Abbey House Gardens: YOU columnist Liz Jones bares all


Would you Adam and Eve it YOU columnist Liz Jones bares all

The thought of getting her kit off fills Liz Jones with horror – so could a naturist afternoon in these Eden-esque Wiltshire gardens inspire her to shed her inhibitions (and clothes)

Liz Jones Naked Garden

Liz dares to bare in the Abbey House Gardens, owned by Naked Gardeners Ian and Barbara Pollard

I am standing behind an elaborately clipped yew hedge. In front of me is a giant fir tree, topiaried into the face of a smiling man. He might well laugh. I’m down to my Hanro white schoolgirl knickers and a Gap vest. This is about as naked as I get. Even on my wedding night. No one ever has the chance to see me naked, least of all a gathering crowd of people I’ve never met and hopefully will never clap eyes on again.

Juliette, the photographer on this most surreal of assignments, is trying not to laugh. ‘Would it help if I took my clothes off as well’

Given that she has not long ago given birth, I am buoyed slightly, but then realise that, with her lighting umbrella, camera, spare lens and rucksack, she would still be almost fully clothed. ‘No, it’s OK. Just give me some time.’ Like, about 20 years.

The reason I’m bobbing behind the bushes, wishing pansies grew taller, is that I’m taking part in a ‘clothes optional’ day run by self-styled ‘Naked Gardeners’ Barbara and Ian Pollard in the stunning ornamental and herb gardens surrounding the 16th-century Abbey House in Malmesbury, where they live, in the shadow of the ruins of the Abbey itself. The problem is, I’m a ruin. An ancient mound, crumbling. And I would rather keep this fact to myself. But apparently, among naturists, which is where I am, appearances do not matter. It’s all about letting it all hang out, literally.

My eyes start to ache in my sockets as I try to avert them, only to find they bounce on someone else’s private parts instead. There is a lot of bending in gardening, remember. Kneeling. Stretching. Oh dear.

When I arrive at the entrance to the gardens on a cloudy Sunday afternoon – gardens which truly are exquisite, and awash with heady scent and butterflies – I’m stopped. Not because I’m wearing clothes (which, unusually for a naturist event, are optional, mainly so nervous partners and children can come clothed), but because I have brought my male collie, Michael. I figured he could act as a sort of huge hairy muff. ‘Oooh no, you can’t bring a dog in,’ says an elderly woman, who it turns out is Barbara’s mother.

‘No one ever has the chance to see me naked, least of all a gathering crowd of people I’ve never met and hopefully will never clap eyes on again’

‘You are kidding me’ I say, as a trio of men, naked but for their rucksacks and sandals, push past me. Eeeew! One has a ring in his private parts. At first, I wonder what’s glinting. And then I go, EEEEEWWWWWW!

I have to put Michael in the Land Rover, and enter alone. I’m now in a very bad mood. Have these people nothing better to do with their time And why do most of the women want to walk around in baggy T-shirts, just their genitals exposed My curiosity is piqued: why does no one have pubic hair Does it simply wear off due to the friction with Stonehenge, a giant pumice stone

I grew up in a resolutely non-naked house. My mum always wore, even on the beach, a dress, stockings, shoes and a cardigan. We had a bathroom that locked. There was no walking around even in underwear. First, it was too cold. And second, why would you want to At school, I always ducked out of communal showers after hockey. My husband called me prudish, but so what I equate prudishness with morality, with humility, with a bit of self-respect. ‘I’m not a prostitute,’ I’d rail at him. ‘I’m English!’

But here, there are families around me – the children are clothed, the parents naked – and I think, do kids really want to see their mothers’ pendulous breasts The pot bellies The varicose veins I realise, after about 20 minutes in the herb garden (gorgeous!), that all I see are the faults. It does have to be said: the vast majority of people doing this are way past 60. I had thought naturism had something to do with Sweden, and hot tubs, and brisk mountain walks and fitness. But this doesn’t seem about fitness at all. It seems sad and pointless and a bit prickly.

Abbey House Gardens owners Ian and Barbara Pollard

Abbey House Gardens owners Ian and Barbara Pollard

I sit and chat with Barbara (she places a towel on the bench, as decorum among naturists dictates you daren’t put a bare bot anywhere), confronting her with my puritan, Amish attitude.
I try to think of something sensible to ask her, but can only come up with, ‘Why’

A former model and teacher, she and her husband bought this house, then in dire need of renovation, in 1994. It had no garden to speak of. Ian, who made his name as a property developer, started not wearing clothes when doing up a house, not having the money to replace his work clothes. ‘He was down to his last pair of white shorts, and he thought, “It doesn’t matter, my skin will heal if I scratch it. I’ll pick the moment and I’ll take the rubble out and no one will notice that I’m naked.”’

Abbey House Gardens, Chris from Cardiff

Abbey House Gardens, Barbara Pollard

It’s secs, trugs and very little else at 16th-century Abbey House, although you don’t have to bare all to enjoy the gardens! Above right: Naked Gardener Barbara gets to work

Abbey House Gardens, Chris from Cardiff

Together, they planted this garden, wanting to attract visitors to this beautiful Wiltshire town.
What do the locals think ‘We are overlooked, and word did get out. There is suddenly this odd couple in their midst: him with shoulder-length hair, her with legs up to her armpits, that’s how people saw us in those days. And we thought, we’re not hurting anyone. Now, the locals think Ian is so talented.’

But what do their three children – aged 25, 20 and 16 – think of their exhibitionism ‘My daughter may find it’s something she would be happy to do somewhere else with other people. Like most young people, they have body issues. There is so much pressure to look a certain way.’

As a naturist, does Barbara – now in her early 60s – worry less about ageing ‘I don’t worry about it at all; I don’t care, I’ve got an appendix scar, I’m skinny here, I’ve got wrinkles there, I’m fat there…so what It doesn’t change who I am or what I can give to the world; it doesn’t change me.’

I’m not convinced. Aren’t clothes these days already a great leveller, now we all dress in sportswear and Primark and trainers

I approach a naked couple, Sue and John, from Marlborough. When I ask why they can’t just take their clothes off at home, John tells me, ‘It’s a nice social event to come here. We bump into friends. There are useful talks about healthy eating. The breeze on your body is just a different element to enjoy. We let people know we are naturists. We are very open about it.’ Adds Sue, ‘We live a naked lifestyle at home. I’m not happy with my body, but it’s good for you [to shed your clothes]. You don’t look at other people’s bodies here.’ Does Sue think the images young women see these days are damaging, and that naturism counteracts them ‘If naturism tells us anything, it’s that we
are not perfect.’

‘My eyes start to ache in my sockets as I try to avert them, only to find they bounce on someone else’s private parts instead. There is a lot of bending in gardening, remember. Kneeling. Stretching. Oh dear’

I meet another couple, from Stratford-upon- Avon, who tell me they are Christian naturists, therefore don’t want their names published. They have been married for 50 years. ‘The naturists here have contentment on their faces,’ says the woman, then makes me laugh when she says, ‘I lost my husband for a few minutes. I couldn’t pick him out among all the unclothed men!’

And I meet a representative from British Naturism, Judith Stinchcombe (there are 11,000 members in the UK alone, about 60 per cent men, 40 per cent women). She reminds me of Megan, the character in Bridesmaids who adopts all the puppies. She is, thank goodness, clothed. ‘We go on holiday abroad,’ she says (there is an outing to El Ports in Spain in 2013). ‘I am more confident, more tolerant, more accepting. We have a national naked swimming gala each year. It’s brilliant.’

I wander around the garden, seeing ordinary people sitting on the grass, and playing giant naked chess (the pieces are large, not necessarily the players). There is a disarming friendliness. I’m still not naked, by the way. In fact, I’m thinking of putting more clothes on. I can’t get over the people in the caf, having naked cups of tea. I feel I have wandered into a Carry On film.

But after about two hours of this, the novelty wears off. While at first I’d thought it all a bit strange and exhibitionist, I realise you see just as much – more, in fact – prancing on the beach at Cannes. I start to look at the women’s faces, which are open. I no longer look at their bodies. I am reminded of the first time I saw my mum naked. It was a few weeks before my own wedding (I wore a tuxedo; I never willingly show off my legs), and she was sitting on her bed having tried on a dress, thinking she looked awful. Her breasts were bare, and tears were coursing down her face. On her body was written her life: seven children, several hip and knee replacements, breast-feeding, pain, sacrifice. And to me she had never looked more beautiful, more vulnerable.

Abbey House Gardens

Liz Jones naked Gardening

Liz Jones, right, didn't know where to look as naked man after naked man strode by…

Then, I understood why my dad, who had not long died, loved her. I meet so many elderly couples walking around in Wiltshire (there are young men, but very few young women), discussing the sculptures, completely at ease with each other, comfortable. That is love, isn’t it, when you adore the person, not how they look And I suddenly envy these people I had been not laughing at, exactly, but avoiding. My ex-husband never saw me without a T-shirt on in bed. If he caught me unawares in the shower, I’d clasp my arms over my breasts, and cross my legs, and scream at him to get out. That’s not love.

Finally, behind my hedge, and almost in tears, I take off my underwear. There is a strong breeze in my nether regions. Oooh! Barbara, who is athletic and strong and totally at ease with her body, stands guard, as me and my hang-ups and the photographer are pulling quite a few spectators. Finally, I am ready in just my wellies. ‘I can’t see any bits,’ Juliette says tactfully.

‘I wish my life had been different. I wish I had had more confidence in my inner beauty, and not felt I was always being judged’

Photos duly taken, I collect my pile of clothes, my safety net, my armour, and pull them on (there’s a changing tent, but most people just strip off anywhere). Barbara comes over to ask how I felt.
I tell her maybe if I’d grown up less ashamed of my body, I’d have fewer hang-ups: no anorexia, as my parents would have seen what I was doing to myself. No husband who had affairs. No plastic surgery. And the strangest thing happens. Barbara, in all her nakedness, hugs me, and I let her. I never let anyone hug me, I hate it. And I start to cry. I wish my life had been different. I wish I had had more confidence in my inner beauty, and not felt I was always being judged.

Will I be going back to Abbey House Gardens I think I will, but this time wearing clothes. I’m not about to become a naturist (I even wrap a towel around myself, alone in my own home, exiting the shower). But I have more understanding of the Naked Rambler, for example, who has been in and out of jail in Scotland for refusing to put on his clothes. I have more understanding of human frailty. There is nothing sexual about naturism at all. The husband of the Christian naturist had drawn flowers around the scar of her hip operation: a sweet, forgiving gesture. Who am I to judge other people who find their bodies beautiful, and natural Not something to be afraid of. Certainly not something to be punished with pilates.
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