TCS day trip: Riverbank Nudists

Image credit: Alex Brown

My ideal of Cambridge in summer is based on the stories of lime-scented courts and cherry brandy and swimming in the Cam that I read before coming here. I wasn’t naive enough to expect it to be like this, and what I got was not bad (literary theory and feminism are a more proactive diet than silk kimonos and sunlight) but nevertheless, when the opportunity arises, I still like to indulge my literary fantasies.

Yesterday was a day for such dreams. I’d long heard tell of the Newnham Riverbank Club and seized a chance to find out more. Tucked away down a narrow path off a car park in Grantchester Meadows, we found its green wooden door. It was locked. We could have left it there. But fantasy is not for the faint-hearted. Instead, negotiating barbed wire and an upturned canoe, we scaled the fence. Greeting us on the other side was a gorgeous enclave of grassy lawns running down to the water. Further in, shielded from view by large hedges, men and women were sitting in the sun, chatting, picnicking, cutting the hedges. They were also naked.

Like Cambridge from a storybook                                                            
 Image Credit: Florin Gorgan

Keen to seem like locals, we walked straight through the group. Everyone was very friendly, saying hello and offering us grapes. They were so unfazed by their nakedness that it quickly began to seem less strange. By the time I filled in my membership forms, it didn’t strike me as particularly odd that the club manager was in the nude.

Thinking it was a fun idea, I had invited a close male friend to come with me to the club. Neither of us had seen each other naked before and probably would have felt awkward being so in such close proximity anywhere else in the world. But the atmosphere on those lawns was so different, so desexualised, that I felt pretty comfortable stripping off and diving in to the cool, green water. Gliding through the river in the sun, in that smooth way you only feel when naked, I watched dragonflies glimmer past and admired the daisies studding the banks. I even caught, in the cooling breeze, a scent of the ‘mint and mud’ Virginia Woolf had promised me.

Drying off in the sun, I felt invigorated by the bracing water, but also liberated. Despite being completely nude, I had never felt less looked-at in my life. None of the men in the club were in the least lascivious; they were friendly and welcoming, but their attention was nothing compared to the sort of unwanted gazes young women get in the street or the pub every day. Also, naked, I cared less about my body than I would in a swimming costume. I didn’t need to check if my nipples were tucked away safely or if my bikini line was neatly plucked. No one cared in the least, and, in response, I stopped caring too. 

I sought out the swimming club to follow in the steps of Rupert Brook and the Bloomsbury group, hoping I might too feel ‘the water sweet and cool, / Gentle and brown, above the pool’. I discovered a community where nobody, however scantily clad, is treated as a sexual object, pestered with unwanted attention, troubled by unnecessary insecurities. As it turned out, it wasn’t just the water I found refreshing.

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