Free the Naked Rambler

It is rare for anything in Fly Fishing and Fly Tying to make much of a splash. Articles such as “How to tie a Hairy Hotchkiss” or “Agostino Roncallo demonstrates how to tie an extended body dry fly purely from cul de canard feathers” emerge (if at all, because the latter is sadly paywalled) onto the surface of the general public’s consciousness with all the fanfare of a mayfly hatching on a misty morning in a quiet meander of the Itchen.

But fishermen are patient, so it is not surprising that having cast his damsel onto the limpid waters of the letters pages of Fly Fishing and Fly Tying last November, eventually the wider press took an interest in Nigel Bond’s complaint about skinny dippers in the River Dart. According to Mr Bond, there is a growing “scourge” of swimmers disturbing the peace of Devon rivers:

On a recent visit to Black Pool upstream of Buckfastleigh, I found the peace of the river shattered by several very aged, lily white and scrawny humans cavorting stark naked in what is one of the best pools on the lower river.”

It was not the effect on the fish that he objected to, but the effect on his own peace and quiet:

I don’t think that the fish would have been too disturbed – the passage of an otter would have disturbed them more – but to an angler, having paid good money to enjoy a little tranquillity by the river, the sight was altogether too much.”
I don’t have much sympathy with Mr Bond. It sounds wonderful that elderly swimmers are able to cavort in the Dart, and – particularly as they are not disturbing the fish – I think he should stop harrumphing. He sounds like a bit of a misanthrope: for heavens sake, he even objects to otters.

Otters on Dartmoor. Disliked by Mr Bond Photo Paul & Kelly. Flickr
Otters on Dartmoor.
Photo Paul & Kelly. Flickr

So what if the bathers were elderly, lily white and scrawny? Would he have complained if they had been young, tanned and fleshy?

Had he done so the Crown Prosecution Service would almost certainly have told him where to stick his cul de canard feathers and to stop being so silly.

The CPS has very sensible guidelines on when it is appropriate to prosecute in cases of public nudity. Generally speaking, it isn’t:

“Although every case should be considered according to its own facts and merits in accordance with the Code for Crown Prosecutors a consistent approach to naturism should be adopted to maintain public confidence in the CPS.  Where none of the features exist that would bring behaviour within the ambit of one of the offences set out in the section on Other offences that might involve nudity below, the recommended approach to naturism should be as follows.

In the absence of any sexual context and in relation to nudity where the person has no intention to cause alarm or distress it will normally be appropriate to take no action unless members of the public were actually caused harassment, alarm or distress (as opposed to considering the likelihood of this).

In this case such conduct should be regarded as at most amounting to an offence under section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986; and regard needs to be had to the question of whether a prosecution is in the public interest.”
(Emphasis added)

S.5 of the Public Order Act, when all is said and done, is not much of a deterrent. Conviction carries no risk of imprisonment. Anyway, the question of punishment is almost certainly academic for the elderly naturists of Buckfastleigh. There is no reason to suppose that they had any intention of harassing Mr Bond, and he doesn’t seem to have been caused any harassment, alarm or distress. The law expects a degree of tolerance from fly fishermen as from everyone else; and in fairness to Mr Bond he has not suggested that cavorting naked in the Black Pool should be a police matter.

However, while the guidelines are eminently sensible in most respects, they do not apply to Britain’s most famous eccentric, Stephen Gough, who is better known as the Naked Rambler. Even as the Black Pool naturists were coming to the attention of the wider public, the Crown Prosecution Service was bringing the full weight of the law to bear on Stephen Gough yet again, in his latest trial at the Winchester Crown Court, which took place last week. I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the trial, having represented Mr Gough in the past.

Stephen Gough
Stephen Gough

On this occasion he preferred, as he often does, to represent himself – thus saving the public purse a modest sum of money – and my role was simply to observe and, where possible, to assist the court on the applicable law.

Mr Gough, as regular readers of this blog will probably know, is an ex Royal Marine who has spent most of the last 10 years in prison because he has been determined to walk naked around England and Scotland. There has never been any suggestion that there is any sexual motive in his rambling, and occasionally his behaviour has been tolerated without the sky falling in. His first imprisonment for being naked in public was in 2004 (in Scotland), and since 2013 he has been subject to an Anti-Social Behaviour Order which punishes almost any public nudity – strictly speaking it requires him to cover his genitals and buttocks – on his part with a prison sentence of up to 5 years. The only places the ASBO does not apply are those where there is an “expectation of public nudity.”

(For this reason, and somewhat ironically, the Black Pool on Dartmoor and other places where nudity actually does annoy people, are places where Mr Gough is allowed to be naked.)

Anyway, back to the story. In August Mr Gough was released from his latest sentence of 2 ½ years, which itself had been imposed on him after he was arrested naked outside Winchester Prison having just been released from an earlier sentence.

He enjoyed a few weeks of freedom, but these ended when he was seen by a Community Support Officer called Katie Barnes who, with her PCSO colleague, happened to be patrolling Cox’s Hill in Twyford, a village just outside Winchester on Friday 11th September.

It was, as the prosecution portentously pointed out “rush hour.” Cox’s Hill is a busy rat-run for drivers trying to avoid the congested motorway nearby. As Katie Barnes described it in court:

I saw a male wearing a rucksack & nothing but hiking boots and a pair of socks.”

Closing a last possible loophole, Miss Barnes confirmed that the rucksack did not cover his private parts. Any of the rat-running drivers could have seen Mr Gough’s buttocks if they were heading towards Fareham, or worse still his genitals if they were Winchester-bound.

The ASBO was therefore breached.

So Community Support Officer Barnes supported the commuting community, by asking him to wait at a bus stop until a proper copper arrived to convey Mr Gough to the police station. She did not have any more right to arrest him than you or I would have had, but that didn’t matter because he was, as he always is, polite and cooperative while awaiting the formalities of his incarceration.

His interrogation was short and formal. He declined to answer any questions.

Like a skilled fishermen casting a perfectly tied Goddard’s Super Grizzly, the police interrogator tried to tempt Mr Gough with an inviting question:

What if there was a little old granny walking by, would that bother you, sat there naked?”

The question was hypothetical: there were no little old grannies walking by, although it is possible some grannies in motor cars had sped past without stopping. Doubtless there are some little old grannies resident in Twyford who could have walked by, though whether they are censorious petite-bourgeoises grannies of the police imagination or the more rumbustious nude-cavorting lily-white and scrawny type of grannies that annoyed Mr Bond in Buckfastleigh is anyone’s guess.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, Mr Gough was duly charged with breaching his ASBO and remanded in custody, which meant a return to Winchester Prison, the high security segregated heart of which is now a very uncomfortable home from home for him.

The jury found him guilty, after a trial in which – following a precedent set by one of his earlier prosecutions – the judge excluded him from the courtroom for refusing to wear at least a loincloth.

He now awaits sentence on 18th December. There are cautious grounds for optimism, although perhaps it would be safer to say merely that there are straws in the wind.

First, the Recorder of Winchester is an independent and humane judge. One can be sure that he will take no pleasure in passing another sentence of imprisonment on a man who has never harmed anyone. On Mr Gough’s conviction he pointedly questioned the CPS on whether any public interest was being served by the repeated series of Crown Court trials and imprisonments.

Secondly, the former Director of Public Prosecutions, Lord Macdonald QC, has spoken out against the decision of his successors to prosecute Mr Gough:

“This man is not a danger to anybody, he’s a nuisance. He’s an eccentric, as far as one can tell he’s a harmless eccentric. He’s spent around 10 years in prison, that’s £40,000 a year. This seems to be a draconian, quite inappropriate response to his behaviour.

He’s served 10 years, which on normal remission terms would be the equivalent of a 15-20 year sentence in prison ….

“Very few rapists get that sort of sentence, not many murderers serve more than that. Prison should be for people who represent a risk to the public, not for people who annoy the public in the way that he seems to from time to time.”

Thirdly, it is fast becoming apparent that the ASBO on Mr Gough has turned itself into an instrument of oppression that is quite out of place in a free society.

Whether we want to admit it or not, Mr Gough has been imprisoned for expressing his political views. He has a passionate and unshakeable belief that the human body is nothing to be ashamed of and that we should be free to wear or not wear clothes as we wish. Although this may be quite incomprehensible to many people, he belongs in a tradition of advocates of public nudity that can be traced back, if not to the Garden of Eden, then at least to Ancient Greece, and takes in various European heretic Christian sects including (in Britain) some early Quakers. Thomas Holme, for example, “rode shamelessly naked” through the streets of Kirkby Stephen in 16531, and did the same thing again through Chester in 1654, after which he was imprisoned, although not for 10 years like Mr Gough.2

Whilst the Hampshire Police – who sought the ASBO in the first place – were for some reason more concerned about the sensibilities of little old grannies, the more usual line is that Mr Gough must be gaoled to protect children. Why it should be thought, when most children are never more than a few clicks of a mobile phone from the hardest of hard pornography, and many spend the school day sexting snapchats of each other across the playground, that children require protection from the remote possibility that they might catch a glimpse of Mr Gough’s scrawny buttocks as he yomps through Hampshire, is never explained, and because of the ASBO no longer needs to be explained in order to put him behind bars again. Will their innocence be ruined? Will they be psychologically scarred? Even the CPS doesn’t actually believe that.

Police escort for naked bike rider, Brighton 2015 Photo: Bryan Ledgard

Police escort for naked bike rider, Brighton 2015
Photo: Bryan Ledgard

If that really were a justification then one would expect that the CPS to take a tough line on all public nudity. Yet, as we can see from its guidelines it does not. It tolerates it. Neither grannies nor children, evidently, need protecting from other people’s nudity, only from Mr Gough’s. If that represents “a consistent aproach to naturism which maintains confidence in the CPS,” then Alison Saunders is an otter.

As for the police, not only do most police forces tolerate public nudity, in many cases they actually facilitate it. Naked bike rides are now a regular feature in many cities and the police are often present, not to arrest the participants but to ensure that they are able to complete the rides without any problems. Why is it that children and grannies are deemed unharmed by the sight of hundreds of other naked bodies yet Mr Gough has to be kept in prison lest they see his naked body? It is not a “consistent approach.” It is a nonsense.

Even in prison Mr Gough is kept segregated from other prisoners, lest the sight of his genitals somehow corrupts the inmates of Winchester Prison. Segregation is in all but name, solitary confinement.  Solitary confinement? This is simply barbaric.

It is easy to laugh at what is indeed a farcical situation. But fundamentally this is not a laughing matter. A courageous and harmless man is being kept for year after year in near solitary confinement because he chooses to manifest his eccentric political beliefs

Mr Gough has no political party cheering him on, no troublesome supporters and a cause which attracts almost no support. Not once, as far as I am aware, has an MP even raised the question in Parliament, or written an angry letter to the DPP.  Perhaps there are no votes in doing so. 

But for all that he is a prisoner of conscience whose treatment shames the nation.

The seemingly endless cycle of imprisonment, release and re-imprisonment of this man is a shocking blot on our justice system.

Mr Gough is next due in court on December 18th.

I do not expect to be representing him then, and for that reason I am able to say publicly what I think. I hope that Judge Cutler will finally dare to do what his predecessors have failed to do and set him free.


1 B. Nightingale The Ejected of 1662 in Cumberland & Westmorland: Their Predecessors and Successors. Vol. II Manchester University Press.

2Barry Levy Quakers and the American family, British settlement in the Delaware valley. p.63 Oxford University Press 1988.

Author: Matthew

I have been a barrister for over 25 years, specialising in crime. You may also have come across some of my articles I have written on legal issues for The Times, Standpoint, Daily Telegraph or Criminal Law & Justice Weekly

20 thoughts on “Free the Naked Rambler”

  1. I agree wholeheartedly. I am not in the least bit offended by Steve’s healthy approach to life, but I am mortally offended by being expected to pay tax in order to keep him locked up and out of sight. What on earth is wrong with people – that they are offended by something which they all have themselves – a naked body?

  2. Well said, Matthew. The continuing incarceration of Stephen Gough for the crime of breaching conditions which were almost designed to be breached is a scandal. Perhaps a rational and humane judge is finally going to put an end to it.

  3. I don’t know what his motivation is in repeatedly breaking the law. We all have to live by the laws in whichever country we’re in. If laws are considered unjust then by all means protest. If an adult insists on going about in public naked they are committing a sexual offence. It’s what used to be known as indecent exposure.

    1. No. There is still an offence of exposure, under S.66 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, but it requires an “intent to cause alarm and distress.” Everyone is agreed that he has no such intent in going around naked. As a result he has never been charged with it. Apart from this it is perfectly legal to be naked in public as long as you don’t cause “harassment, alarm or distress” (S.5 of the Public Order Act) which carries no prison sentence, or “outrage public decency” which does have a possible prison sentence, but is (quite rightly) very difficult to establish. The only person in recent times prosecuted for this offence as a result of being publicly naked (in South London) was Vincent Bethell, who was acquitted.

    2. Breaking what laws? Non sexual nudity is explicitly excluded from the ‘Sexual Offences Act 2003’.
      As there are no laws under which they can justifiably incarcerat Mr Gough they had to create a bespoke law just for him.
      The stupidly of this law is that if I were to walk naked alongside Mr Gough neither of us would be breaking any laws, but he would be acting in contravention of his ASBO, and would therefore be arrested.

    3. Have you even read the article? He has broken no law, only an ASBO that in effect makes it illegal for him to do something that is legal for every other person.

      This ‘law’ just for Steve Gough was made by a court responding to the police. They are not meant to make the law. The public can make complaints to the police about many activities, but even genuine nuisance activity is often ignored. Why is it they feel the need to exercise (exceed?) their powers to proscribe an individual’s right of self expression, which causes no demonstrable harm, when parliament has seen fit to do away with outdated laws on (male) nudity, ie ‘exposing the person’?

      The comparison with naked bike ride emphasizes how ridiculous the ‘authorities’ stance is in this case.

  4. Another excellent piece about Stephen Gough – one despairs at the lack of independently-minded jurors. All it needed for this whole farrago of persecution to end was for one juror to say “enough is enough, this is not an appropriate prosecution” and hold out for an acquittal. Penn & Mead must be turning in their graves!

  5. The “old grannies” were jostling for their turn to be photographed with Steve when I accompanied him for part of his second LEJOG walk. It should also be borne in mind that old grannies were once young ladies with a healthy interest in young men.

  6. Dear Matthew
    Thanks for your time and your efforts in supporting Steve.
    I admire greatly the courage and determination of my brother in regards to his stance on what he believes. That he is prepared to be imprisoned for all these years to defend what he considers his right, places him high on my list of people to be admired, respected and emulated.

  7. This whole thing has made the UK into a laughing stock of the world. People get arrested and tormented for 10 years of Solitary Confinement for NOT breaking the law. Is that a way that a civilized nation treats its citizens? Hardly. The UK is a barbaric nation that violates and abuses its citizens without cause of public law. Their ASBO policy only gives their barbaric insane injustice system license to abuse and torment its citizens. They all ought to be ashamed. Or better still, they all ought to be tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail to restore common sense in the UK.

  8. Steve Gough’s real ‘offence’ has nothing to do with nudity, it is his defiance of the Courts & Police, who feel they have the right to make de-facto law as they go along. This is of course always self-justified by saying that it is to ‘protect the public’, and the judges decide what The Public should be protected from, without ever bothering to ask The Public. All the evidence is that the vast majority of people (of all ages) don’t actually care at all about Steve Gough and his naked walks.
    This whole matter is really a power struggle between those who feel that they should have unquestioned power, and someone who believes he should be allowed to do as he wants without hurting anyone.

    1. “All the evidence is that the vast majority of people (of all ages) don’t actually care at all about Steve Gough and his naked walks.”
      I don’t believe that to be true at all.
      I suspect most people would rather not see a man walking down the street with his genitalia on display.

  9. Poor Waltzing Matilda seems to be slightly out of touch, to say the least. A disinclination to see a ‘display’ of male genitalia by ‘most people’ does not translate into a majority caring about Steve Gough and his naked walks.

    I truly hope that the majority, were they to be aware of it, would be horrified by the treatment of Steve Gough by our Justice (sic) system, as well as appalled by the waste of public resources which have been poured into his pointless prosecution(s) and incarceration. The ASBO, which has been shown not to work, should now be discharged. He has already served (far more than) enough time in prison to have demonstrated that. The judge, apparently HHJ Cutler, should take note of the wise, humane if counter-intuitive approach of Mr Justice Holman in Button v Salama ( where he determined that any further imprisonment for continuing breaches was both pointless and unlawful. He said “So far as the coercive purpose of any sentence is concerned, I am afraid it is my clear view that this man has an absolute determination, at any rate while he remains detained in prison, not to obey the orders of this court, and that the coercive force of any sentences of imprisonment is now spent. So if I were to commit him to prison for a further term, the realistic purpose would be solely to punish him, which, for the reasons I have given, I cannot lawfully further do.”. The reason it would be unlawful was that he had already spent longer in prison than the underlying ‘crime’ could warrant on conviction. So too Steven Gough. In spades.

  10. And the weaver said, “Speak to us of Clothes.”
    And he answered:
    Your clothes conceal much of your beauty, yet they hide not the unbeautiful.
    And though you seek in garments the freedom of privacy you may find in them a harness and a chain.
    Would that you could meet the sun and the wind with more of your skin and less of your raiment,
    For the breath of life is in the sunlight and the hand of life is in the wind.
    Some of you say, “It is the north wind who has woven the clothes to wear.”
    But shame was his loom, and the softening of the sinews was his thread.
    And when his work was done he laughed in the forest.
    Forget not that modesty is for a shield against the eye of the unclean.
    And when the unclean shall be no more, what were modesty but a fetter and a fouling of the mind?
    And forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.

    words of kahlil gibran from ‘ the prophet ‘

  11. Brilliant as always, Matthew. Thank you.

    Just one tiny correction: in 2001 Vincent Bethell was acquitted of ‘Public nuisance’ by a Southwark Crown Court jury unanimously after a five day trial. ‘Outraging public decency’ was not in his case the charge. Vincent had been just as harmless as Steve during his publicly naked city walkabouts.

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