MALMESBURY, England — Sunday was the last “clothing-optional” day of the season at Abbey House Gardens in this ancient Wiltshire village, and a cold and torrential rain had confounded many visitors' clothes-free plans.
Not Roger Monroe, a retired court stenographer, who gamely took off his pants, sipped his cup of tea and explained that being here allowed him to indulge in two pastimes beloved of more English people than one might imagine: being in a garden, and not wearing anything at the time.
He cannot do this at home on account of his uptight neighbors, he explained, and so he weeds and trims while covering potentially alarming body parts with a tie-dyed sarong he bought at a garage sale.
“I am as near to naked as I can be while I cut the grass,” Monroe said.
At Abbey House, though, he can admire the flowers while dispensing with the sarong.
Abbey House Gardens, which draws tens of thousands of visitors a year to this village not far from the Welsh border, is known for its 2,000 varieties of roses, its spectacular mix of landscaped and wild paths, and the six days during the summer when people can wear clothes if they want to, or not. Its proprietors are Ian and Barbara Pollard, who often do not want to wear clothes and who are known as the Naked Gardeners.
So who was the man wielding a garden implement and concealed under a dirt-encrusted shirt and pants?
“I'm a clothed gardener,” said the man hastily, identifying himself as Luke Hollingsworth, Abbey House employee. He said he did not mind other people's nudity, as long as he did not have to be nude himself.
The real Naked Gardener, Pollard, said that his naked revelation had occurred 44 years earlier, when he was 23, broke and doing yard work.
“I was down to my last pair of shorts, and it was literally a choice between buying clothes or putting food on the table for my family,” said Pollard, perched gingerly on the edge of a kitchen chair, dressed in a pair of Wellington boots, a shirt opened over a mesh undershirt, and nothing else. “I thought, ‘If I'm going to wreck my clothes anyway, why not just take them off and carry on?“’
It was a popular decision. About half an hour later, Pollard related, the voice of a neighbor – an old lady who lived with her sister – drifted over the wall.
“Would you like a cup of tea?” the lady asked. And then she said: “I don't think my sister has seen a naked man since her fiance was killed in the war.” (World War I, that is.)
Fast forward to 1994, when the Pollards bought Abbey House, restored its garden (naked) and opened it to the public. They started the clothing-optional days after the garden was featured on the BBC's most popular gardening program. Viewers began calling, Pollard said, and asking: “You garden naked. Can we come and visit your garden naked, too?”
These occasions draw as many as 600 visitors at a time, Pollard said, of whom about 70 percent are regular nudists, 10 percent are non-nudists trying it out to see what it is like and 20 percent are “textiles,” meaning that they have clothes on.
The usefulness of such a haven became clear last year, when a 62-year-old man in Gloucestershire named Donald Sprigg was arrested and charged with upsetting his neighbors and “outraging public decency” by gardening in the nude. The charges were dropped, but the case sent a frisson of fear among nude gardeners.
Another visitor, Barry Greenop, a building controls manager, said he had first visited Abbey House with his gardening club and then returned, curious, for the next clothing-optional day. Strolling unencumbered through nature so revolutionized his outlook, he said, that he took up naked bicycling.
Nudists are apparently converted one skeptic at a time. While on an organized naked bike ride several years ago, Greenop and his group passed a fully dressed man cycling in the opposite direction.
“At the intersection, he took his clothes off, turned around and joined us,” Greenop recalled.
The rain at Abbey House bucketed down, lashed by a bitter wind. Nick Tarling, a large-framed former health and safety manager who seemed eager to do some recruiting of his own, went out to admire the garden's cascading waterfall, declaring that the weather did not bother him.
“I once stayed naked for three weeks,” he said. “It's amazing how you get acclimatized.”
On another path was a retired civil servant who did not want to give his name, for fear of public exposure.
“The last time I was here I spotted one of my neighbors, and it put the frighteners on me,” he said. “But being here has reduced my hang-ups and my inhibitions. I wouldn't even go swimming until I was 25.”
Back in the tearoom, a number of visitors accessorized their nakedness with the odd item – a ski hat here, a fanny pack there, the classic English socks-and-sandals combination over there – and prepared to venture outside. Others were recovering from earlier forays into the poor conditions.
Everyone was bundled up in warm clothes at one table, which was odd, given that they were representatives of British Naturism, which promotes nudity.
What was up with that?
“It's too cold,” explained Judith Stinchcombe, the group's chairwoman. “We may be naturists, but we're not stupid.”