They tried to become martyrs for nudism, but police just turned the other cheek

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The Independent Online

"I could become a prisoner of conscience or a martyr," said Vincent Bethell, 28, wistfully, preparing to unravel an orange Becks-style skirt to reveal his slim, naked, evenly tanned, body in Kensington Park Gardens, London, yesterday.

"I could become a prisoner of conscience or a martyr," said Vincent Bethell, 28, wistfully, preparing to unravel an orange Becks-style skirt to reveal his slim, naked, evenly tanned, body in Kensington Park Gardens, London, yesterday.

But sometimes martyrdom eludes the embrace of even the most committed. For Mr Bethell, an unemployed former art student of Coventry, and seven comrades, who were protesting for the right to be clothesless in public, had to walk naked through central London for almost an hour before police finally made Mr Bethell's day by arresting him and two others.

Mr Bethell, a rather sweet, soft-spoken, earnest man, has been stripping all over the country for the past two years as part of a "political" campaign to make public nudity legal. He has taken his kit off in front of the Metropolitan Police headquarters, walked naked through the Pallasades shopping centre in Birmingham and caused gridlock in London by climbing up a lamppost outside the Royal Courts of Justice wearing nothing but his bushy beard and a rucksack. He even stripped in the dock at one of his own court hearings.

Yesterday, Mr Bethell admitted that his cause was not gathering momentum. He has attracted only 18 supporters willing to strip for their beliefs. But many people, he insists, are secretly desperate to tear off their clothes. "It's the fear of arrest that is the obstacle," he said. So, in the interests of freedom, he moved up a gear yesterday. He took his clothes off for what he vowed was the very last time. "I am not putting them on again, ever," he said. "That probably means I'll be held in prison."

In Kensington Gardens, two female officers from the park's police force persuaded him and his friends to keep some clothes on until they had left their jurisdiction. Matching yellow and orange skirts stayed put as the seven men and a 17-year-old girl trooped to the gate, in odd, semi-naked procession.

"It's not sexual, it's about a basic human right," insisted Mr Bethell, who believes clothes restrict our humanity. He should have told that to the male Japanese tourist taking shots of protester Eleanor Gurney, of Hitchin, Hertfordshire. Outside the park, the protesters whipped off the skirts. Some covered their genitals with little protest cards. Some did not bother. Then they strode through Kensington,trailed by tourists and journalists. One mysterious protester was naked except for the blue scarf concealing his face.

Eccentrics, crazed, or visionaries ahead of their time? Most tourists actually seemed to think they were some sort of attraction. An open-topped tourist bus passed by twice. "It's a testament to great British eccentricity, as well as being just hilarious," said Chris Coates, 30, of south-east London. "Vincent has a point, but it's one the rest of us appear to be missing."

Many - presumably the Britons - went out of their way not to notice. One little girl and her grandmother laughed so much they became almost hysterical. "You British are so free," said a visiting Indian, while a passing car did a U-turn to deposit two male passengers on the street, naked in solidarity. "See, no one is offended," said Mr Bethell. Which would have been true except for the group of Muslim girls, faces covered, who ran for cover.

Mercedes Gavnio, 60, of Uruguay, looked the men up and down as she bit into a hotdog. "It doesn't offend me at all," she said. A British woman of roughly the same age was nearby as Mr Bethell was ushered - relieved, at last, to have met his destiny - into the police van. What did she make of the cause? She wrinkled her nose. "I don't think so, dear, do you? The truth is most people look better with their clothes on."

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