This particular item is taken from a piece I wrote for the Vancouver Sun half a lifetime ago, and is currently part of a collection of my various writings over the years. The collection includes pieces from my 20-year column in the Comox District Free Press, as well as other bits from my column in the Great Yarmouth Mercury, in Great Yarmouth England, for which I wrote in the early 1980s.
“Bracing” is the term they use in Norfolk, England for the prevailing North Sea wind that wafts over the flat coastal plains of East Anglia. Bracing, you must understand, is a term that represents English understatement of the highest and most admirable order.
The prevailing wind, “straight out of Siberia,” as the locals would have it, predominates through much of the year, and it is also said that such a wind as this, again according to the locals, “Can make a grown-man weep.”
I experienced such a wind as this one autumn day in 1980 when my then wife and I were joined in an expedition to the seaside with two friends, a married couple, visiting from Canada. My wife and I were already resident in the village of Bradwell, near Great Yarmouth, a resort town on that aforementioned coast. We were to be there for a year while my wife carried out a teacher exchange from our Vancouver Island home.
The day in question was, in fact, a little less than ‘bracing’ (for a welcome change). There was a distinct autumnal nip in the air, but the sun was shining brightly, and we felt a beach excursion was in order. Especially in light of the fact we had held a bit of a mini-reunion with our Canadian friends the previous evening. A reunion at our newfound local pub that included introducing our compatriots to liberal dollops of an exquisite local brew known as Norwich Castle Bitter. Consequently we were all slightly in the rigors of some self-inflicted injury, and there is nothing like salt air to neutralize that residual impact.
We checked out a number of seaside spots along the Anglian coastline that day, as we headed south into Suffolk. While the North Sea, in terms of immersion, is excruciatingly cold at virtually all times of the year, the beaches themselves on the Norfolk and Suffolk coasts are just as inviting as strands of golden sand as those of Hawaii.
We finally settled on the beach at Corton, a few miles to the south, about halfway between Yarmouth and Lowestoft. I hadn’t been there before, and thought it was a splendid looking place. We walked along for some time, watching the scudding blackheaded gulls and pondering the geographical provenance of a North Sea freighter that was wending its way towards Yarmouth – Hamburg? Bremen? Perhaps even Leningrad, as it was called still. All very romantic. Next to this same sea there was a time when spotters watched from the shoreline in horror as Viking raiders approached. In 1916 a Zeppelin came across and staged the very first English aerial bombardment, with Yarmouth as the chosen target.
Lost in my reverie, a nudge to the ribs snapped me back to reality. It was my friend calling my attention to a sign on a post immediately ahead of us. It read: It is not necessary to wear clothing on the beach past this point.
Our none-too-quick minds were a little befuddled as to the meaning of the sign. Then the message, so discreetly stated, hit home. This was a nude beach! We could get ‘nekkid’ here on this lovely beach right on our own English doorstep. Wreck Beach Anglo-Saxon style. My mind became inflamed with images of assorted Julie Christies, Jenny Agutters and other lovelies of the day, showing in plain view their rosebud tipped breasts and all their fuzzy (or waxed) nether trappings. What a wonderful thing. How civilized.
We were actually a trifle nonplused. Nudity one expects in Germany, and it goes without saying on the Riviera. England somehow seemed different at that time, the London strip clubs notwithstanding. In our minds, nudity seemed about as out-of-place on Blighty’s shores as a licensed bar at a Mormon convention.
My wife, bless her heart, suggested that perhaps we could stay on the south side of the sign (she would). However, masculine will, combined with an affirmation by my friend’s liberal minded wife, prevailed, and we decided we should forge on, just to see what might lie before us. Would it be a dissolute debauch of Chaucerian proportion, or would it be as sedate and sophisticated as a tailgate champagne picnic at Ascot?
The nude beach, I must confess, was a disappointment. The visions of lithe, oiled, California-tanned limbs were supplanted by the reality of a man, easily the far side of 70, who sported a physique not unlike that of a Holocaust survivor, huddling against a canvas windbreak, obviously trying to keep the ‘bracingness’ of the day from aggravating his hypothermia. I suspect he was too cold to have considered the fact that there might be those who would consider him a symbol of all that is evil and depraved in the world. I’m not intending to be ageist but there wasn’t a Helen Mirren or Sean Connery in sight.
Sitting beside him on the beach was a rather lumpy looking older couple, fully clothed who, by their attire and general demeanor looked as if they had just stepped out of a Giles cartoon. I suspect they had become resigned to the fact that poor eccentric Uncle Bertie was possessed of an overwhelming passion to naked up at the simplest excuse, and they were merely there to make certain he didn’t get up to anything even sillier.
Realizing that we were there in the off-season, I looked around, hoping to spot tell-tale signs of previous orgies, just to give myself hope for the following year’s spring and summer. Alas, there were no discarded undies or any other hints of frolicking alfresco. There wasn’t even so much as a discarded beer bottle. In fact, it was the cleanest English beach I experienced during my stay there.
This either attests to the fact that nudists are scrupulously moral and reasonable folk, or that the North Sea is so consistently bracing that only the bravest and maddest venture forth. Such mad courage might indeed have been concentrated exclusively in poor old Uncle Bertie, the sole member of the UK naturist brigade.
I think nude bathing is thoroughly acceptable (the Europeans have known this for decades) and I haven’t even an inkling of false modesty about me. Want me to doff trou? OK. The only disconcerting fact about the whole thing is that the people you’d really-really like to see naked never shuck their gear. And the ones that would be best served by being totally garbed throw their underpants to the winds with impunity.