Little is left to the imagination at a Kent nude swim club where members have been taking the plunge in the buff for almost 50 years.
Apprehensive reporter Ruth Cassidy overcame her fears to strip down and join them for their latest naked dip…
All around me men 30 years my senior are stripping off. I try to hold my nerve and keep my gaze well above the waist.
Shamefully, I duck into a changing room (can you call it that if you’re not changing into anything?) to hastily slip off my clothes despite knowing that in just a few minutes I’ll be baring all to a crowd of strangers.
“Wow”, gasps a man in his late 80s as I exit the showers.
Initially alarmed, I quickly realise I need to reassess whether I’m as much the centre of attention as I feel when I notice he’s merely admiring his friend's new watch.
Entering the pool at Dover District Leisure Centre, which stays open after hours on Sunday evenings to host the swim, is the hardest part.
Trying to be brave I opt to leave everything in my locker, thinking that reluctantly creeping through the doors nude is better than the grand reveal of tugging open my towel to a crowd.
But when I reach the pool, not only am I greeted with many towels tossed to the side, I’m also immediately welcomed by members of the club with warmth and open arms.
Well, maybe open arms would be a little too intimate in this scenario, but I’m certainly put at ease by their gentle encouragement and friendly words.
“Come on in, the water's fine!” they say, and when I hastily jump into the pool, hoping not to make too much of a splash, I find they are right.
Once submerged I feel significantly less self-conscious, and if I could stop myself glancing at the water-distorted appendages around me, I might even be comfortable.
Quickly, Pauline, who has been running Dover Naturist Swim with her husband Rod for the past 10 years, spots me trying not to look out of place and takes me under her wing.
Relieved to see that some of the club's members are women, Pauline helps me acclimatise by chatting to me about her plans with her WI group.
She also introduces me to some of the other swimmers; a mother and daughter who have come all the way from Medway, a jocular former PE teacher who tries to organise a race, and a Channel swimmer who has crossed the stretch between Kent and France more than 20 times.
Soon I’m feeling confident enough to join Rod for some lengths and he lets me in on the club’s history.
Naturism describes a lifestyle of practising entirely non-sexual social nudity in a public or private setting.
It also refers to the cultural movement that advocates for and defends a lifestyle which includes nudism.
Becoming more popular in the UK, British Naturism, which governs the majority of nudist events in the country, is experiencing its fastest growth in membership in more than 100 years.
Far from a new-fangled fad, Dover Naturist Swim has been running at the local pool every winter for the last 45 years.
Rod and Pauline have been trying to keep the club afloat for the past decade after the previous organisers retired.
“The couple that were keeping it going before us had had enough and it would have closed probably about 10 years ago,” said Rod between forward crawls.
“Pauline and I first discovered the club by accident really. I used to go swimming with my children on a Sunday evening and you know what children are like, they take a long time to change.
“We didn’t know but the naturist group were outside and the attendant asked us if we’d mind if they came through to change and go into the pool.
“We said we didn’t mind and from there we made enquiries. In those days there were quite a few families who used to come to the swim with their kids.”
While I struggled to match Rod’s pace with my out-of-practice breaststroke, he told me what he believes the appeal of naturism is: “I’ve never had a problem with not wearing clothes.
“I suffered from a skin condition that benefits from being exposed to the sun so as a child I was encouraged to wear as few clothes as possible.
“I think it's one of those things we keep coming back to when we renew our childhood interests.
“It’s just part of normal everyday life really. It’s just a natural way to swim really. I didn’t have to persuade Pauline to come, it’s just something we’ve done mutually ever since we’ve known each other.
“British Naturism have done a number of studies and have found that it seems that people who participate in social nudity are much more friendly and at ease with one another than those who have clothes on.
“I don’t know why that is, whether it's the kind of people who choose to take part or whether it somehow makes people friendlier? It’s a bit chicken and egg I expect.”
As I continued my nude adventure I certainly found this to be true. I had never experienced a friendlier welcome.
If they had been trying to sell me something I’d have called it cult-like, but the crowd were merely sharing the benefits of socialising in the buff and I began to imagine myself returning week after week.
Anne introduced herself to me next. A former PE teacher, she had quickly made herself known, jollily demanding that those chatting on the sidelines get at least one length in before time was up.
Ruddy and strong despite being well into her third age, Anne told me how she came to be a member of the group several decades ago.
As a single mum taking her child to the pool she had struck up a flirtation with a single dad but after weeks of regular swim sessions he stopped showing up.
When he next appeared, she asked where he had been swimming instead and was amused when he appeared embarrassed.
Eventually she got it out of him that they had been going to a naturist swim and asked if she’d join them; now the pair are approaching their 30th wedding anniversary.
All too soon Pauline comes to collect me and let me know we only have 20 minutes left to make use of the sauna.
I’d never sat in a sweaty box before, so high on the excitement of new experiences, I followed her in.
Sat in a small wooden room with unfamiliar flesh either side of me I was forced to face how truly naked I was.
Despite a brief hiccup when I accidentally touched toes with a naked stranger, I quickly found myself not all that bothered by my state of undress.
Perhaps I’m just lucky to have the kind of personality suited to naturism but I didn’t feel particularly self-conscious of my physical form.
With everyone’s meat prisons on display I felt sure mine was at least acceptable and wouldn’t cause either a stampede of desire or disgust.
Leaving the sauna with a new-found respect for even my wobbliest bits, Pauline and I did a final plunge into the pool.
I found myself elated, perhaps partly from the relief of having quite literally put it all out there and survived but also having discovered a group of people who have found a way to build a truly comfortable camaraderie between each other.
Before I arrived that evening my mind conjured up the worst possibilities; I imagined my huge and terrible form causing shock and horror, or perhaps worse I feared I would be cowering under the lecherous gaze of the geriatric male.
But once I dipped my toe in I found myself surrounded by interesting, passionate people who were also brave enough to take the plunge.
So, to anyone wondering what to do with their Sunday evenings now the nights are drawing in, may I recommend you take a dive on the wild side and join us?
Dover Naturist Swim meets every Sunday at 8.30pm. Tickets cost £7 on top of a £15 annual membership. To join (and I suggest you do!) email Rod at email@example.com.