s the only place I know which is properly nude-blind. By this, I mean penises are so normal at the Newnham Riverbank Club that you stop noting them, or thinking there’s anything odd in the sight of an 70-year-old woman in a kaftan talking to an octogenarian chap who happens to be déshabillé.

It’s an enchanted spot, straight out of Alice in Wonderland. We have willows, alders, wild roses and a visiting cavalcade of deer, swans, coots, pine martens, stoats and – legend has it – one angry, toe-biting pike. The naked older chaps keep a nature log, rescue wounded birds, monitor water quality and plant bushes to stop erosion of the riverbank. It’s a one-swim lesson in conservation.

I thought you’d never ask. Yes, I am one of the women who strips off at the club; but only when it’s quiet and I have the river to myself. I’m haunted by an encounter I had with a 30-something man in London’s publishing world. He told me he was raised in Cambridge and the Riverbank Club cropped up in conversation. He went pale and said, “Oh God, you’ll have seen dad naked.” It was true; I’d only ever met his lovely father nude. The hoary club joke is, “I didn’t recognise you with your clothes on!”

There’s a life lesson in all of this somewhere: “embrace nature, but don’t talk to your kids’ friends when naked” might just cover it. Either way, as Britain relaxes its Covid regulations this April I’ll be heading to the river for that first, sweet skinny-dip of spring.

Rowan Pelling is a British journalist and former editor of The Erotic Review


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