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Naturist Gerry Ryland

PUBLISHED: 18:40 01 February 2010 | UPDATED: 08:56 21 February 2013

Gerry Ryland

Gerry Ryland

He's argued on national television with Fiona Richmond, walked out on Robert Kilroy Silk, and been called a 'national celebrity' by journalist Jean Rook. Over four decades, Gerry Ryland, Cotswold born and bred.....

More than forty years ago, I was great friends with a student from darkest Africa. His village was too remote to be accurately pinpointed on published maps of even the largest scale. Shimea had been brought to England by missionaries. They thought that he showed sufficient intellectual promise to be educated here at charitable expense, and so he was removed unwillingly from his family. He never wore clothes in the house that he came to share with four white students, or in their adjacent garden. If you called on him at home, you knew he would be naked. In the course of time, you knew that so too would be his housemates, a male and three females.


They did not think this to be odd, despite the fact that none of them was a partner of any of the others; each had boyfriends or girlfriends outside the house. It was quite simply that they had all been influenced by the philosophy of Shimea's village: being naked meant you had nothing to hide from each other, and was the most natural thing in the world. And it was quite easy to do; they simply took off their clothes, looked at each other for about ten seconds, and were thereafter never again embarrassed by their nakedness. It was all so liberating.


Shimea said that missionaries first appeared in his village in the early 1900s, when his grandfather was the head man. They were outraged by the complete absence of clothing; they said it was 'rude' and that the villagers should immediately cover themselves up. Shimea's people did not understand; they had never worn even so much as a Hollywood-style loin cloth, so had no word for clothes. Nor did they have a word for 'rude', nor, at least, for what the missionaries were describing them as being for not covering up certain parts of their bodies.


The missionaries made garments and hung them on the villagers; then they proceeded, over time, to convert most of them to Christianity. When the missionaries left, everyone retained their newly-acquired religious beliefs, but immediately 'lost' their clothes, and felt much more comfortable.


Half a century, and no doubt many thousands of church offertory boxes later, a new generation of missionaries turned up at what they had been told was an isolated, but Christian, village. They were met with happy villagers who had not a stitch of clothing between them. This time, the missionaries brought bundles of charity-supplied clothes which didn't fit, and which irritated.


They described in graphic detail the dreadful, lustful things that must surely be rife where nudity was prevalent. This came as a surprise to everyone in Shimea's village where, since such promiscuous sexual activites never occurred, there were no words for them. But the villagers did have a word for fire, so they burnt the clothes. The missionaries left, taking Shimea with them.


I was musing on all of this on my way to see Gerry Ryland, who was later to tell me that he had once spoken with a missionary who claimed never to have encountered even one sex crime in all his dealings with naked tribes in Africa. I first became aware that Gerry lived hereabouts whilst researching an article on naturist activities in our region (Cotswold Life, June 2006). 'Naturist' has been the term preferred since 1961, when it officially supplanted 'nudist'. I knew that he had been the long-time national president of The Central Council for British Naturism, and was also the elected naturism representative on the Government's Council for Sport and Recreation. What I did not know then, was the extent of his involvement in publicising the movement, over nearly half a century, nor what a compelling ambassador he is for a life in the buff. Nor was I aware that he is a Cotswold man, through and through.


Gerry Ryland was born in Painswick in 1922, of Painswickian parents. The event predated, by six years, the establishment of Spielplatz,at Bricket Wood in Hertfordshire, the UK's first organised naturist venue. Thus Gerry, as a young garden naturist, grew up in the very spirit of the movement when it was in its infancy. Did this mean, I wondered, that his home would be a homage to naturism; would his walls be papered by eight decades of nudity; might our visit be a textile embarrassment, forcing him to put on clothes that he would otherwise prefer to be without? It would prove to be none of these things, and the only visible sign of a life as nature intended was the certificate, which hangs in his hallway, awarded to him after twenty years as the national president.


This lack of evidence is even more surprising when you consider that the Ryland's own daughter so took to naturism as a child, that she was influential in persuading her parents to continue in the movement. And even as we sat chatting, Gerry's grand-daughter, her husband and two children, were enjoying a naturist holiday in Austria. His home might have been awash with naked images; instead, there was a fine monochrome portrait of a finely chiselled matine idol: Gerry, fully clothed as a young man.


He greets us in a cultured voice that is a cross between Arthur Lowe and Laurie Lee; listening to him on tape, he might be either in turn. He speaks in cadences, with a measured drawl, pacing himself in a way that comes naturally to him now, but is clearly born of decades as an after dinner speaker on his life in naturism. It is clear from the start that he is a born raconteur who sees much humour in being naked and in the effects it has on others, and readily turns this to the movement's advantage. Yet he has the strongest possible objections to the ways in which public attitudes to nakedness and sex undermine the true ideals of naturism.


"We live in a media-driven society based on the cult of celebrity," he says sadly. Nakedness is only ever presented by the media in order to arouse a sexual response; thus people find it difficult to differentiate between nudity and sex. People believe that only those with the flawlessness of youth, or cosmetic surgical enhancement, should go naked. One result of this, is that people increasingly dislike the way they look. If more people saw more 'real' naked bodies, we should all be less self-obsessed, considerably more at ease with ourselves, and much less concerned with sex. Keeping your body covered up engenders an unhealthy curiosity, and allows all of these misconceptions to creep in."


This point was famously illustrated in a televised debate between Gerry and Fiona Richmond, the (frequently) naked actress, who opposed family naturist beaches 'for the decent exposure of recreational social nudity'. Her argument was that if nudity became more widespread, fewer people would be inclined to pay to see her shows. Yet Gerry is not opposed to displays of nakedness by models in our newspapers. "They prosper in a society that has been deprived of naturally conducted nudity; the years of suppressed decency have allowed indecency and vulgarity to flourish, and those whose naked pictures appear in the press are not to blame for profiting from this." He believes that many sex crimes are the result of ignorance and repression, not nudity.


He also believes that public perception of naturists can be wrongly influenced by media approaches. "The difficulty for the UK's printed media is that historically it has had to satisfy a predominantly non-naturist readership. (Although this has actually changed now, due to the countless thousands of British people who go abroad each year to sunbathe and swim naked, and the increasing number who have taken advantage of our own warmer and longer summers to go naked about their own homes and gardens.) The media does this by trivialising naturism, or sensationalising it, and by fuelling incorrect preconceptions amongst those who have not tried it."


It was the famous columnist Jean Rook who called Gerry a 'national celebrity' based on his presidency of the CCBN, the numerous clubs he has started, his work on the Sports Council of Great Britain, and his years of negotiating with local authorities for naturist beaches.Gerry loved Jean Rook: "A woman who didn't so much smoke between the courses of a meal, as smoke between each mouthful. One who famously said that she had cast off her clothes in Spain, and baked herself on both sides, yet, when being photographed for the paper with a group of naturists, insisted on being clad in only a red macintosh."


Today, Jean Rook's description still holds true. Gerry is recognised by naturists wherever he goes, and is fted even by many who were not born when he was at the height of his 'official' activities within the movement. He was undoubtedly a surprise attraction when he turned up unannounced at one of this year's clothes optional days, held by Ian and Barbara Pollard in their wonderful Abbey House Gardens, at Malmesbury. Naturists come from all over England on these days, and, this year, there was also a coachload from the Isle of Wight. Numerous regional accents were heard reminiscing with Gerry, and there was much handshaking and good humour. It was long past the gardens' official closing time, before he was able to leave.


Gerry once walked out of a Kilroy debate on the subject of naturism (as did representatives of the Mary Whitehouse organisation) when the producer decided that proceedings might be enlivened by the appearance of two naked men with strategically placed, phallic-shaped balloons. "Anything that involves nudity can easily be misrepresented, mocked, or presented for the cheap thrill that it really is not. I won't get involved in all that nonsense." Normally, however, he has stayed the course through more than 120 television programmes, countless radio interviews, and films like the one that told the history of Roman Bath.


It was at Painswick that Gerry and his wife Margaret bought their first home in 1946, after he was released from war-time service with the RAF. They have since lived at Bishops Cleeve and, latterly, Cheltenham. There was a secluded garden attached to the Painswick bungalow, just right for nude sunbathing. That is how it might have remained, had not Gerry mentioned this to a work colleague of many years, who then confided that he and his wife actually belonged to Western Sunfolk, a naturist club near Chepstow. The Rylands were invited to visit, and decided "it was one of those opportunities that later on we might wish we had taken up, so we thought we would go, just for the hell of it". That led to a holiday at Sheplegh Court in Devon, in a building that had once been owned by the Bishop of Exeter, and was established in 1949 as the UK's first naturist hotel.


They joined the club, which became their weekend retreat; within two years, Gerry was club secretary with responsibility for recruiting from the Gloucester and Cheltenham areas. By 1968, he was regional secretary for the South West Region of the Central Council for British Naturism, responsible for an area stretching between Herefordshire and Dorset, and west to the tip of Cornwall. Two years later, following the 1970 International Naturist Federation Conference, he was elected president of the CCBN.


As Europe was rebuilt after the bombing raids in which Gerry took part, naturist resorts also sprang up across the continent. "It was very salutary," says Gerry, "to be flying over the towns and cities I was so recently charged with destroying, but knowing now that we were on our way to a wonderful time at a new Austrian naturist resort where there would not be a bathing costume in sight. All I could think about were our thousand-bomb raids. The daftest things in the world are going to war and wearing bathing costumes."


"In Europe," says Gerry, "they have always been able to differentiate between sex and nudity, and have maintained a much more sensible approach to the latter. France has built five large naturist centres, and so has Germany. In England, the Sports Council's Strategy for Coastal Recreation in the South West of England states that local authorities should be encouraged to set up provisions for naturism - that's as far as it gets. Although there are over one hundred naturist swims currently operating regularly throughout the UK, with local authority approval, this is nothing by comparison with what there could be. At the grass roots, there are now more UK naturists than ever before. However, many people are joining in the UK in order to support the concept, but are actually going abroad to practice it where facilities are better and it is accepted as a way of life.


"Naturism is a segment of the tourist market that, even in the UK, has massive potential, but has never been properly addressed. There is a wonderful opportunity for the leisure industry to build inland naturist resorts. This could easily be done somewhere in the Cotswolds, because here the movement has a robust membership and there are several longstanding clubs.


"I am convinced that an all-year-round indoor naturist centre, with all the facilities needed to sustain it, would be financially profitable for a developer. It would also encourage more of the region's younger people into the movement, because they could then continue, in the British climate, what they actually practice each year abroad. Without it, I think that, although naturism will continue to be popular in the Cotswolds, its way forward locally is through the individual club swims. We are continually working to attract more swimming pools to the idea of regularly opening their doors to naturists."


More than forty years ago, I was great friends with a student from darkest Africa. His village was too remote to be accurately pinpointed on published maps of even the largest scale. Shimea had been brought to England by missionaries. They thought that he showed sufficient intellectual promise to be educated here at charitable expense, and so he was removed unwillingly from his family. He never wore clothes in the house that he came to share with four white students, or in their adjacent garden. If you called on him at home, you knew he would be naked. In the course of time, you knew that so too would be his housemates, a male and three females.


They did not think this to be odd, despite the fact that none of them was a partner of any of the others; each had boyfriends or girlfriends outside the house. It was quite simply that they had all been influenced by the philosophy of Shimea's village: being naked meant you had nothing to hide from each other, and was the most natural thing in the world. And it was quite easy to do; they simply took off their clothes, looked at each other for about ten seconds, and were thereafter never again embarrassed by their nakedness. It was all so liberating.


Shimea said that missionaries first appeared in his village in the early 1900s, when his grandfather was the head man. They were outraged by the complete absence of clothing; they said it was 'rude' and that the villagers should immediately cover themselves up. Shimea's people did not understand; they had never worn even so much as a Hollywood-style loin cloth, so had no word for clothes. Nor did they have a word for 'rude', nor, at least, for what the missionaries were describing them as being for not covering up certain parts of their bodies.


The missionaries made garments and hung them on the villagers; then they proceeded, over time, to convert most of them to Christianity. When the missionaries left, everyone retained their newly-acquired religious beliefs, but immediately 'lost' their clothes, and felt much more comfortable.


Half a century, and no doubt many thousands of church offertory boxes later, a new generation of missionaries turned up at what they had been told was an isolated, but Christian, village. They were met with happy villagers who had not a stitch of clothing between them. This time, the missionaries brought bundles of charity-supplied clothes which didn't fit, and which irritated.


They described in graphic detail the dreadful, lustful things that must surely be rife where nudity was prevalent. This came as a surprise to everyone in Shimea's village where, since such promiscuous sexual activites never occurred, there were no words for them. But the villagers did have a word for fire, so they burnt the clothes. The missionaries left, taking Shimea with them.


I was musing on all of this on my way to see Gerry Ryland, who was later to tell me that he had once spoken with a missionary who claimed never to have encountered even one sex crime in all his dealings with naked tribes in Africa. I first became aware that Gerry lived hereabouts whilst researching an article on naturist activities in our region (Cotswold Life, June 2006). 'Naturist' has been the term preferred since 1961, when it officially supplanted 'nudist'. I knew that he had been the long-time national president of The Central Council for British Naturism, and was also the elected naturism representative on the Government's Council for Sport and Recreation. What I did not know then, was the extent of his involvement in publicising the movement, over nearly half a century, nor what a compelling ambassador he is for a life in the buff. Nor was I aware that he is a Cotswold man, through and through.


Gerry Ryland was born in Painswick in 1922, of Painswickian parents. The event predated, by six years, the establishment of Spielplatz,at Bricket Wood in Hertfordshire, the UK's first organised naturist venue. Thus Gerry, as a young garden naturist, grew up in the very spirit of the movement when it was in its infancy. Did this mean, I wondered, that his home would be a homage to naturism; would his walls be papered by eight decades of nudity; might our visit be a textile embarrassment, forcing him to put on clothes that he would otherwise prefer to be without? It would prove to be none of these things, and the only visible sign of a life as nature intended was the certificate, which hangs in his hallway, awarded to him after twenty years as the national president.


This lack of evidence is even more surprising when you consider that the Ryland's own daughter so took to naturism as a child, that she was influential in persuading her parents to continue in the movement. And even as we sat chatting, Gerry's grand-daughter, her husband and two children, were enjoying a naturist holiday in Austria. His home might have been awash with naked images; instead, there was a fine monochrome portrait of a finely chiselled matine idol: Gerry, fully clothed as a young man.


He greets us in a cultured voice that is a cross between Arthur Lowe and Laurie Lee; listening to him on tape, he might be either in turn. He speaks in cadences, with a measured drawl, pacing himself in a way that comes naturally to him now, but is clearly born of decades as an after dinner speaker on his life in naturism. It is clear from the start that he is a born raconteur who sees much humour in being naked and in the effects it has on others, and readily turns this to the movement's advantage. Yet he has the strongest possible objections to the ways in which public attitudes to nakedness and sex undermine the true ideals of naturism.


"We live in a media-driven society based on the cult of celebrity," he says sadly. Nakedness is only ever presented by the media in order to arouse a sexual response; thus people find it difficult to differentiate between nudity and sex. People believe that only those with the flawlessness of youth, or cosmetic surgical enhancement, should go naked. One result of this, is that people increasingly dislike the way they look. If more people saw more 'real' naked bodies, we should all be less self-obsessed, considerably more at ease with ourselves, and much less concerned with sex. Keeping your body covered up engenders an unhealthy curiosity, and allows all of these misconceptions to creep in."


This point was famously illustrated in a televised debate between Gerry and Fiona Richmond, the (frequently) naked actress, who opposed family naturist beaches 'for the decent exposure of recreational social nudity'. Her argument was that if nudity became more widespread, fewer people would be inclined to pay to see her shows. Yet Gerry is not opposed to displays of nakedness by models in our newspapers. "They prosper in a society that has been deprived of naturally conducted nudity; the years of suppressed decency have allowed indecency and vulgarity to flourish, and those whose naked pictures appear in the press are not to blame for profiting from this." He believes that many sex crimes are the result of ignorance and repression, not nudity.


He also believes that public perception of naturists can be wrongly influenced by media approaches. "The difficulty for the UK's printed media is that historically it has had to satisfy a predominantly non-naturist readership. (Although this has actually changed now, due to the countless thousands of British people who go abroad each year to sunbathe and swim naked, and the increasing number who have taken advantage of our own warmer and longer summers to go naked about their own homes and gardens.) The media does this by trivialising naturism, or sensationalising it, and by fuelling incorrect preconceptions amongst those who have not tried it."


It was the famous columnist Jean Rook who called Gerry a 'national celebrity' based on his presidency of the CCBN, the numerous clubs he has started, his work on the Sports Council of Great Britain, and his years of negotiating with local authorities for naturist beaches.Gerry loved Jean Rook: "A woman who didn't so much smoke between the courses of a meal, as smoke between each mouthful. One who famously said that she had cast off her clothes in Spain, and baked herself on both sides, yet, when being photographed for the paper with a group of naturists, insisted on being clad in only a red macintosh."


Today, Jean Rook's description still holds true. Gerry is recognised by naturists wherever he goes, and is fted even by many who were not born when he was at the height of his 'official' activities within the movement. He was undoubtedly a surprise attraction when he turned up unannounced at one of this year's clothes optional days, held by Ian and Barbara Pollard in their wonderful Abbey House Gardens, at Malmesbury. Naturists come from all over England on these days, and, this year, there was also a coachload from the Isle of Wight. Numerous regional accents were heard reminiscing with Gerry, and there was much handshaking and good humour. It was long past the gardens' official closing time, before he was able to leave.


Gerry once walked out of a Kilroy debate on the subject of naturism (as did representatives of the Mary Whitehouse organisation) when the producer decided that proceedings might be enlivened by the appearance of two naked men with strategically placed, phallic-shaped balloons. "Anything that involves nudity can easily be misrepresented, mocked, or presented for the cheap thrill that it really is not. I won't get involved in all that nonsense." Normally, however, he has stayed the course through more than 120 television programmes, countless radio interviews, and films like the one that told the history of Roman Bath.


It was at Painswick that Gerry and his wife Margaret bought their first home in 1946, after he was released from war-time service with the RAF. They have since lived at Bishops Cleeve and, latterly, Cheltenham. There was a secluded garden attached to the Painswick bungalow, just right for nude sunbathing. That is how it might have remained, had not Gerry mentioned this to a work colleague of many years, who then confided that he and his wife actually belonged to Western Sunfolk, a naturist club near Chepstow. The Rylands were invited to visit, and decided "it was one of those opportunities that later on we might wish we had taken up, so we thought we would go, just for the hell of it". That led to a holiday at Sheplegh Court in Devon, in a building that had once been owned by the Bishop of Exeter, and was established in 1949 as the UK's first naturist hotel.


They joined the club, which became their weekend retreat; within two years, Gerry was club secretary with responsibility for recruiting from the Gloucester and Cheltenham areas. By 1968, he was regional secretary for the South West Region of the Central Council for British Naturism, responsible for an area stretching between Herefordshire and Dorset, and west to the tip of Cornwall. Two years later, following the 1970 International Naturist Federation Conference, he was elected president of the CCBN.


As Europe was rebuilt after the bombing raids in which Gerry took part, naturist resorts also sprang up across the continent. "It was very salutary," says Gerry, "to be flying over the towns and cities I was so recently charged with destroying, but knowing now that we were on our way to a wonderful time at a new Austrian naturist resort where there would not be a bathing costume in sight. All I could think about were our thousand-bomb raids. The daftest things in the world are going to war and wearing bathing costumes."


"In Europe," says Gerry, "they have always been able to differentiate between sex and nudity, and have maintained a much more sensible approach to the latter. France has built five large naturist centres, and so has Germany. In England, the Sports Council's Strategy for Coastal Recreation in the South West of England states that local authorities should be encouraged to set up provisions for naturism - that's as far as it gets. Although there are over one hundred naturist swims currently operating regularly throughout the UK, with local authority approval, this is nothing by comparison with what there could be. At the grass roots, there are now more UK naturists than ever before. However, many people are joining in the UK in order to support the concept, but are actually going abroad to practice it where facilities are better and it is accepted as a way of life.


"Naturism is a segment of the tourist market that, even in the UK, has massive potential, but has never been properly addressed. There is a wonderful opportunity for the leisure industry to build inland naturist resorts. This could easily be done somewhere in the Cotswolds, because here the movement has a robust membership and there are several longstanding clubs.


"I am convinced that an all-year-round indoor naturist centre, with all the facilities needed to sustain it, would be financially profitable for a developer. It would also encourage more of the region's younger people into the movement, because they could then continue, in the British climate, what they actually practice each year abroad. Without it, I think that, although naturism will continue to be popular in the Cotswolds, its way forward locally is through the individual club swims. We are continually working to attract more swimming pools to the idea of regularly opening their doors to naturists."


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