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ANTONIA HOYLE: How Nudefest made me feel comfortable in my own skin

Thursday afternoon and, like much of the country, I’m talking politics.Unlike most, however, I’m not swapping a bit of chit-chat with colleagues, but ten strangers — and we’re not in an office but on a horse-drawn cart being pulled through a field of wheat.

Oh, and we’re all stark naked. Sitting along benches on either side of the open-topped cart, our bodies bob and bounce gently to the sway of the suspension, as I mentally plead with my eyes not to stray too far south.

I’m at Nudefest in Somerset, the UK’s largest naturist festival, where 600 aficionados have convened to spend this week starkers.

Everywhere I look, I am bombarded by bodily parts that never normally see the light of day, whether they belong to the man doing the Downward Dog in front of me at yoga, the woman lying spread-eagled on a circus stage as knives are juggled over her head, or the fellow diner whose privates I inadvertently get a close-up of when I reach for my wallet on the floor to pay for my £10 falafel at lunch (naturists, of course, don’t do pockets.)

I'm at Nudefest in Somerset, the UK's largest naturist festival, where 600 aficionados have convened to spend this week starkers

I’m at Nudefest in Somerset, the UK’s largest naturist festival, where 600 aficionados have convened to spend this week starkers

I see large bodies and small, sunburnt breasts belonging to women aged from their 30s to 70s, and every combination of body hair invented.Understandably, accessories are thin on the ground, save for sandals and sun hats, but almost everyone is wearing a smile.

Naturists may still be mocked as outcasts — this week Colin Unsworth and Sadie Tann were deliberately knocked off their tandem bike by a motorist in Perthshire while on a naked charity bike ride from John O’Groats to Land’s End — but in a post-pandemic world in which wellness and connection are buzz words, naturism is big business, the ‘buff pound’ belonging to this community more critical than ever in a cost-of-living crisis.

More than 15,000 people attended naturist events across the country last year, from naked swims to bike rides, with the activities proving so popular that venues have started to run their own nude events independently of British Naturism, the industry’s official body responsible for Nudefest.

A week’s ticket costs £199 for BN members for seven nights and £265 for non members, a snip compared to some of the big UK festivals, but it works in the event’s favour that attendees are very unlikely to leave a venue once they’re in, to rejoin the world of ‘Textiles’ — as those who wear clothes are known among the naturist community.

‘We are a captive audience,’ agrees BN spokesperson Andrew Welch, who says residents of the quiet village of Thorney, whose caravan park Nudefest is held at, are happy to house hundreds of naked visitors because of the money they bring in. 

‘We paid for these marquees to be brought in, for catering vans and beer tents.Our money is the same as everyone else’s.

I see large bodies and small, sunburnt breasts belonging to women aged from their 30s to 70s, and every combination of body hair invented. Understandably, accessories are thin on the ground, save for sandals and sun hats, but almost everyone is wearing a smile

I see large bodies and small, sunburnt breasts belonging to women aged from their 30s to 70s, and every combination of body hair invented.Understandably, accessories are thin on the ground, save for sandals and sun hats, but almost everyone is wearing a smile

‘We are every demographic. We have lawyers, doctors and accountants. There are MPs and people in the House of Lords,’ he says, before adding: ‘I can’t give you names.’

The number of UK people who considered themselves naturists grew from two per cent in 2001 to six per cent, or 3.7 million, in 2011, and since the pandemic, that figure has soared.‘There was this move to be freer,’ says Andrew.

He coined the phrase the ‘Great British Take-Off’ in 2020 to describe the popularity of the movement. Research as to the effects of naturism is limited, but a 2017 study by Goldsmiths, University of London, found that naturists experienced ‘immediate and significant improvements in body-image, self-esteem and life satisfaction’.

Which is all well and good .. . but who has the balls? When the Mail asked me if I fancied reporting from Nudefest I said yes before I could change my mind, or think it through. Since stopping drinking to improve my health in January, I have tried to push my comfort boundaries, to prove that giving up alcohol need not make life dull.

So far, I’ve kept my eyes open on one of Britain’s fastest corkscrew rollercoasters and swum in the freezing North Sea.Stripping naked in front of strangers seems the logical next step.

My body looks much as it should for a 44-year-old mother of two but I am a bit of a prude — I’d never sleep naked (in case of burglars) and the one opportunity I’ve had to be nude in public, at a spa in Budapest in my 20s, I bottled and wore a swimsuit.

What nudity does seem to unleash is a levelling up. Without the social markers clothes provide, everyone, whether a high flyer or one afflicted by low self-esteem, appears freed from the shackles of their everyday life and therefore better able to make friends

What nudity does seem to unleash is a levelling up.Without the social markers clothes provide, everyone, whether a high flyer or one afflicted by low self-esteem, appears freed from the shackles of their everyday life and therefore better able to make friends

Perhaps, homebrewing I hope, baring all will give me a new-found bravado.Besides, if something scares you, shouldn’t that be all the more reason to do it? ‘Not if it’s just unpleasant,’ counters one horrified friend, while another says she’d ‘rather eat live rats’ than do what I was about to. My husband and nine-year-old son declare my plans ‘bonkers’ and weird’ while my 11-year-old daughter professes to being ‘a bit worried’ for my safety, and as I drive to Nudefest, I begin to fear she might have a point.

By the time I arrive I am so nervous I think I’m about to throw up.Welch, 57, who strides up to greet me starkers, advises those new to naturism to think of stripping off as akin to removing a sticking plaster — the quicker the better.

As he points me to the bathroom of his caravan to undress — a precaution that seems slightly superfluous given the circumstances — I feel I’m in one of those childhood nightmares where you’re naked and everyone is pointing and laughing.

Socially awkward, I struggle to walk into a party without wine for courage.Now I’m about to meet hundreds of strangers sober.

And naked. Surgically attached to my sunglasses, which make me feel less vulnerable, and with a towel to sit on (naturist etiquette) in my backpack, I enter the festival arm-in-arm with Welch’s lovely girlfriend, who doesn’t want to be named but whose reassurance is the only reason I don’t bolt back up the M5.

Unsure whether I’m shivering because I’m terrified or freezing —the day starts overcast — I realise I at least now fit in. There’s a lively game of petanque going on. A group of men are enjoying a coffee at a table near the 250-seater circus tent.Nobody bats an eyelid at the sight of me.

‘Some people think we are ridiculous, dangerous even, but the truth is that everyone who gets into this environment changes their view, because it’s so normal when everyone’s naked,’ says Andrew, from Bucks, who became a naturist after visiting a nudist beach in France aged 14.

Practising meditation nude means there's ‘less of a barrier' between herself and her class. ‘It's made me more sensitive to people's emotion. I feel completely liberated.' Nudity is, she now thinks, ‘a way of connecting. There's no judgment'

Practising meditation nude means there’s ‘less of a barrier’ between herself and her class.‘It’s made me more sensitive to people’s emotion. I feel completely liberated.’ Nudity is, she now thinks, ‘a way of connecting. There’s no judgment’

‘There are people who say it’s about being connected to the earth.Others say they like the feel of it. It is incredibly liberating to see humanity in the raw. It makes you realise that we’re all the same and that can improve your mental health,’ he says.

While most here have been coming to Nudefest for years, others, such as Victoria Ashley, are nearly as new to it as me.A meditation instructor teaching at this week’s festival, Victoria, 38, says stripping off here had always been on her ‘tick list’ because ‘this naked-in-a-field idea seemed liberating’.

She too almost got cold feet on her way from her home in Porthmadog, Wales.She turned up to teach her first class in a dress but says the sight of the yoga teacher instructing her class naked was ‘so profound’ that ‘within two seconds the dress was off’.

Practising meditation nude means there’s ‘less of a barrier’ between herself and her class.‘It’s made me more sensitive to people’s emotion. I feel completely liberated.’ Nudity is, she now thinks, ‘a way of connecting. There’s no judgment’.

Since her arrival earlier this week, her self-confidence has soared.‘I always felt too tall and too big. Since taking my clothes off I feel a new sense of love for my body. I don’t feel different or weird. After one day my body image improved by 100 per cent.’

She has also spotted a gap in the market for teaching naked classes back home, which could prove lucrative if the popularity of the aerobics dance class we head to together is anything to go by.

There are 27 of us lunging and squatting in the open air, led by a female instructor whose lack of self-consciousness proves infectious.Five minutes into the class, I become completely desensitised to the sight of things jiggling around; I simply don’t notice them.

The ratio of naturist men to women is around 65 to 35 per cent — a statistic believed to be because men have fewer hang-ups about how they look naked — and there are certainly more men here today.They include Tim Higgs, 66, who is at the festival without his wife of 42 years, because ‘she’s not really into it. She’ll do it abroad but not here because she might bump into someone she sees in Waitrose’.

Higgs, owner of Clover Spa and Hotel in Birmingham, one of the UK’s only naturist spas, and a naturist of 40 years, is, however, seeing increasing numbers of female customers.‘When a woman is brave enough to be naked in a social setting, all anxiety disappears,’ says Higgs, who suffers from no such self-consciousness, sitting with his legs boldly akimbo, while the women, I notice, still cross theirs. Plus ca change.

Demand for his spa services have grown by 25 per cent since the pre-Covid era.‘People are far more interested in wellness post-Covid and a simpler life, which is what naturism is about.’

The stigma, too, seems to be lifting, says Michelle Thornberry, 53, a head of safeguarding for the NHS who has only told ‘close colleagues’ she’s a naturist.

Here with husband Patrick, 52, who owns an artisan baking business, the couple have been naturists since visiting a nudist beach in the South of France in the 1990s. ‘We liked the sense of freedom,’ says Michelle, a mother of two who’s partial to naked gardening, weather permitting.

Today, at any rate, my fears of feeling unsafe seem unfounded.

Perhaps I’m being hopelessly naive, but I’d wager most of the unaccompanied men are here for companionship, seeking solace from a society that demands stoicism from their sex, in a community that refuses to judge. All the naturists I speak to today are adamant the prospect of copping off with someone has no bearing on their decision to strip off.

Despite — or perhaps because of — the expanse of flesh on display, I’m fairly sure I’d find more sexual tension at a telesales convention.

What nudity does seem to unleash is a levelling up. Without the social markers clothes provide, everyone, whether a high flyer or one afflicted by low self-esteem, appears freed from the shackles of their everyday life and therefore better able to make friends.

As a woman on my horse and cart tour of Thorney Lakes puts it: ‘Would we all be talking like this if we had clothes on?’

The longer I’m naked for, the more normal it seems, and by the time I’m watching a naked circus performer on stage, his genitals twirling as enthusiastically as the giant hoop he’s in, I often forget I’m naked at all.

At yoga afterwards, I’m at the back of the class, which means that I am greeted by the sight of around 40 bottoms as everyone bends and stretches into Sun Salutations and Downward Dogs.

The squeamish Antonia of yesterday would have balked, but after hours in the buff it seems strangely .. . normal? Lying in Shavasana pose at the end of class, sun shining on every inch of skin, I feel more peaceful than I have after any yoga session at home.

Unselfconsciously waving two sticks connected by string in the air at a bubble-making workshop towards the end of the day, I realise that my attitude towards my body has changed.

Bombarded by images of social-media perfection, I’ve often felt inadequate, but a nudist festival like nowhere else offers an antidote to that pressure to look good, a reminder of the power of the human body in all its forms.

‘So, do you think you’ll come back?’ asks Welch, after I’ve put my clothes on and he’s walking me back to my car.

I’m not sure.But as I drive back to normality on the M5, my bra does feel uncomfortably tight.

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