THE NAKED RAMBLER, aka Steve Gough, has been discussed in these pages several times already, even featuring on the cover of TAC59. On his second attempt at a naked Lands End to John o'Groats walk, beginning in June 2005, he was accompanied by Mel Robertson, his girlfriend of a month. The ups and downs of their relationship, along with the public reaction to the walkers, was the main theme of this entertaining BBC documentary by Richard Macer.
The frequency with which the LEJOG is done tends to diminish the enormity of the feat: 874 miles, which Gough and Robertson planned to cover at 20 miles a day, something they seemed to be managing with ease. Macer's focus was on the "naked" rather than the "rambling", and any viewer wishing to do some virtual bagging would have been disappointed by the lack of hills. There were a few shots of sun-spangled waters from the Dorset coastal path and flower-strewn meadows near the Severn Bridge, but far more of two pairs of buttocks striding onwards (if buttocks can be said to stride).
Gough's motivations emerged only fuzzily from Macer's questioning, but his website (http://nakedwalk.org/) provides a more lucid explanation of how walking and nakedness merge in his philosophy of being true to himself. He talks about going for a walk to ponder a work problem, and then
... I started to go for walks more often until I was going every evening, and very often reaching a blissed out state. The resulting effect was the experience of ok-ness and the natural desire to want to express that in the way I lived my life. One of the ways I did this, was being more daring in my nakedness at lakes and beaches because, I thought, if I'm ok, then my body which is part of me, is ok also, so why should I hide it?
Robertson's reason for becoming a naked rambler was plain: she was besotted with the original one. She was a regular on the naturist beach at Studland in Dorset, had fancied Gough when she'd seen him on TV, then met him on the beach. So off they set together. While Robertson appeared sweet and extremely likeable throughout, Gough came across as arrogant, infuriating, vulnerable and, finally, sympathetic. I can't have been alone in wanting to give him a good shake as he tried to make Robertson feel responsible for her own distress at his choosing to sleep en route with one of several other girlfriends. His desire for an open relationship proved to be very one-sided next day, however, when Robertson reported, with a big grin, his reactions to her and the other woman Annie "cuddling up" together: he couldn't handle it and went off to sleep on top of a hill. Later, as Macer pressed Gough on what had made him an outsider in society, he talked of his mother's unhappy childhood (and, by implication, his own), and ended up brushing away tears. One began to see the roots of his apparent exhibitionism and need for attention.
And the ramblers certainly got plenty of attention. Generally the attitude seemed to be amused tolerance: schoolkids laughing and pointing; people taking snaps and cheering them on; elderly ladies in supermarkets pushing down their specs for a better look; a bunch of middle-aged women stripping down to their undies to show solidarity; another group shrieking with laughter as they told Macer it was their mum's funeral and the coincidence of the naked pair passing through town would have appealed to her sense of humour.
That isn't to say that there weren't complaints. There were outraged diatribes from self-proclaimed protectors of children's innocence, and the fully clothed Macer was even attacked early in the walk. Outside one pub they were asked to leave, not just because of the nakedness but because of the "absolutely appalling" smell. Robertson said she was attracted to Gough by his "aura", but I doubt that's what she meant. He was clearly overdue another jet blitz (TAC61 p20).
Just as interesting as Gough and Robertson were the hangers-on who joined the walk at various times. Richard Collins, notorious for riding his bike naked around Cambridge, got under everyone's skin with his nuder-than-thou attitude on learning that Gough and Robertson wore clothes when not walking: "I put up my tent up nude and I remained nude until I went to the pub ... Did you sleep in clothes last night? Really? Oh! I slept nude in a sleeping bag", etc. Mysteriously, when Collins left a couple of days later, he was wearing a T-shirt (and, presumably, trousers, though who knows?)
Far more endearing was Jeff Woodhouse, a gentle soul introduced standing on top of a Severn Valley trig point, wearing nothing but headband and sandals and waving a banner for his own naturist campaign (http://www.natural-freedom.org/). Woodhouse hero-worshipped Gough. He had a notebook with "things Steve has said, things that have encouraged me". When Macer asked him to read some of these there was a lengthy silence. Woodhouse appeared to be overcome with emotion at being asked to quote his hero's words. Macer then gently said, "Can you read them aloud?", and Woodhouse duly read out a couple of new-agey banalities, eg "Steve says we are all just great balls of love". Meanwhile, the guru himself sat unmoved, stuffing his face and belching. (He also had the habit of eating with his mouth open and then licking his plate - arguably far more offensive than the nudity - Ed.) Woodhouse tagged along with Gough and Robertson for several weeks, but decided to leave after a somewhat tense discussion with Robertson outside Harrogate magistrates' court. As he minced off into the town centre, Woodhouse slid off his shorts and flung them over his shoulder - whereupon a police van screeched up. A moment of great timing - or great editing by Macer.
He wasn't the only one to get arrested, of course: Gough and Robertson ended up in court several times and Gough spent weeks in jail in Yorkshire and Scotland. After repeated re-arrests outside Edinburgh's Saughton prison, his desire to be reunited with Robertson overcame his principles: he agreed to wear clothes and was duly released in mid-September. Later, Macer quizzed him on his feelings for Robertson. As he admitted he now felt less desire to see Annie and his other girlfriends, we saw Robertson's face light up in a delighted grin. Her evident devotion had paid off.
The documentary ended after they were arrested again, near Dingwall. But subsequent news reports told of Gough having spent a further three months in and out of prison. At one point he shinned up a CCTV pole to protest, and one of his fellow prisoners was quoted as saying: "We were exercising in the yard when suddenly his clothes were off and he was up the pole. We are right behind him. "
As TAC67 goes to press, the naked couple should be resuming their walk. They'll be north of Inverness, naked, in winter. I take my hat off to them - but the thermals stay on.
TAC 67 Index