A new footpath from the village down to the beach opened earlier this year to a great fanfare. It was cut through virgin woodland using JCBs and furnished with stout wooden National Trust gates, fences and handrails. At one point the path is lined with gigantic exotic plants, escapees from the ‘lost’ tropical garden of a long-since demolished old cliff-top house. What they are God only knows, but they are thriving magnificently beneath the shelter of the cliff. ‘It’s like going for a walk in bloody Africa,’ observed reactionary old Grandad to Oscar as we trotted down this path for the first time the other day. One of these triffids was over seven feet tall; the tip bowed over by the weight of its buds.
Oscar and I have been playing football every day. We’ve been working on our heading. As well as the ball, we’ve been heading anything at or just above head height, including low-hanging apples, naked light bulbs, lampshades, wasps and small items of clothing hanging on the washing line. Now Oscar invited me to take a running jump and head the drooping tip of this weird plant, which I did, rising like a salmon and connecting with a flick worthy of Alan Gilzean in his pomp.
The new path emerged from the woods and joined the old one, originally a coach road, for its final gentle decline down to the beach car park, where my father used to work as a car-park attendant. The far end of the beach is a naturist beach by tradition and many of his regular customers were fanatical nudists. Not once can I remember seeing my father naked; very rarely was he seen even without a jacket and tie. This buttoned-up man contrasted himself with his freedom-loving customers by wearing his full car-park attendant’s uniform of peaked hat, jacket, epaulettes, tie, blue shirt and business shoes Kiwi-ed daily to a mirror gloss — even in the dog days of August. It was partly a joke, I think, and partly dissent. The nudists loved him, showering him with small gifts — a chamois car leather, fudge, an emergency breakdown kit — and festive greeting cards at Christmas. Oscar and I passed the concrete plinth of his hut, now occupied by the ticket machine that replaced him. The car park was full and the hot air shimmered above the tight rows of marques and models whose size and opulence might have surprised him.
The beach is vast and for most of the year more or less deserted. But on August bank holiday it was as crowded as Margate or Blackpool, with gay nudists away at the far end, straight nudists and nudist families in the middle distance, and, on this side of an invisible line, the ‘textiles’, which is nudism-speak for non-nudists. Oscar and I found ourselves a pitch in the midst of the textile community, close to the waves. We plonked ourselves down, stripped to our swimming shorts, then played chicken with the thundering surf for half an hour. Then Grandad got knackered and so we went and sat next to our heap of clothes and tossed small pebbles into a discarded polystyrene cup from three yards away, competitively.
In the distance one could see the wavy mahogany figures of the nudists, many of whom were just standing about, either on the sand or knee-deep in the sea, looking contemplative and philosophical. I’ve absolutely nothing against nudity. Swimming naked is one of life’s pleasures. I walk about the house with nothing on. But I wouldn’t make a song and dance about it. Nor would I drive for hours to a designated plot to be naked, then search for a designated plot within that designated plot.
As Oscar and I sat lobbing pebbles, we noticed that a stray nudist was wandering among us: a man aged about 60. He wasn’t merely passing through to the public toilets, we noticed; he was striking standing poses, presenting his knob to people, then sitting down and lying down in absurd centrefold poses and caressing and tickling himself. This man, astonishingly, was taunting us for our slavish prudishness. The effrontery was first shocking then rather admirable.
‘What’s he doing?’ said Oscar. ‘He’s a retired circus strongman who has lost his clothes,’ I said, throwing the pebble in my hand at this naked man. It missed. But it was followed by a shower of pebbles thrown by our fellow textiles who were within range, a few of which bounced off his body and close-cropped head. Exit nudist, at the double, pursued by another well-aimed shower of stones. Cheering and laughter. Inspired by the summary justice and public stoning, Oscar and I played a new game of tossing pebbles into the air and jubilantly heading them towards the polystyrene cup.