"Do you sell parasols?" It's Friday night in Primark and anticipating a heatwave, I'm preparing myself for the next day's Naturist Jazz & Real Ale Festival. I've already chosen new flip flops and a sunhat, but I feel a parasol is just what my non-outfit needs. "Sell what?" says the sales assistant. You know, umbrellas to shade your skin from the sun? Perhaps there’s not much call for these in Primark on Oxford Street, as the sales assistant simply points me towards the brollies, none of which are sufficiently summery. I wean myself away from a flamingo rubber ring and head home to spray-tan myself a shade of Trump.
The next day, it turns out my shopping trip was misjudged. It is actually raining. When I put the rubbish out in the morning, I wish I'd worn a jacket. I message the organiser to ask if the festival's still on. Are macs permissible? What do people do? He assures me it's going ahead as planned. The music is in a marquee, and most will wear clothes if the weather's bad. Apparently, "we had worse weather last year."
In the cab office at St. Mary Cray station (accessible by Oyster card) I wince as I give the address, certain there’ll be sniggers as they click that it's the naturist resort. Our driver, however, is oblivious, dropping us at a nondescript gate for six quid.
Once in, I trample through a wood with Tom, who's come along to take photos. I do not want to take my clothes off. After last week's Liquid Love, I've had enough of naked people. "I'm sticking to restaurant reviews," I tell him, "five star food, central London, fully dressed, looking fabulous." I don’t know why people want to take their clothes off. At Liquid Love, I was surrounded by ballsacks and felt a flaccid cock on my foot. I do not want naked people near me. I am out of sorts and suffering from genitalia-induced PTSD.
The wood turns into more of a field and I hope we're heading in the right direction — soon, we spot some naked people. Great. It's nearly two o'clock, but despite the festival starting at 11am, there are only eight or so people sitting about. Out of place in our clothes (and by a couple of decades), Tom and I are soon collared by the office admin who asks us for ID. Then a man who tells us he's the PR takes us on a walk around the site. I try to tune into the bit of my brain that's saying, "this is beautiful!" But then we walk through a field filled with tents, and the bit of my brain that hates camping has a coronary.
We've seen some more naked people now, and Tom and I agree we'll fit in better if we get undressed. Tom says, "last time we did this, you went home in someone else's knickers!" He's referring to the launch of naked pop-up restaurant The Bunyadi, when we got shit-faced. He adds, "if that happens here, you’ll end up in someone's caravan!". I determine to bridle my beer intake.
Once undressed, I am offered a rusty green umbrella with some ribbon stapled on it, and "ET Phone Home" stuck on in felt letters. I may carry this on the Umbrella Parade, which is apparently a tradition. Led by some jazz musicians, twenty-or-so of us bob about to music round a field for ten minutes, before coming full circle. Every second is excruciating. I try to find the fun in it but I can't. I'm too sober for this, I tell Tom.
We each get a pint of real ale from the pop-up beer tent, then head to the on-site caff for food. I'd imagined there'd be a BBQ or food stalls, but the café with wipe-clean tablecloths is our only option. The organiser says he tried to book a burger van for later, but they were let down. Apparently they were let down last year too.
I want to take to our food outside to listen to the jazz, but Tom, who's tried to order Spaghetti Bolognese, insists on eating inside. He is afraid he will spill his food down himself. So we sit amongst an array of ornaments that might have been stockpiled from a spate of house clearances in Eastbourne.
After lunch, I'm introduced to some members of the Naturist Foundation, who are sitting at a table by the beer tent. I am opposite an attractive couple, which soothes me, as I do not feel they've taken their clothes off to spite me. Up until this point, I've been harbouring a suspicion that naturism is all about being wilfully unpleasant, inflicting the sight of yourself on other people.
We get well into the beers. Tom favours the Brentwood, while I numb my pain with the Pale Ale and the She Sells Sea Shells. But actually, I'm enjoying myself now. The day has taken a turn since we sat down with the members. Natalie tells me that packing for holidays is easy (because, no clothes). Someone else gestures to the surrounding scenery and says, "millionaires can’t buy this!" He's right – it's beautiful. And I like these people. I'm maybe even making friends. But then I ask, "what’s the difference between naturism and exhibitionism?" and the atmosphere could make ice-cubes out of the beer that's been spilt on the table. Then a guy on my right says, "about two inches!" And thank fuck everyone laughs.
We're invited to join them for dinner. I have put my clothes on now, as I'm genuinely cold, but I'm told this is OK — even the organiser is fully dressed at this point. Tom, however, takes his cue from some of the hardier gentlemen members, and stands there in just his jumper, with his ballsack out, at the barbeque.
It's a communal grill, divided into sections and nothing to do with the festival. Members have brought their own meat, and they're sharing it on a trestle table with salads. I understand now what they meant when they called it a community. It's so nice, I find myself wondering if I could spend my weekends here, despite the fact that I don't like camping, and fail to understand why anyone wants to take their clothes off.
They've tried to explain, of course. "It's the sense of freedom," says everyone I ask. "No one can judge you without your clothes on — you wouldn't know what I do for a living, would you?" says every single member. "The sense of community," is also a winner on the dare-to-bare bingo card. But can't you have a sense of community with your clothes on, I ask. And aren't clothes just one way people judge each other, alongside haircuts, accents, jewellery and glasses?
No one answers in a way that makes any sense to me. But it rings true when they say they welcome everyone. One woman shows me the scars on her back and tells me she feels accepted here, adding, "there are members with mastectomies who feel comfortable naked." Natalie says her girls have grown up with a realistic idea of what bodies look like, and anyone who seems a bit off is shown to the gate, says a man in a dressing gown, who's contributed a lovely rack of lamb. It is a world away from strangers rubbing against me at Liquid Love, and my earlier cynicism has subsided.
As a festival, it's hardly heaving, but next year, with a better weather forecast and a burger van, they might just boost their numbers. Frankly, I think it's spot-on as it is. I only hope an increase in ticket sales doesn't spoil it.
Some names have been changed.
Samantha Rea can be found tweeting here.