The weather was warming up. For one individual, it seemed as though things were getting a little too warm. As we descended the eastern side of the ridge, a middle-aged man, wearing only his birthday suit and holding – ahem- a bumbag in his left hand, hove into view….
All in all, it was turning 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 had threatened to dilute the views from the summit. Forty minutes later, the cloud had cleared, the views of the Stiperstone’s raw, 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 holding – 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 200 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 the guy he was breaking the law (technically, it would turn out, he wasn’t).
We wandered onwards. He walked past us, slightly self conscious, a faint smile, neither affable nor smug, playing on his lips. At this point I wish I could tell you the witty off the cuff remark I made. Instead I was dumbstruck, gripped by the syndrome of l’esprit d’escalier (for non-French speakers, ‘the staircase mind’, whereby you belatedly think of the right reposte after the event). 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 was closer to the mark: “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. I’d pathetically tried to point out a swallow 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. Good, so my daughter, the oldest and her friend, will have overlooked it too, I thought.
‘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 barber, the local butcher and, yes, even a taxi driver, quickly established I was in a minority of 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 considerable 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 then there was no shortage of more discreet paths in the area. Older children might well have been genuinely distressed. He was making a point.
I spoke to a friendly and candid chap at British Naturism, who first pointed out that the man was breaking no law but admitted that naked walkers 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 choose 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? I’d once met a naked runner, 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, whichever way I looked at it. I couldn’t read him. There’s nowt so queer as folk.