Stark choice

AFTER being warned he risks spending his life in jail, what drives the Naked Rambler to refuse to get dressed, asks Claire Prentice

ON ONE of the coldest nights on record, while Scotland shivered under vests, cardigans and thermal long johns, one man sat, defiantly naked as usual, in a chilly segregation cell in Perth Prison.

Stephen Gough, the 50-year-old Naked Rambler who has become notorious for walking the length and breadth of Britain wearing only a hat, a pair of stout walking boots and a rucksack, was warned in a Perth court last week that he risks spending the rest of his life in jail unless he puts his clothes on.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Sheriff Lindsay Foulis told Gough it wouldn't take "crystal ball gazing" to see if he didn't cover up he would be arrested "again and again and again".

The 6ft 4in former marine, HGV driver and father of two has spent much of the past seven years in prison because of his refusal to cover up.

Opinion on the Naked Rambler is divided. Is he a great British eccentric – or a perambulating pervert? Does his solitary protest against clothes make him a principled libertarian – or an attention-seeking weirdo? There's no doubt what Gough thinks – he compares himself to US African-American civil rights campaigner Rosa Parks. But Parks, a dignified lady who fought racial discrimination, would never have been caught walking along a Scottish B road in the buff.

Appearing, naked, in court in Perth, Gough said: "People who have brought great change often have to go to prison first. This is about individual freedom and people's tolerance to other people being different. I understand a lot of people will disagree and have strong feelings about it. Walking the amount of miles I have, through towns and cities, it is on the whole a very small moral minority who act in an irrational way. "

It's an extreme position, but those who have spent time with the Naked Rambler say he is not mentally ill and numerous psychiatric reports have declared him sane. He believes he will be thanked by future generations, including his own children, for fighting for freedom of expression.

Bob Janes got to know Gough after being assigned by his editor at H&E Naturist magazine to cover one of Gough's early court cases, in 2003 in Southampton. The two men became friends. "He is a big guy and very direct," said Janes. "Some people might find him a little unnerving in his honesty but I found him to be a gentleman and rather likeable."

Richard Collins, who is known in his home city of Cambridge for cycling naked, met Gough in 2000. He went on to help Gough plan his first walk from Land's End to John O' Groats in 2003 as part of Gough's campaign for his movement 'Freedom To Be Yourself'.

During the course of the 847-mile walk, Gough was arrested 15 times and spent 140 nights in prison. The police referred him to a psychiatrist while his mother and his long-term partner, Alison Ward, lambasted him in the press. He eventually completed his journey, five months behind schedule, his progress delayed by repeated stints behind bars.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

When Gough decided to repeat the journey in 2005, Collins joined him, along with Gough's then girlfriend, hairdresser Melanie Roberts, who he met on a nudist beach. "The way he has been treated in Scotland is terrible," said Collins. "The public has become a lot more accepting of nudity but the law is lagging behind."

Organised nudity has a long and colourful history in Britain, but naturists tend to be sniggered at, not imprisoned. The first British naturist club was established in Wickford in Essex in 1924, claiming kinship with the German tradition of naturism which was pacifist, free-thinking and dedicated to healthy living. The stout burghers of Wickford found such high mindedness almost as hilarious as the sight of naked people playing volleyball.

It only takes a peek at seaside postcards from the 1950s and 60s to see the hold that the nudist beach once had on the smutty British imagination. But naturists maintain that there is nothing vulgar going on. "Naturism is not about sex, it is about being in your natural state," says spokesperson for British Naturism Andrew Welch.

Since the 1920s, British culture has had ample opportunity to get used to naked people in public. From the bouncy exuberance of streaker Erica Roe in the 80s, to the artfully nude "calendar girls" of the Women's Institute in the 90s to the barrage of scantily clad bodies on TV and online, we now have endless opportunities to see the naked human form.

In May 2007, the American photographer Spencer Tunick persuaded 18,000 people to pose naked for him in the middle of Mexico City. That is 6,000 more people than the total membership of British Naturism today. Nudity may be cool, but naturism is old hat.

And what of the stance taken by Scottish police? Does the relatively hard line they have taken with Gough speak of Scottish repression? Not so, say police in Scotland, who claim to be protecting the public. Not everyone agrees. Mark Stephens, of law firm Finers Stephens Innocent in London, says the Scottish police and law courts are overreacting.

"In England we've taken the view that Stephen Gough is not a danger to society but is a harmless eccentric, part of life's rich tapestry and we won't waste police time and money on him. In Scotland, a more prudish approach has been taken."

On thing is certain, going naked isn't cheap. Gough's latest bid to remain naked has cost the public purse more than 200,000. Psychologist Alexander Wedderburn said: "I can't believe the law should spend public money in such a way. I don't think we should be looking for psychological explanations for Gough's behaviour. It's the judges that need to be psychologically examined."

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Gough's early life holds few clues to what would follow. He was born in a conventional household in Southampton, the middle child of six brothers and a sister. His mother Nora has said: "I don't know where he gets this from, certainly not from me. I don't approve of what he is doing." After a career in the marines, then a stint as an HGV driver, Gough set up a sandwich-making business.

On his official website,, Gough states his beliefs. "We are taught our bodies are shameful. It is not until we start to question what we have been taught that we start to change and crave a better society. I am taking a stand and I hope that inspires others to do the same. There is no law saying 'Thou Shalt Not Go Naked'."

But Gough's stance divided the naturist community. Vincent Bethell, another campaigner for the right to remain naked, has slammed Gough for "attention-seeking". But Gough seems to take strength from his unworldliness. His nudity, he seems to believe, is the nudity of saints and holy men, not the nudity of the tabloids.

Scrawny, weather-beaten, scratched by brambles, a knot of varicose veins behind his knees and a penis retracted from the cold, Gough seems the opposite of sexy.

Reactions to him vary. On one of his walks, he was beaten up in St Ives and treated in hospital for a broken nose and a gashed eye. He was arrested in 2003 for alarming a female motorist near Blair Atholl. Two weeks later he was arrested again for frightening a woman in the woods in the Black Isle.

Colin Heggie worked as cameraman on a film about Gough's 2003 walk. "People would clap and honk their horns, shake his hand and invite him in for a cup of tea. In the whole time we were with him, no-one reacted negatively. It was all fun and games. Then out of nowhere one day, a police van appeared and he was arrested. He was a nice, likeable, witty, intelligent guy. You felt sorry when he got arrested. But he became stubborn. If he'd been left alone he might not still be doing it any more."

Gough may win over the journalists who spend time with him, but living with a social revolutionary can be tough. Gough's growing obsession with nudism drove a wedge between him and long-term partner Ward, the mother of his two children. The final straw came when, with Ward's parents visiting, Gough turned up for breakfast in the nude. "It was dreadful," Ward said. "My parents and I walked out, I was crying, absolutely livid. He just walked in and asked if we wanted some toast. I knew then it was over."

Though Gough says he is prepared to languish in prison until the authorities come round, those close to him fear for his health. Janes said: "He'd be much better off putting his clothes on, getting out of jail and doing another walk. Because he refuses to wear clothes, he isn't allowed visitors and he is kept away from the other prisoners. It can't be good for his physical or mental well-being."

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Where will the Naked Rambler head next? For now at least he's not going anywhere. With a world to change, he seems unlikely to hang up his hiking boots or put on his trousers anytime soon.

Bare facts

1959 Stephen Gough is born in Southampton, the middle child of six brothers and a sister.

January 2003 Gough outrages a magistrate in Southampton by turning up at court naked to answer public order charges.

16 June, 2003 He sets off from Land's End in his first attempt to walk the length of Britain naked.

January 2004 After being arrested 15 times and spending 140 nights in jail, he reaches his final destination.

June 2005 Begins his second walk to John O'Groats, this time accompanied by his then girlfriend, hairdresser Melanie Roberts.

January 2006 Gough and Roberts are picked up by police near Dingwall after an outraged Kirk minister makes a formal complaint.

20 February, 2006 Gough completes second walk from Land's End to John O'Groats.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

23 June, 2006 He is jailed for four months after stripping off on a plane from Southampton to Edinburgh.

17 December, 2009 Gough emerges from Perth jail after serving another sentence and is rearrested after immediately stripping off.

12 January, 2010 A sheriff warns him he could spend the rest of his life in jail unless he dons clothes.