Lighter Side: Nature versus nurture

07 July 2013 - 02:03 By Joe Shute
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BUMMER: The footpath to the beach at Holkham, where 'internet perverts' are spoiling everyone's good, clean fun
BUMMER: The footpath to the beach at Holkham, where 'internet perverts' are spoiling everyone's good, clean fun

The closure of Holkham nudist beach is a relief to the royals, whose babies once frolicked there - and surely will again. Joe Shute meets the naturists left out in the cold

In the late Midsummer's afternoon, mysterious shapes flit between the pines surrounding the great expanse of Holkham beach.

The 19th-century wood was planted by Thomas Coke, the second Earl of Leicester, to help support the adjoining sand dunes. Just 30km from the Sandringham estate in Norfolk, it has until recently been a retreat for the Royal family.

A home movie filmed on Holkham beach by Queen Elizabeth in 1957 shows an 8-year-old Prince Charles and 6-year-old Princess Anne buried up to their necks in the sand while a corgi stands guard. A royal beach hut was built here in the 1930s, although it was burnt down in a suspected arson attack in 2003. The Household Cavalry still host an annual ride over the sands.

Lately, however, the Royal family has been steering clear.

The Holkham Estate has announced the imminent closure of a long-standing nudist section of the beach following reports of lewd behaviour and public indecency, with beach-goers claiming to have been propositioned by strangers.

But these are not the actions of the carefree naturists who have lounged across these sands for decades, rather an underbelly of internet perverts, who descend on Britain's nude spots to provide an easy cloak for their deeds.

"The things they've been getting up to in those dunes," says one estate worker, "would make your hair stand on end."

The ban has reportedly been met with relief at Buckingham Palace and is expected to encourage a return to Holkham beach by members of the Royal family. Sandringham's Anmer Hall is earmarked to be the new country home of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, currently expecting their first child, and Holkham is an ideal place for children to play on the sand.

But the naturists aren't taking things lying down. They feel they are being unfairly punished for the actions of a seedy few. A member of the estate staff says several incidents are reported every week.

Holkham is not the only place being targeted. In April last year, Carmarthenshire council issued a warning about "fake nudists" after it said several women had been approached by naked men on the Cefn Sidan beach at Pembrey Country Park. Numerous "dogging" and swinger websites recommend nudist beaches as prime places to visit.

"There have always been problems, as beaches do attract the wrong sort of people," says Steve, a committee member of the Western Sunfolk Naturist Club. "But the internet has also given them a hub."

The nude section was to close on July 1, and the western end of the beach remains littered with signs urging visitors to report any indecent behaviour to the police.

When the sun shone, hundreds of naturists would come here to laze among the dunes. But, on the day I visited, a North Sea wind was whipping in. Frankly, you would be mad to even peel off a sock.

Eventually, after walking for miles over steep dunes, I glimpsed a leathery body lying perilously close to a gorse bush.

Ritchie, a 67-year-old retired farmer with a tan the colour of teak, beckoned me over. I introduced myself and sat cross-legged opposite, maintaining steady eye contact.

"It would be unfair to say I haven't seen any funny business here," he said. "But it's no worse than anywhere else."

Ritchie - a regular here - became a naturist three years ago, after retiring.

"I always enjoyed the feeling of the sun and thought when I retired it would be nice to just be more free. For me, it's natural to take all your clothes off."

According to the British Naturism organisation, Ritchie is part of a growing trend. A nationwide poll commissioned 18 months ago found that 4-million people consider themselves to be naturists.

The Home Office says that, under Section 5 of the Public Order Act, it is only an offence to be naked in public if it can be proved the person has caused distress.

Andrew Welch, a spokesman for British Naturism, said the group was working with the estate to come up with an alternative solution at Holkham. The closure, he says, is like "using a sledgehammer to crack a nut".

Welch points to the success story of Studland Beach in Dorset, which in April expanded its naturist section. The Studland Beach Users Action Group was formed in 2005 by representatives of local councils, beach-hut owners, naturists and the police to crack down on indecent behaviour. The group employs community wardens to patrol the beach and this has led to a dramatic reduction in incidents.

"This is nothing to do with naturists at all," Welch says. "These are perverts who want to go and meet people for sex. Naturism is a fun, family-friendly and relaxing thing to do. The Holkham Estate doesn't have a dispute with that. If they do enforce this, hundreds of nudists will just go somewhere else."

Further down the beach, among the walkers picking their way carefully around nesting terns, there is a great deal of sympathy for the naturists.

"I've been coming here for decades and have had a caravan nearby for the past four seasons," says Joyce Pasea, a grandmother of seven. "It's such a vast beach and there is space for everybody. I think it should be each to their own. If they want to take their clothes off, then fine."

Ritchie, for one, intends to obey the ban, though he doesn't expect to come overdressed.

"Rules are rules and we're all old enough to abide by them. I suppose I'll just have to wear a pair of pants."

© The Daily Telegraph

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