Travel: Invaders from the Planet Overdress: Rose Rouse casts off her inhibitions (and her clothes) to enjoy a naturist holiday in the South of France

BEFORE going naked in the South of France - with my partner and six-year-old son - I learnt a lot about the British attitude to naturism. There were variations of 'rather you than me', some plain disgusteds, a lot of nervous titters and a myriad bad jokes.

'You won't have to take much luggage then,' joked more than one. 'Watch out for the barbecue night,' jested another. Thanks to the prevalent sex-

obsessed culture and post-post- Victorian embarrassment about our bodies, naturism in Britain is still seen as a kinky deviation or a physically repulsive idea.

Thus I found myself at Gatwick airport checking out the weirdos who were off to the Cap d'Agde, Europe's largest naturist resort. They did seem to have one common trait: grey hair. Yes, British naturists tend, at youngest, to be middle-aged. In other words, it takes them years to feel free with their bodies. Unlike the French or Germans.

MARLON, my son, was certainly not feeling keen on naturism. 'Will I be able to take my pyjamas with me?' he had pleaded a few weeks earlier, pointing out that the brochure pictures showed shop assistants wearing clothes.

At the airport he is still insisting that he won't be removing his shorts. And he's especially pleased that we don't have to go naked on the plane.

Cap d'Agde is a beach resort - mainly self-catering apartments, restaurants, shops, swimming-pools and, of course, the beach. It has 50,000 visitors in peak season. There are security guards at the entrance.

Our first naked encounters are on the way (fully clothed) to the apartment. A balding man strolls to the grocery, a brown-as-a-berry veteran mends his boat, couples saunter round the marina: all blissfully unembarrassed about their often large, pendulous, wobbly bits. We feel like invaders from the Planet Overdress.

Fortunately, Cap d'Agde is not dictatorial about nudity. Despite the 'naturism is obligatory' notices, you can choose where you want to go naked. There are no naturist guards whipping off your garments as you enter the supermarket. It's all very laissez-faire. But there is a naturist etiquette as well as an odd dress-code.

So I know I'm OK slipping on a sarong on my first trip to the beach. But Mario and Marlon are wearing shorts - which is a bit iffy: naturists, you see, would wear a T-shirt with nothing below. Penises jiggling beneath T-shirts was one naturist fashion that I had difficulty accepting all week. It was just too aesthetically absurd.

Finally, on the beach - only 200 yards from our studio flat - we take everything off. Quickly. And it is OK. No air balloons go up announcing our arrival. Marlon, despite his initial reluctance, is returning to the sea in no time, while Mario and I lie horizontal and very still. We are not quite ready for bat-and-ball.

Later in the holiday, I discuss disrobing procedures with some long-term naturists and discover there are various methods. Some it seems, arrive, remove their clothes and go straight to the supermarket. The short, sharp approach. Others take a gentler route, taking off their bikini tops first, then bottoms, then lying down, then gradually on to movement and shopping.

Del, who is married to an ex-headmaster, Arnold, both in their seventies, explains: 'Arnold persuaded me to come here. It was about 13 years ago. We'd been to Spain where I'd been topless for the first time. I was very reticent about taking the bottoms off, but finally did and a big cheer went up. My bottom was so white in comparison with the rest of my very brown body.' After Arnold retired, the couple became travel reps for Peng Travel, which arranged our trip.

Bodywatching is fascinating (whatever naturists say about not looking at each other, it isn't true). Cindy Crawford and Richard Gere lookalikes are in short supply, but every other body shape is here. There are tubby men wearing just a bum-bag - where to put your money has always been a problem for naturists; thin women with saggy breasts; tattooed mothers; older, big-hipped ladies with perfectly set hair and expensive earrings; people with scars in unusual places; women who have had mastectomies; white families hiding under umbrellas; disabled people; teenagers with lithe bodies playing volleyball; women with pierced labia.

And naturists do talk about each other. 'I used to feel threatened by her 10 years ago,' says Anne, a welfare assistant from Wiltshire, pointing to a blonde woman with pierced nipples, 'but now she seems softer.'

Although extremely interesting, flesh en masse isn't sexy. This point of view is reinforced by Norman, a mahogany-brown naturist in his sixties who had just noticed a svelte young woman arriving in a neon-pink swimsuit. 'Wow, that is what I call sexy,' he shouts, totally aware of the irony involved.

Next stop is the supermarket. No, we can't face going naked. There'll be no penis or breasts getting caught in the freezer door for us, although there are a few hairy moments anyway. Body space is at a premium. As I rush towards the tomatoes, I almost fall headlong into a very hairy male torso oozing sun oil. Luckily, he turns towards the honeydew melons just in time.

Men, it seems, find it much easier than women to walk around naked because there are definitely more of them doing it. 'It's their egos,' suggests someone later. 'Men feel more comfortable showing off their bodies.' According to Peter Englert, director of Peng Travel, clothes-

wearing (naturists refer to us as 'textiles') is a major issue in the naturist press. 'Some naturists dislike the fact that so many 'textiles' are allowed to come to places like the Cap d'Agde. They think everyone should be naked all the time, but we favour a more tolerant attitude.'

Other British naturists agree. 'What about teenagers who refuse to take their pants off?' says Rob, a naturist for 10 years, 'or a partner who doesn't want to be naked all the time, or when women are having periods?'

When eating out at lunch time, nudity is sort of de rigueur but you must remember to bring along your towels to sit on. This is absolutely number one etiquette-and-hygiene priority. By evening, most people have donned clothes. In the bar only one hardcore German naturist is sitting listening to the band singing 'Relax, Don't Do It' without clothes. And I'm sure he doesn't have his towel with him.

Next morning the sun is shining, naked women are sweeping their balconies (naturism does not alter sexism]) and the dustbinman is carrying out his smelly duties below. Boldly, I decide to do my yoga as a naturist. It feels fantastic - the warmth of the sun on the body is very sensual - although I'm not sure the elderly Swiss naturists next door understood what all the heavy breathing was about.

I can't quite bring myself to walk to the beach and restaurants without my sarong. In that respect, I'm a failed naturist. It just feels too vulnerable. And, despite security checks, there are one or two dodgy men around. But once on the beach, everything is fine. We're even playing bat-and-ball today. I think I would feel worse - more self-conscious - if the beach was full of flat-stomached, size 8 nymphets. But it isn't. In fact, it is incredibly relaxed and great to get rid of those annoying whiter-than-white strap marks.

Meanwhile, Marlon has found a friend, James, who is from a naturist family and therefore ever eager to take his shorts off. They have a wonderful time, jumping over waves, building turrets for their sandcastles and burying each other. It is very natural and I'm glad Marlon is getting the opportunity to see the whole range of body shapes in such a setting. 'I found it really helps with sexual issues,' says Anne, James's mum. 'Questions come up automatically here and you can answer them in a straightforward way.'

British naturists, in general, are a funny lot. Naturism is still cloaked in secrecy, and they would say this is caused by prudery towards them. But it is a vicious circle. At the drinks do - you get plied with wine one evening - you have to remember that naturists don't discuss their jobs (in case someone finds out).

Joyce and Fred, for instance, have not told their friends 'in case naturism is a passing phase'; Del did tell her family and now her sister doesn't speak to her for being so brazen.

Consequently, naturist conversations tend to revolve around their clubs - the facilities, regulations and location. Which is bloody boring. These clubs are very private. Rob, an archivist and father of James, who is very liberal in naturist terms, advocates opening up the naturist world much more. 'For 25 years I lived five miles from a naturist club and I had no idea it was there,' he says. 'The clubs should publicise themselves more and stop being so strict about single members joining. Naturism in Britain could do with a kick up the arse.'

Sex is another murky area. Naturists tend to deny that sex is relevant to their naked leisure pursuit. Yet when I read a couple of copies of Health and Efficiency magazine, their bible, I was shocked. It's a mixture of readers-go-naked-in-the-country and soft porn: erect nipples, old men/amateur photographers taking photos of young women, and lots of inappropriate naked bodies illustrating texts, about, for instance, hysterectomies. So naturists seem confused about sex. On one hand, they deny its presence; on the other, they treat it just like the Sun.

Sadly, by week's end, I regress to a bathing suit. The obvious has happened: sunburn has penetrated the parts that so rarely see the sun and I'm very pink. I feel silly wearing a costume on a naturist beach.

The big question is - would we return? The honest answer is that we would, under certain conditions. For an all-over tan and a tranquil beach holiday with your family it's fantastic. Just as long as you don't have to listen to tortuous discussions about the minutiae of erecting screens in back gardens to prevent the neighbours knowing you're naturists.

Information: Peng Travel, 86 Station Road, Gidea Park, Romford, Essex, RM2 6DB (0708 471832). Travel is either by coach or plane to Montpellier where you are picked up. Travelling by coach, a self-contained flat for two weeks in July would cost between pounds 232 and pounds 265; by air it would be pounds 339- pounds 373.

(Photograph omitted)

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