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Cycling/swimming in London/Brighton - John C. Kirk

Jun. 22nd, 2014

11:29 pm - Cycling/swimming in London/Brighton

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Over the past couple of months, I've been back and forth between London and Brighton. These trips have involved varying amounts of clothing, e.g. for the World Naked Bike Ride. I've included a few photos below, so you may not want to click through if you're reading this at work. (I'm deliberately blurring a few details, e.g. the names of the other people involved; if you follow me on Facebook then you may be able to join the dots, but please be discreet about it.)

I went to Brighton with some friends in April. We had a general wander around, including a trip to the beach. If I go down there on my own then I'll head over to the naturist section, but if I'm with other people who don't fancy that then I'll stick with them. In this case, I suggested that we could go towards Dukes Mound (the border): that way, they could stay in the normal section, and I could nip over to the other side for a quick dip in the sea, but I'd still be close by. As it turned out, we all went to the naturist bit, which was a pleasant surprise: it's "clothing optional" rather than "clothing forbidden", so they didn't have to strip off.

In fact, there were a few other people around in that section (including adults wandering along with small children), but none of them had stripped off either. That put me in a slightly awkward position, because I didn't want to offend anyone. I went down to my underwear (equivalent to a swimsuit), and waited for them to leave, but they didn't seem in any hurry to do that. Still, as one of my friends pointed out, you can't really complain if you take your children to a naturist beach and then they see naked people. So, I took my pants off, and nobody reacted, which was good. Based on that, I think that getting undressed in public is a bit like pulling off a plaster or getting into cold water: it's best to do it as quickly as possible to get it over with, rather than drawing it out.

I hobbled my way down to the sea (barefoot on the pebbles), but unfortunately the water was too rough for swimming. I've never seen the waves that big before on the beach, and I was worried that I'd get dashed against the stone wall. So, we settled for sitting down at the water's edge, facing up towards the beach. That way, the waves could break over us, but we wouldn't get choked, and we could brace our feet against the ground so that we didn't get swept away. (In practice, I still wound up sliding up the beach a bit, but not as far as I would have done otherwise.)

2 weeks ago (Sun 8th), it was the Brighton WNBR. I've been going there since 2010, including a couple of years with abysmal weather. However, this year it clashed with a LARP event, so I regretfully chose to skip it. (Ditto for the Southampton WNBR on the same weekend.)

Last weekend (Sat 14th), it was the London WNBR. I've been helping to organise this for the past few years, and one recurring problem in the Hyde Park area is that we have to get past the hordes of photographers. Digressing slightly, there's a bit from the novel Barrayar (by Lois McMaster Bujold) which has stuck in my mind ever since I read it:

That's what was missing from the scene, Cordelia realized. On Beta Colony a ceremony of this magnitude would be fully covered by holovid, to be shared real-time planet-wide. Every move would be a carefully choreographed dance around the vid angles and commentators' timing, almost to the point of annihilating the event being recorded.


The WNBR isn't choreographed, and I don't object to cameras being present. However, some photographers are more than simply observers: they crowd around people, blocking the road, and point cameras directly at people's groins. I spoke to a woman this year who did the ride in a bikini: she said that she got surrounded by 20 photographers when she started putting sun cream on, so there was no way she was going to get naked after that.

So, last year and this year we've tried out a different approach: we have multiple start points which merge en route, so people can avoid Hyde Park altogether (at least at the start of the ride). I've handled the group starting at Clapham Junction; we got about 35 people last year, and I was hoping for 50 this year, but we actually got 100! There's a photo album of that start point on Flickr, and I think we also got a reasonable gender balance; there was still a male majority, but it wasn't as overwhelming as I've seen elsewhere. Similarly, we had quite a few spectators with cameras/phones, but they weren't intrusive.

We (organisers) worked out a schedule in advance, so that we should aim to arrive in the same place at the same time. That meant that the Clapham group would need to leave at 15:00, and people started to gather from 14:15 onwards. This then raised the question of when people should strip off. Last year, I said that I'd do a ride briefing at 14:45, but people should stay dressed until just before we left; as I've mentioned before (WNBR FAQ), public nudity isn't illegal, but I didn't want to push our luck.

This year, I said that people should keep their pants on until I started the briefing, then they could get undressed while I talked (if they wanted to). However, I also said that anyone was welcome to go topless earlier than that. I've heard about Free The Nipple recently: it's an American campaign, which basically says that if it's legal and socially acceptable for a man to go bare chested then the same should apply to a woman. I agree with that, and I'm not aware of anything in English law which refers to bare chests (the "Exposure" offence only mentions genitalia), so I'd be quite willing to argue in anyone else's defence there. As it turned out, nobody objected, so next year I may make it simpler and say "Assemble from 14:00 onwards, feel free to strip off any time after that".

Anyway, we set off more or less on time; it took a bit longer than I'd expected due to the larger group, but I'd also allowed for a bit of slack in our timetable. We got a good reception from almost everyone we passed, which was good; the only people who seemed shocked were a couple of teenagers taking a selfie, who didn't realise that we were photobombing them until they turned around and saw us going past.

We stopped briefly at Battersea Park so that we could regroup (i.e. make sure that we hadn't left anyone behind). I took this opportunity to brief everyone about the next section of our journey before we continued:

Addressing my team
(Photo © bare witness, used with permission.)

I bought that megaphone a few years ago, and it does come in handy in cases like this. It's a bit too big to fit into either of my Brompton bags, so that's the main reason that I took the trailer along; I also had a few carrier bags filled with seat covers. I found that when I had the Brompton in 1st gear, towing that weight, that set a pace that everyone else seemed to be comfortable with.

We continued on, and hit our first rendezvous point within a minute of the West Norwood group, so that was good. We continued on to Parliament Square, and saw the Hyde Park group coming down Whitehall, so that timing worked out well too. Here's a photo of us heading towards Westminster Bridge, about to pass "Big Ben" (more precisely, the Elizabeth Tower):

Parliament Square
(Photo © Kev0ofBN, used with permission.)

When we got onto the bridge, we discovered that the bus lane was full up with photographers. We'd publicised that as the point where all the rides would merge, so I can see why it would appeal, but that did interfere with our plan to actually use the bus lane; it's also probably why the traffic was snarled up in Parliament Square. Anyway, I did my best to encourage the pedestrians to stand on the pavement, and one of the other organisers enlisted the police to help us.

Once we'd got everyone past there, I moved up to the front, and led the merged ride onwards. Someone took this photo just before we turned onto Waterloo Bridge:



Apparently we had 1200 people this year, so that's the biggest ride since 2009 (when we had a police escort). It was more of a challenge when the group was that big, and I was more comfortable leading the Clapham group; we were still bigger than the entire ride in some other cities. Anyway, we made it to the end, and I think I'm getting a bit better at working a crowd. E.g. I used my megaphone to call out "Thank you all for coming to the London Naked Bike ride!" As I'd expected, that got a cheer from everyone who heard it. It's a bit of a cheap trick, but I can justify it as a motivational technique.

Once everyone had reached the end point, I led a small (clothed) group back to the bike hire shop. It was a detour for me (since I used my own bike), and there were only 6 of us for that, but those people appreciated having someone to follow.

The following day (Sun 15th), it was the annual London to Brighton bike ride. A couple of my friends took part in that, but that left the problem of getting their bikes back to London afterwards (since the relevant trains won't allow them that day). So, I followed them down in a support van, with various tools and spare parts on board. I was hoping to go for a swim while I was down there, but as it turned out I didn't have time: once my friends had finished, it was getting late, so we had to load their bikes into the back of the van and drive back to London.

Yesterday (Sat 21st), someone organised a sea swim to celebrate the summer solstice, including a skinny dip. I'm not pagan, and the solstice doesn't have any particular meaning to me, but it did mean that we'd have a lot of daylight. It was also a good excuse to head back down there again. After 3 missed opportunities, I was determined to actually swim in the sea this time!

I'm not really a morning person, so I wound up running late; the plan was that we'd meet at 12:00, then start swimming at 12:30, and go to a nearby café afterwards. As it turned out, I didn't arrive until 13:00, and a few people had already left by then. When I knew that I'd be late, I was tempted not to go at all, but I'm really glad I went: it's useful to have a specific reason so that I don't just keep putting these things off.

One interesting thing is that we didn't meet up in the naturist section of the beach. Instead, we went to a relatively quiet section, and I saw that some of the group were already naked when I arrived. I asked whether that was ok, and they said that nobody had complained; in fact, one of the lifeguards had wandered over to keep an eye on the swimmers and make sure they were ok. It makes sense: the same laws which protect the WNBR would also apply here. When people are actually swimming, you won't be able to see anything below their neck anyway; similarly, if people are sitting/lying down then it's not going to be obvious what they're wearing unless you specifically look. So, this would only really be an issue for the short walk between the beach and the sea.

I quickly stripped off and went into the water. (I was worried that if I took too long then everyone else might leave without me!) The pebbles were smaller here than on the naturist beach (maybe due to more people walking on them?), and since it was low tide I didn't have far to go before I reached the sand, so I was fine walking barefoot. There was a bit of a current, so I had to swim against it to hold my position, but aside from that the water was quite calm, and I basically just floated around rather than swimming the equivalent of lengths in a pool. Later, I chatted to a couple of other swimmers who weren't part of our group (one of them was from the hen party who were sitting near us on the beach), and they were friendly.

One nice thing about swimming naked is that you don't need to take anything with you. On a sunny day like this, you don't need a towel either: you can just sit on the beach after your swim and let the water evaporate off. While we were there, another lifeguard came over, but then walked past us: she just wanted to tell a couple of other people that they weren't allowed to bring their dog onto the beach.

Finally a third lifeguard came over, and his first words were "Sorry to be a party pooper". They'd had a complaint, so as council employees they had to be seen to do something about it, but until that happened they were quite happy to let us get on with it. Most of the group had been there for a couple of hours by this point, so that's quite reasonable, and we were ready to go and get some lunch anyway.

After lunch, people went their separate ways, and I decided to head over to the naturist area on my own before I came back to London. When I got there, it was relatively busy, but most people were just in small groups (1s and 2s), and almost everyone was male. By contrast, the group I'd been with earlier was about 50:50 male:female, and there was a different atmosphere when we were all chatting rather than sitting in silence.

So, I think that demonstrates that integration is better than segregation. Looking at the rest of the beach, some people would be fully clothed and some would be in swimsuits, so I think that nudity is a logical extension of that: it's just another option, which some people will choose and some people won't, and you can have a mixture within a given group.

Coming back to cycling, this reminds me of the ongoing debate about infrastructure. As it stands, the law says that bike lanes can be mandatory (with a solid white line) or optional (with a broken white line). However, that just means that motor vehicles mustn't go into mandatory lanes, whereas they shouldn't go into optional lanes; these lanes aren't mandatory for cyclists. Some drivers don't understand that (or don't care), and criticise cyclists who ride in the main lane. I've seen some cycle lanes which are badly designed (the Crap Cycle Lanes book/website has a collection of these), and others just don't match the direction that I want to go (e.g. if I'm turning right then I won't use a cycle lane on the far left of the road).

One drawback to painted cycle lanes is that there's nothing to physically stop motor vehicles going in there; I wound up in hospital a couple of months ago after a motorbike decided to join me in a cycle lane. (I'll do a separate blog post about that in due course.) So, the next step up is to have barriers between bike lanes and the rest of the road. Opinions vary on this.

Vole O'Speed has a cartoon from the 1930s, where people felt that setting up separate paths for bikes etc. would imply that the roads are just for cars. The modern term for that is "vehicular cycling", as represented by slogans like "I'm not delaying traffic, I am traffic!" On the other hand, The Alternative Department for Transport have pointed out that this won't work for everyone, e.g. with Dutch scenes in a British context. I consider myself to be a confident, experienced cyclist, and I can "sprint" to match motor vehicle speed over short distances. However, you can't reasonably stick a 5 year old onto the roundabout at Elephant and Castle and say "Come on, take the lane!" There's a similar concern for people who are elderly and/or have disabilities. That blog has some more entries on this topic, tagged with john-franklin (the author of Cyclecraft).

So, I support having safe/slow cycle infrastructure, as long as that doesn't imply that cyclists should be banned from the roads. Similarly, I think it's fine to have dedicated naturist areas, and I know some people who would only feel comfortable about stripping off in a secluded area, but I also think that nudity should be tolerated elsewhere.