It had turned into a thoroughly enjoyable day in the Shropshire Hills. When our party – four parents, four children – had set off from the Bog car park up the western flank of the Stiperstones a low mist threatened to dilute the views from the summit. Forty minutes later, the cloud had cleared, the views of the Stiperstone’s ride, volcanic fractured backbone, were as advertised by the local tourist board. The weather was warming up.
For one individual, it seemed as though things were getting too warm. As we descended the eastern side of the ridge, making for the National Trust car park, the main rendezvous point for walkers in this part of the world, a middle-aged man, wearing only his birthday suit and – ahem- a bumbag in his left hand, hove into view.
You certainly couldn’t say he sprung himself upon us, and other walkers. We saw him from 100 yards away; first I blinked, thinking he must be wearing some new, if diaphanous, hi-tech, sweat-proof wicking gear. If he was, it was the Emperor’s New Clothes range.
A couple with a dog pondered – in jest, I add – whether to let their Alsatian off the leash, remarking that their pet, dribbling from his lolling tongue, was due for his lunch. A cyclist – again, not in any state of wild outrage – set off in pursuit to remind him he was breaking the law (technically, he wasn’t).
We wandered onwards. He walked past us, slightly self conscious, a slight smile, neither affable nor smug, playing on his lips. Despite having had time to think of a witty comment, as doubtless Bill Bryson or Stephen Fry might, I merely raised a quizzical eyebrow as he went on his way. “Warm today isn’t it?” is the best I’ve been able to think of since. My wife beat me to it: “If he’s an exhibitionist, he doesn’t have much to exhibit,” she said cuttingly, her eyes narrowing.
I’d actually been too busy thinking of how to handle the whole thing with my children, aged five, four and two. I’d pathetically tried to point out a stonechat to them. (“Look! That bird’s just flown all the way from Africa!) In the end, as I’d guessed, the two younger boys didn’t even register; did my daughter, the oldest and her friend, also five, notice? As sure as hell they did. “He’s got no clothes on. That’s his wolly [sic],” Hannah pointed out helpfully.
Personally, I wasn’t particularly bothered. The children were at no risk, and I had an intuitive sense that there wasn’t anything dark at play. I’m also someone who is keen to keep my kids free of self-conscious behaviour and to be at ease with the human body, in a vague, Scandinavian sort of way. Well, if I was going to be consistent, I’d shrug it off. Which I did.
But the reaction of my wife and the other parents with us, and later my hairdresser, the local butcher and, yes, even a taxi driver, quickly I established I was in a minority of little more than one. Thanks to my daughter, the story also took about four minutes to get around her entire school the following Monday morning and by home time the school gate view was similarly positioned some distance to the right of Amnesty International.
The more I thought about it, and the more people reacted by pulling up their petticoats in anger, the more I wondered if they had a point, and the more the man’s behaviour and action started to irk me. While I had (and continue to have) no issue with people who want to walk bare-cheeked and brave the attentions of any hungry, if over-ambitious peregrine falcon (they’re a breathtaking spectacle on the Stiperstones) I ruminated over some aspects of the encounter. It was a Thursday afternoon in half-term; he was walking along a conspicuous, popular ridgeline. Had he simply wanted to walk naked there were no shortage of more discreet paths in the area. Older children might well have been genuinely distressed. He must have been looking to make a point.
I spoke to Andrew Welch at British Naturism, who first pointed out that the man was breaking no law but admitted that naked walkers will tend to be judicious about where they walk. “Like life, like any organisation, we have our extremists, but the vast majority of naturists are tolerant and considerate and would probably chose to walk a little more off the beaten track,” he said. “We try to avoid situations where conflict might arise. On the other hand, he might argue he’s allowed by law to walk wherever he wants.”
So what was his game? Was he one toggle short of a cagoule? A stag-do bet (unlikely)? A hardcore nudist? Something altogether darker? Or simply someone who couldn’t quite answer why he was doing it, who felt he had overstepped the mark but gone beyond the point of no return? I’d met a naked runner once before, in Broxbourne Woods in Hertfordshire, on a remote, little-used bridleway. He’d nodded ‘afternoon’ cheerfully enough as he jogged past, which I rather liked. This chap, well, nothing really squared, which ever way I looked at it. I couldn’t read him. There’s nowt so queer as folk.
This article appeared in Walk, the magazine of the Ramblers