On the Northumberland coast, conveniently located between nothing and nowhere lies Druridge Bay.
Once a year – around the time of the autumnal equinox – this otherwise quiet beach plays host the North-East Skinny Dip. This event, which has just completed its fourth annual dip, encourages those who dare to come and strip off and swim in the North Sea at dawn to raise money for charity.
There are long and clichéd lists of what the British do well; queuing, talking about the weather, drinking tea, but nobody has ever suggested that dealing with public nudity is one of our skills. In fact Britain has even imprisoned a man for the best part of a decade simply for wanting to ramble naked!
It’s surprising therefore that, when the pants are down, the British handle being naked in groups very well indeed.
My discovery of this came when an unknown joker signed up me and my best friend to take part in acclaimed photographer Spencer Tunick’s naked shoot in Newcastle. Having discussed this joke over drinks we decided to go along “for a laugh”. So it was that just after 4am on July 17 2005 I found myself stripping off in the shadow of The Sage Gateshead, surrounded by 1,700 people doing likewise.
Down to just my pants I felt like a condemned man standing on the gallows, hoping for their pardon to come through before the trapdoor opens. I fully expected the man with the megaphone to suddenly announce, “You! The fat bloke! Just put your clothes on and go home, eh?”. He didn’t and I dropped ’em.
What happens when the British maxim of “don’t stare” meets a vista where every line of sight ends in somebody stripped or stripping? How do you talk to strangers when “It’s a bit chilly, isn’t it?” goes from small-talk to hurtful insult? What happens to the general public when their genitals are public?
Unsurprisingly the British sense of humour comes to the rescue. Trapped in a situation we have no preparation for we make jokes, we are self-effacing, we laugh at who we are and what we are doing. But social barriers are also shed, it becomes easier to talk to other people, and, most of all there is acceptance.
The clothes coming off reveals the tan-lines, the scars, the unwise tattoos and what terminal pie-addicts, such as myself, like to politely term ‘wobbly bits’…and everybody is totally cool with it. This year’s skinny-dip is the only time I’ve ever had a negative thought about another dipper’s body – a few meters down the beach from me was a young man who, without a word of irony, had the body of a Titan. That, I felt, just wasn’t cricket and he should be ashamed of himself for bringing his guns to bare at unprotected civilians.
When I try to persuade other people to come along to the skinny-dip their number one reason for declining isn’t the dawn start or the undoubted chill of the North Sea but that they’re not comfortable with their own bodies. While this is understandable it’s also completely arse-about-face. Stripping with a few hundred other people shows you that although we’re all different the scale of those differences is dwarfed by the factors that make us all the same. You don’t strip off because you’re confident, you gain the confidence by stripping.
It strikes me as apposite that the North-East Skinny Dip’s chosen charity is MIND, because revealing all reminds us that for some people their scars and wobbly bits are inside their heads, and they don’t always have the option of discretely tucking them away from public view. Some people are always naked and vulnerable, even when they’re safe and fully-clothed. Mostly what makes us different from these people is insignificant compared to what brings us together and, of course, while we may be the young Titan today at a future dip we may be pie-addict.
I’ve done all 4 North-East Skinny Dips and I’ll keep doing them every year, partly because it is enormous fun and a genuinely beautiful sight to behold and partly because I’m very glad that the thousands it raises goes to helping those who, like the rambler, go through life naked, as well as those who’ve just momentarily forgotten where on the beach they left their clothes.
Two final things:
You can still donate money to MIND via the North-East Skinny Dip from their Virgin Money Giving page
Lastly, I couldn’t finish up without a photo of myself. This one appeared in the Newcastle Evening Chronicle on the day of the Spencer Tunick session. The previous day had been red hot and my friend had been gardening shirtless, so he was easy to spot. I’m standing to his left.
Do sleep tight, don’t have nightmares!