I was three miles north of Hull, watching an unusually large rabbit mosey across the grass, when a smiling naked pensioner emerged from the trees. It had been at least a decade since I’d seen another man in the buff and I was immediately overcome with the urge to apologise to him profusely before running away.
Quite where to run to, though, on a gated 26-acre naturist’s site, with a high fence running round it, I couldn’t decide, so I shook his hand and said something nice about the weather.
Desmond - not his real name - has been a member of the Yorkshire Sun Society since 2003. He told me that prior to that he used to wander naked across the Yorkshire Moors with his wife but with the advent of the camera phone, he started to worry that an encounter with somebody unsympathetic to the cause, might lead to trouble.
Founded in 1932, by a local couple called George and Wendy, the Yorkshire Sun Society is Britain’s second oldest naturist reserve. In the pavilion, pinned up on a wall is a grainy photo of Wendy perched demurely on a tree stump with George smiling proudly at her side.
Surrounding them in a collage are other black and white snapshots of a bygone naked Britain. In one photograph, a pair of young women are planting vegetables on the Sun Society site with the caption ‘dig for victory’ above it, and in another, two small children play in a tin bathtub while their smiling parents look on.
The lithe athletic figures in those old photos contrast starkly with the older membership today. Over a cup of tea, the current Membership Secretary, Mo, explained to me, with a smile, that they certainly don’t expect people to have perfect bodies.
“If you were here at the weekend,” she continued, “when the club’s much busier you would see there isn’t really anyone with a perfect body.”
As we finished our tea, Mo recalled that her life before naturism was one long worry about her “bum looking big”. It was only when she found the movement, and started spending time being naked among others, that she came to accept herself.
Interestingly, Mo recalled that “twenty or thirty years ago at a club called Aztecs in Sussex”, there was a keen miniten player with a colostomy bag who always seemed very at ease.
Mentions of ‘miniten’ had arisen a number of times and I was keen to learn more so Mo and her husband, Chris - who has previously represented the Yorkshire Sun Society in interclub tournaments - offered to show me.
The sun was at it’s highest point in the sky, casting a warm autumnal haze across the court as Chris held his ‘thug’ aloft and sent the ball thundering over the net. Mo, who by her own admission is much more of a boules player, needs to work on her return. The ‘thug’ is a wooden scoop that covers the hand allowing forehand and backhand shots to be taken.
I later learnt that miniten was created by a Mancunian businessman in that age of naked enlightenment, the 1930s, and is today played across the world exclusively by naturists’ clubs.
In a daze I watched the ball as it was knocked back and forth. Then I started to feel a little unsettled. Over the next minute or so I became very aware of being the only one with clothes on and looking down at my shirt, it almost offended me.
I’m not sure exactly what order things went in from there but suddenly my trousers were off and I was striding across the miniten court in the direction of the umpire’s chair with the Yorkshire sun on my back.
That afternoon with my clothes back on I sat down with Sue, the President and Child Protection Officer of the club. “So what did you think when you first got here,” she asked. I had to admit I found it rather a shock and didn’t really know where to look. “People often say that,” she replied with a smile, “but what happens is you just end up looking people in the eye.”
It is a great sadness to Sue and the club in general that there are no longer any families who stay at the Yorkshire Sun Society.
She explained that “parents worry if their child goes to school and says they’ve been mixing with a load of naked people, it might cause alarm bells.” In a previous life, Sue worked in social services and told me she simply doesn’t “understand why a care worker would be at all interested.”
During my first day at the site, the de-sexualisation of nudity was a topic that came up a number of times and I was interested to ask Sue whether she feels that if children visited naturist sites, they would end up having have a healthier relationship with the body than if they spent their evenings keeping up with the Kardashians.
“I would like to think so,” she replied thoughtfully, “because they would see so many different kinds of people and as I said earlier, here we talk to the person not to the body.”
That evening in the bar, talked turned to motor homes. Every autumn, many members pack up and set off for sunny European climes. As far as Mo’s concerned, Yorkshire in winter is no place for nudity, “we’re naturists not masochists,” she explained gravely.
As two pints blurred into three, the conversation moved on to swingers. Sitting there in his dressing gown, Desmond recalled that some years ago, “a nice enough guy turned up who was interested in joining so he was taken for a wander around the grounds but after about ten minutes he asked when the wife swapping started so needless to say he was shown the gate.”
After some collective tutting Desmond continued “people think it’s all about sex but I do so much gardening I’ve not got the energy for anything else.”
As I lay in my static that night, I could hear voices not far beyond my window. A couple of members had friends visiting from Switzerland and they were sitting outside around a fire enjoying the cool Hull air. I fell asleep snatching earnest fragments of conversation about naturism past and hopes for its future.
The following morning after breakfast I set off through the woods in the pouring rain. I had gone in search of the weird and discovered that it is perhaps people beyond the gates who are the weird ones - those like you and I who sweat like mad on a hot summer’s day because of some inherited belief that thighs and tummies are inherently sexual or offensive.
When I arrived at the river, I picked and ate some elderberries then took all my clothes off and hung them on a branch. Wandering along the bank I looked out across the fields towards the city and thought about George and Wendy travelling up stream in a little boat to discover the plot on which I stood.
Glancing at my goose pimpled skin I wondered if - eighty years ago - they were pioneers of something visionary that most of us still aren’t quite ready for today.