I have never looked into people’s eyes as much as this. They are talking. I am staring straight ahead. Don’t look down - look into their eyes...

This was the scene at Wigton Baths last Saturday afternoon during a swimming session promoted by British Naturism.

I had asked if I could attend, to gain some insight into the naturist world. Of course you can, they said. But it would be better if you joined in.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When in Wigton, get your kit off.

The news that I was writing about naturism attracted more interest from my colleagues than anything I’ve ever done.

“Will you join in? Are you nervous? Will you feel embarrassed?”

How sad that the simple act of not wearing clothes should be greeted with such fascination.

Says the man who gave up his Saturday to talk to people about being naked.

Being naked in Cumbria in December is usually the result of a dare or a lost bet.

I was nervous. But everyone was welcoming. Many had travelled from naturist clubs outside the county to support this swim: the second of three in a trial period.

Alain had journeyed from Lancashire. “It’s a very natural situation,” he said. “By not wearing clothes, you straight away form a kind of community. People tend to be quite friendly. There’s a sense of togetherness.”

In the male changing room I donned my birthday suit. Some men were using the female changing room. Not much point in being coy when outside these rooms we’d be letting it all hang out.

The moment of truth had arrived. I walked into the pool area... carrying my largest towel in a way which just happened to cover my nether regions.

There were naked people in the pool. There were naked people walking around the pool. One of them was introduced to me as Ron O’Hare of British Naturism’s north west committee.

I took a deep breath and put my towel down. No one laughed, which was a relief. Although no one applauded either.

So began my first naked interview with my first naked interviewee. I stared intently into Ron’s eyes.

“We’re not obsessed with being naked,” he said. “Only in clement weather! It does build your body confidence. We have one guy in Lancashire, he wouldn’t take his shirt off on the beach. Now he loves being naked. It’s just a way of life. There’s no turning back.”

Most here were middle-aged or older, with more men than women.

“A lot of people don’t find naturism until middle age,” said Ron. “They go on a naturist beach by accident. We do get more men. We’re used to showering naked when we’ve played football. Women are a bit more reserved.”

Do some people think there’s a sexual element to naturism? “It is a misconception. It makes some people reluctant to tell others that they’re naturists, which is unfortunate. I’m quite open about my naturism. I’ve found a positive response when I tell people.”

I had wondered if the sight of female flesh might cause me any unwanted excitement. But this environment was not conducive to such a sensitive flower blooming.

At one point I posed for a photograph using my notebook to cover my modesty. My pen would probably have sufficed.

Alain agreed that the vast majority of naturists have no sexual motive. “We all tend to be... I wouldn’t call ourselves policemen, but we keep a careful eye on one another. We all feel entitled to do that, particularly when there are children in the pool.” [Some swimmers bring their children.]

Julie, a teacher from Lancashire, was here with her husband George. They have been naturist-swimming with their grandchildren.

“Our grandson is 10,” said George. “He said ‘It’s only a bum and a willy - what’s all the fuss about?’ He swims but he wouldn’t tell anybody at school for fear of being bullied.”

Julie said: “It builds confidence in your body. We’re all supposed to be the same but we’re not the same. We’re all shapes and sizes. And it’s relaxation. You don’t have to think about anything else. You can leave everything else at the door.”

Amanda from Liverpool has been a naturist for the past six months. Her new friends include Julie and George.

“I just like that it’s so friendly and welcoming,” said Amanda. “We’ve been on holiday together. Beaches, clubs, barbecues. Last week we had naked Christmas carols. We’ve done naked aerobics.”

“Bareobics,” added Julie.

They’ve done naked taekwondo as well. What’s the difference between that and regular taekwondo?

Julie gave me a pitying look. “It’s just the same, but without your clothes on.”

Amanda said she doesn’t like dancing but she enjoyed a naked disco. “I just didn’t care. Your inhibitions go. To me it helps relieve stress as well. A lot of people say it’s getting close to nature. To me it’s about socialising.”

And about body image. “You think ‘that bit’s saggy, I’ve got a scar there’. You know what? It doesn’t matter.”

Alain described naturism as “a way to break away from work, from the normal stressful environment. It gives you a totally fresh perspective. It is an escape. Being in the water is a sense of physical freedom and freedom in your head.”

He wasn’t wrong. I swam up and down the pool. The movement of water in places where one doesn’t usually feel it was pleasant and helped to relax me.

Alain had said that being naked would soon feel normal, and it did.

At first this had been like one of those dreams where you go outside and realise you’ve forgotten your clothes.

After half an hour I interviewed someone at the side of the pool with my towel over my shoulders. And I felt conspicuous because I was the only person, apart from the two lifeguards, who wasn’t naked.

The Cumbrians here included John Starbuck from Egremont, who would like to see a similar swim to this nearer his home. John is a mountaineer who has climbed peaks in the Arctic.

He has tackled something arguably even more fearsome: naturism on a west Cumbrian beach.

“I normally go to Drigg beach. It’s four miles of sandy beach and it’s deserted. There’s never anybody on it except a few naturists. It’s perfectly legal to be naked on a beach as long as you’re doing it passively with no intention of upsetting anyone.”

I forgot to check whether John does this only on nice summer days. Surely even an Arctic explorer wouldn’t risk a sandstorm in the nude.

John does think that “people are hung up about being naked in front of other people. Organisations like British Naturism are nibbling away at that attitude.”

Bill Nelson, a digger driver from near Penrith, said: “I just like doing it. There’s nee harm - it’s just nature. I’ve got a few friends who want to do it but they want to do it abroad. At work they just laugh about it.”

Ray Riordan is a leading light in the optimistically named Solway Sun Club; a naturist club near Carlisle. “I’ve been a naturist for years,” he said. “More than half my life. I don’t know why anybody doesn’t want to be one.”

On most Saturday afternoons Wigton Baths is visited by just a handful of people. Here there were more than 40.

Elaine Hudson from Wigton Baths Trust was one of the lifeguards. She said: “It’s been going great. This is a three-month trial but we think we’ll keep it going.

“They don’t come and swim 200 lengths. It’s more a get together of like-minded people, which I think is really nice. There’s not anything sordid.”

She added that not everyone is so easy-going about it. “One of our lifeguards refused to work. He says ‘I can’t see the need to walk around with no clothes on.’ It’s the younger end that are more anti.”

Doubtless many will remain suspicious of naturists: these strange people who behave as if being naked is perfectly natural.

I heard numerous theories about its appeal. Getting back to nature. Being part of a community. I could see those. And I wonder if taking off your clothes is an act of quiet rebellion in a world bound by rules and conventions. It’s also a way to make yourself vulnerable and feel kindness in response.

I must confess that on occasion my gaze did flick down from people’s eyes. But what I remember most is not how they looked but how they were.

n The next naturist swimming session at Wigton Baths is on Saturday January 12. It costs £5 per adult. Please email bnnwnewsletter@gmail.com if you would like to attend.