Nude Hiking All the Rage in Great Britain
August 7, 2003 -- From
Exmoor to the Yorkshire Dales and the Scottish borders, naked ramblers are being spotted up and down the country. What's going
on? Have clothes become passť in the walking world?
Police in northern England have been receiving strange reports this summer
of sightings of an "athletic man with an all-over tan", or sometimes two such men, wearing nothing but socks, boots, a rucksack,
and a green floppy hat. On August 7, 2003, the "naked hiker" revealed himself to the London Times, reporting that it was his
ambition to walk the length of the country in the nude to celebrate the joys of nudity.
"It was me," Steve Gough admitted, solving a problem that had taxed Inspector
Tad Nowakowski and colleagues at Skipton police station. Gough decided to 'out' himself after TV news contacted his website,
which is monitored by his sister Vicky. A supporter and fellow rambler, although she keeps her clothes on, his sister said
the walk was attracting considerable interest online.
A planned BBC interview earlier this year had to be abandoned when he turned
up wearing only a name badge.
Gough, 44, said he was blazing a trail against antiquated British indecency
laws and establishment attitudes. Gough, a divorced father from Southampton, is a former truck driver who is now unemployed
and lives in a motorvan. He is engaging in an ambitious two-month naked hike from Land's End to John O'Groats, but keeps having
to break off and restart following repeated arrests.
"Every pioneer is criticized for putting their head above the parapet,
but this is something that I believe in and I think a lot of the public do too," said Gough. "I'm doing the walk as a celebration
of myself as a human being, and my body is an important part of that."
Gough left Land's End in southwest England on June 16 bound for John O'Groats
in the far north of Scotland, hoping to cover around 20 miles a day on foot. Gough started off with a friend, but he dropped
out in spite of complicated planning, including walking in the same direction as the prevailing wind. Or perhaps it was because
he was beaten up in St. Ives on June 18.
Gough was also told by an angry farmer in Yorkshire to put on his trousers,
but he said public reaction had been largely positive. Most of the walk has been on remote footpaths, where passing ramblers
have greeted Gough with either smiles or "fixed gazes at the middle distance."
"Some people have really been enthusiastic and stopped to talk to me. I
have even had people give me money," claims the hiker.
But he has also walked naked through towns, including the coastal resort
of St Ives in Cornwall, where he was promptly arrested. His planned clothes-free journey of 847-miles, from Cornwall in southwest
England to northern Scotland, has so far earned him 11 escorts to police stations, five arrests, two charges and a night in
a psychiatric hospital. He had to start over after Scottish police shipped him back to his starting point in Cornwall for
a court appearance.
His first arrest came only one day and 15 miles from his starting point,
when he was arrested in St. Ives and charged with breach of the peace. The case was later abandoned after magistrates found
he had not committed a criminal offense.
Soon after he had crossed into Scotland, he was arrested on the road. Two
days later, he was picked up again on the road outside Hawick. He was taken from Hawick to the Cornish coastal resort of Newquay,
where he was again arrested and charged with offending public decency. He was ordered to appear at magistrates' court and
rearrested when he turned up on time but still naked. The court forced him to wear a blanket but did not impose a fine. It
took him a week to get out of Cornwall.
He was undaunted and upon release, spent the day hitchhiking his way back
to Scotland though he did wear clothes to increase his chances of getting a lift. "It has taken a week out of my walk," said
Gough, whose bare backside graced the pages of The Independent newspaper. "But I have had a bit of publicity."
"The police have taken me in 10 times," he told reporters as he headed
back to try to finish his marathon. "I have got two court appearances booked next month but I should have got to John O'Groats
Gough, who emigrated to Canada briefly but found it cold, said that he
plans to crawl into his sleeping bag earlier than usual during the Scottish stretch of the 900-mile tramp, so as to avoid
damage from midges. He also wears sunscreen.
The intrepid rambler insists he is not a naturist, but a human being that
wants to "enlighten the public, as well as the authorities that govern us, that the freedom to go naked in public is a basic
human right." Gough said he first became "involved in all this naked stuff" 10 years ago when he visited a nudist beach and
"thought it was nice how people wandered around nice and relaxed."
He says that eventually alienated his partner, the mother of his children
aged 5 and 7. "We have separated. I was becoming more expressive and that became difficult for her," said the jobless man,
who hopes to finish his trek by September -- barring further run-ins with police.
"We have all been brought up and conditioned to think our body is something
to be ashamed of. We are made to feel bad about ourselves and that is damaging society. I am determined to carry on," said
There is no law in Britain against public nudity, although there are laws
against indecent exposure -- which requires proof of intent to insult a woman -- or any behavior likely to cause "harassment,
alarm or distress." According to the British Naturism society, there are some two million naturists in Britain.
"Some people think this sort of walking is damaging to naturism," said
Sue Piper, research and liaison officer for the 18,000-member society. "Others think it is really very brave of him and he
is bringing naturism to the forefront."
"I support his ideals, although generally speaking I prefer to keep a rather
lower profile," said Tony Baldwin, chairman of the 300-strong Singles' Outdoor Club, which was founded in 1981 and organizes
naturist walks between March and October. "I have never had an embarrassing moment," says Baldwin, who is 67 and a retired
hospital physicist, "and I have been walking for some 12 years. I have never had any complaints from the public, though I
have met hundreds of them. The general reaction is pleasant. The vital thing is not to make them think that you're a pervert
on the loose or that you intend them some harm."
The Guardian's reporter, Stephen Moss, went hiking naked in Epping Forest
to investigate the story further. He reported that "the first 10 minutes are the worst But gradually I relax and in a perverse
(but not perverted!) way start to enjoy it." His "Great Epping Forest Trek" -- actually a 45-minute hike two roads in Essex
-- was not in the same league as Gough's ambition, but he felt sure that the embarrassment factor was the same. "Indeed, in
my case, greater as I cannot claim an all-over tan or an athletic build," he wrote.
"It was hot in town, but here, in the shade of the forest, a cooling breeze
plays lightly across my buttocks and a walk through a field of thigh-high ferns offers its own ticklish pleasures. Sitting
on a log to eat a baguette is painful, but - apart from the occasional nettle, an insect bite on the arm and the nagging fear
that a fully-clothed rambler might appear at any moment - it is a pleasurable, yes even liberating, experience. The nagging
doubts reflect the fact that the police have yet to decide what they think about boots-only hiking. Clearly, the sight of
a man prancing around naked in woodland brandishing a pole could have sinister overtones. It wouldn't take the imagination
of the Brothers Grimm to see a tubby, red-faced man with a rucksack as a potential threat," wrote Moss.
The police, however, are not yet satisfied that boots-only hikers pose
no threat to the public. "These incidents might be quite tame, but the police are taking them seriously due to the distress
they have clearly caused to the public," says acting chief inspector Tadeusz Nowakowski, who is leading the hunt for the intrepid
hiker or hikers attempting a naked crossing of the Pennine Way. "Imagine if your wife was stuck up on her own in the dales,
having her sandwiches and a bit of a nap, when suddenly this man comes bumbling around the corner."
"A common error that newcomers to naturist walking make is that they dive
into a bush when they see someone," says Baldwin. "That makes quite the wrong impression. People think, 'What on earth is
that fellow up to in that bush?'"
More to the point, going into the bushes while naked can be a prickly experience.
-- Edited and excerpted from articles in Reuters, by Martin Wainwright in The Guardian, by Ed Johnson, Associated Press in Yahoo! News, and by Stephen Moss with additional reporting by Esther Addley in The Guardian