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A Year in the Life: Adventures in British Subcultures

Lucy Leonelli
Status: published
Publication Date: 20.01.2022
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After nearly a decade of dutifully climbing the corporate ladder to become a partner in a headhunting firm, Lucy Leonelli was feeling restless in a life that was seemingly mapped out for her, and she could not shake the sense that she was missing out on something… something out there.

Realising that the answer was right in front of her – in a country so full of clandestine communities and colourful, eccentric characters – Lucy made the daring decision to hit the pause button on her career and hang up her suit in favour of a year exploring twenty-six wildly different subcultures.

Over the next twelve months, she lived with battle re-enactors, circus performers, hill baggers, Morris dancers, naturists, trainspotters, yogis, zeitgeist political activists and more, experiencing first-hand their social rituals and customs in the hope that, somewhere along the way, she might just uncover the most authentic version of herself.

A Year in the Life charts Lucy’s adventure as she sang naked karaoke with naturists, jumped from one very high place to another with parkour daredevils, partied in tight latex with self-proclaimed vampires and fought the undead in an epic LARP battle. It tells of the importance of community in an increasingly isolating society; of the unquenchable human thirst for a sense of belonging; of how misguided our own prejudices can be; and of how when we open the door to others, we might just learn something about ourselves.

N is for… Naturism

“Sometimes my willy pops over someone’s chair and hits them in the back when I am squeezing past. It’s inevitable.”

I’m not being the first one out there,” my friend Tori declares as she scurries over to the peephole to scout the corridor for naked bodies. She squashes her nose against the door and glues her eye to the small bead of glass.

“Oh my God,” she says, spinning her head around to beam at me, her face alive with tipsy excitement – “a willy!”

And why, I hear you ask, was Tori so excited about seeing a willy?

Rewind the scene an hour, and we are standing in the lobby of a famous water park in the North of England, our senses assaulted by the smell of chlorine and the glaring aquarium- themed wallpaper. I look around the room, trying to imagine the scene when ‘Clothing Optional’ commences in less than an hour. Oh God. Less than an hour. A feeling of dread washes over me and I seem to have forgotten how to breathe.

“It’ll be fine,” Tori tries to reassure me in voice two octaves above her usual pitch, her blond hair framing an increasingly reddening face.

I reach for Tori’s hand as we walk up to the welcome desk.

“We’re here for the Naturist weekend,” I manage to squeak, convinced that the young, fully clothed reception workers are inwardly laughing at us. I feel an overwhelming urge to tell them all that we aren’t actual Naturists, but I had made Tori promise that we wouldn’t do that on the drive up. “No disclaimers,” we agreed. That would be cowardly.

According to the British Naturist (BN) website, there are as many as four million naturists in the UK, 10,000 of whom are signed up as members of the national organisation. We will be spending the weekend with 420 of their most active members, here to enjoy an annual holiday of ‘fun, in a non-judgemental environment’.

After check-in, we head straight for the bar, a novelty Caribbean-themed room with a warm stone floor, wicker furniture and fake palm trees. The air is sticky, and there is a buzz of anticipation in the air as people mingle from group to group, hugging and shaking hands. We order a bottle of wine to numb the awkwardness of our impending de-robing session and take it up to our room.

15 minutes and four glasses of wine later, we both set to work lowering expectations before the big exposé, describing the intricate details of our anatomy to each other in preparation for what was about to be unveiled, like school kids sheepishly saying, “it’s not very good” before revealing their art projects. We take it in turns to remove one layer at a time, our nautical themed hotel room – complete with bunk beds and SpongeBob SquarePants welcome packs – providing a surreal backdrop for our platonic striptease.

Once naked, we begin to fire panicked questions at each other: what do we do with our phones? Do we wear shoes? What if I have to bend down to pick something up? We wrestle with these questions as 6pm approaches.

Cue the peephole ‘willy’ scene.

By 6:03pm we are walking down the corridor, completely naked but for compulsory towels around our necks, our social norms shattered, and our dignity left somewhere in the discarded pile of clothes under our bunk beds.

According to our research, the first rule of naturism is to always carry a towel, for hygiene reasons in case you want to sit down. We also discover, to our delight, that they make convenient boob covers for nervous first-timers.

We walk past the cartoon fish wallpaper lining the corridor, trying to avoid looking at each other to maintain our poise. At the end of the hallway, we call the lift, which takes approximately four months to arrive, and bundle into it next to a couple who look to be in their 60’s. He wears nothing but a pair of Crocs, carrying his first-rule-of-naturism towel and a newspaper in his weathered hand. She wears a pearl necklace, her hair in a neat bun behind her head. They grin at us.

“Hi,” I raise my voice to be heard over the blaring Captain Pugwash lift music.

“Hello!” the ladies smile widens. “Lovely day isn’t it? I can’t remember the last time we had such a sunny November.”

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