The naked truth about that English eccentricity

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 October, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 October, 1993, 12:00am

THE directions for getting to Paradise were disarmingly simple. Turn right at the church and right again at the pub, and up the lane marked ''No Through Road''. Zig-zag through a high wooden fence, and Eden, Hampshire, lay spread out for all to behold.

True, Adam and Eve had put on a bit of weight over the years. And Cain and Abel seemed happy to fight it out on the tennis court. But everywhere, as far as the eye could see, was naked, English, slightly wobbly flesh.

A hundred metres off the B2177, Man was living in a state of innocence as blissful as before The Fall.

For this was the South Hampshire Sun Club, annual mecca for naturists and nudists - or nutters, depending on your stance towards people who like to spend their holiday swimming, playing volleyball or having a game of darts stark naked.

The initial impression is one of incredulity. But after a while this wears off, and the girl in the phone box, the chap hopping to reach a high ball or the general profusion of boobs and bums and bits no longer seems conspicuous.

It might make more sense on the Cote D'Azure or a lotus-eating tropical island, or anywhere it's a bit warmer, but then, England's chilly climes always have acted as a hothouse for breeding mild eccentricities.

So why not spend a couple of weeks living in that very English institution, the caravan, with no laundry bills or ironing to worry about, being left to your own devices? Inside the club's protective hedges lie ranks of caravans, a row of quaint chalets and some wanderers' tents. Adults and kids loll by the pool or skip about the games courts. Adolescents - inhibited by their changing status - are allowed to keep their clothes on if they wish, but generally relax unabashed alongside their elders.

The club's code is unequivocal. ''To show one's body without shame means not only to take one's flaws for granted, but also to tolerate other people's flaws''.

Jean Claude Van Damme, Naomi Campbell and their ilk are not much in evidence, so there's a fair bit of tolerating going on. The overriding effect of this is that a holiday at the Sun Club is not particularly erotic.

Indeed, with the total lack of designer labels it's more than a little difficult to guess who your neighbours may be. A vicar and his wife regularly take their ''sun-dressed'' holidays here, and the others sizzling (when the English summer isn't up to itsusual drizzling) in the grounds come from all walks of life.

The majority of naturists come from ordinary unpretentious backgrounds. Dot Massam, 66, a retired miner's wife from Nottinghamshire, is probably typical of the breed. A fortnight at the Sun Club with husband, daughter and son-in-law and their children is the regular family vacation.

''We got into naturism when we were on holiday in Yugoslavia and went to a nude beach,'' said Dot, who used to work as a post-woman.

''We were sitting next to a couple from Nottingham, who encouraged us to join the club, and we've not looked back since.'' Dot's enthusiasm is not echoed throughout the family. ''I've got two other daughters who are married but they won't even consider naturism - they think we're funny,'' she said. ''But I suppose they've got their opinion and we've got ours.'' So Dot and family spend their days uncluttered by clothes playing volleyball and mini tennis and splashing in the sun in the pool, or taking an indoor dip if the weather conspires against them, three generations without a care in the world or a stitch ontheir backs.

There's nothing new about naturism in Britain as a holiday, or even as a way of life. In 1779 Lord Monboddo, a Scottish judge, advocated naked air bathing for health reasons.

The diarist, Francis Kilvert, recorded nude bathing in Devon in 1873, and the Sunbathing Society held its first conference in the New Forest in 1927.

The rationale was to aim for a healthy outdoor lifestyle, although naturists have always had to contend with opposition in the shape of outraged morality and smutty seaside postcard jokes.

By 1932, influential voices such as George Bernard Shaw, Julian Huxley and Vera Brittain were writing to The Times calling for proper recognition of the benefits of air-bathing.

But since warnings about skin cancer and the holes in the ozone layer have received more publicity, there has been a marked tendency away from the all year round bronzed look.