‘Wednesday is naturist night. No clothes between 6pm-12am.’
My heart starts to beat faster as I read the sign that greets my arrival at Rio’s over and over again. The woman behind the till clearly senses that I am a Rio’s virgin and checks that I know what I’m getting myself in for, and to be totally honest, I have no idea that I do. Despair turns to fear as I realise that my deliberately secure double-layer of swimming trunks and even tighter boxers have been rendered redundant in an instant.
Rio’s Naturist Spa has been a feature of the unpolished yet bustling Kentish Town high street since the 1970s and remains as popular as ever.
In fact, it’s so enduring in its popularity that longterm readers of this title will have read numerous accounts of it over the years, from enthusiastic regular visitors to those of former staff members.
But no-one – at least for Kentishtowner – has yet written about their first-ever visit. Recently refurbished after a fire ravaged its facilities in 2016, the underground retreat now boasts three steam rooms and Jacuzzi’s, two sauna cabins, a plunge pool, a TV lounge and a garden. Rio’s website claims that the spa “is a place to meet new friends”, although the fact that the welcome page is scattered with pictures of attractive naked guests suggests something else is on offer.
Thankfully, I’m joined by my friend Issy whose experience as a life-drawing model means she is no stranger to getting scantily clad in front of an audience. She reassures me as I fumble nervously to stump up £17, which seems like a hefty price for a night of embarrassment and self-loathing. In a sign of things to come, Issy gets in for free on account of the fact she has more than one X chromosome.
We part our separate ways to enter the changing rooms – which should probably be called undressing rooms here. I’m handed temporary respite in the form of a towel and we take a tour of the facilities. I can’t help but feel the heat of prying male eyes inspecting the latest offering of fresh meat, although I can imagine that in their perspective Issy is the steak whilst I am some sautéed spinach on the side.
We hang up our towels and reluctantly ease ourselves into an entirely silent hot-tub. The water acts as camouflage for our nudity and we relax into pleasant conversation: for a few minutes, it is easy to forget the bizarre nature of our surroundings. This bliss is short lived as a pack of men enter the jacuzzi. Sitting by the stairs, I seem to have secured the best seat in the house – at least if the stage is watching male genitalia flap around in front of your face.
The whole experience seems fairly innocuous, albeit fairly jarring, until another mixed couple join in and start to partake in activity that they probably could have done at home. You get the sense that most eyes in the room are drawn to the live action, although I find myself increasingly staring at a screen showing highlights of the previous night’s Liverpool game.
I ask one of the other men in the hot-tub whether live sex is part of the Rio’s experience. He tells me that he has had multiple sexual experiences here. Is that the main reason he visits? “I enjoy being nude around strangers because it feels free and liberal, but there is definitely a sexual element to it,” he says, more eloquent than I expected.
One man then shifts over and asks whether either myself or Issy would like a massage, his unnerving words serving to shatter what was previously an eerie silence. I have so many questions to ask in the name of journalistic endeavour (what sort of massage, is this massage free?… ) but I decide to reply with a simple “no thanks.”
My questions are somewhat answered when the man steps out of the water, revealing undoubtedly the largest instrument I have ever seen. This is a recurring theme at Rio’s, a place that is indisputably well above human average when it comes to male endowment. I can’t help but think that I could make good use of the millimetres I lost the last time I was naked in front of so many people – at my circumcision when I was only eight days old.
Issy decides she would rather spend the rest of her evening in her own bath, and I watch everybody’s eyes follow her round the room as I try not to do the same. Whilst I am sad to see her go, her exit helps me to throw caution to the wind and embrace my nudity. My body looks like Ryan Gosling’s when compared to some of the men who I assume are Rio’s regulars, and so I mimic Daniel Craig (minus the six-pack) by nonchalantly strolling out of the water to fetch my towel.
Wait, where is my towel? I manically try to recall which one of the identical white pieces of fabric is my own. My panic subsides when I remember that anything goes at Rio’s, and as I walk across the room to grab a new one I feel liberated by my nudity for the first time.
At this point I’m thirsty so I approach the bar to enjoy a ‘complimentary’ glass of water. As a woman passes me a drink, I can’t help but notice that she, like all her colleagues, has her breasts on show. I ask her whether this is a specific requirement for a job at Rio’s, although I can tell she has failed to recognise the serious nature of my question by the way she cackles back. It is only her second week, and she tells me that she is already familiar with the group of regulars who visit a handful of times every week.
Many of these have now flocked towards the previously empty bathing pool, which has space for over two dozen naked bodies. An unfathomable proportion of this space is taken up by one gargantuan man, although thankfully his size obscures, to a greater extent, his private parts. The man is flanked by two striking young ladies who attend to his every need. A mass exodus ensues when the posse of three move, save for one elderly woman who sits facing the wrong way with her arms hunched on the counter.
I take the opportunity to acquaint myself with a young couple, Jamal and Char, who are both in their twenties. They don’t seem to have any ulterior sexual motives: they chat and laugh quietly in the corner of the pool as if they were on a park bench. The apparent vulnerability of the couple makes them approachable when compared the vast majority of customers who seem strange and intimidating.
Jamal, whose genuine warmth makes a welcome change, tells me that he comes to Rio’s frequently “to relax” in the facilities, both with and without his partner. Does he care that everyone else is naked? “Nah,” he says. “I just ignore it, it doesn’t bother me.”
I ask Char, who is a little more shy, whether she feels the same. She says she enjoys relaxing at Rio’s, although the way she leaves the pool covering her breasts convinces me that her partner is more attuned to the Rio experience than she is.
The couple are polite, but it is impossible not to notice their desire to be left alone. Rio’s paints itself as a place to socialise, but you can’t escape the feeling that anyone who approaches you doesn’t just want some pleasant conversation. I try my hardest to put the couple at ease, but they seem suspicious of my motives: after all, I am a lone male who has chosen to spend my night showing off my penis.
As I walk past the impressive facilities on the way back towards the safe-haven of the changing rooms, I recognise the appeal of an easily accessible and affordable spa in the middle of Kentish Town for the first time. Rio’s is undoubtedly home to a bunch of genuine naturists, who take the opportunity to stretch, swim and politely converse in a manner that suggests they are hardly aware of their own nudity. By the end of the evening, I am unashamedly showing off my birth suit, a notable achievement given that I’m self-conscious enough when topless on the beach.
The message of naturism is certainly a positive one, yet it is for this very reason that the Rio’s experience is wholly contradictory. I can’t help but feel that the clothes ban only exists to serve the sexual curiosity of the Rio’s regulars, and my suspicions are confirmed when I ask a man whether he enjoyed his night whilst we are both re-clothing. “Not the best,” he says. I ask why. “The quality just wasn’t there tonight,” he replies.
The presence of peeping-toms doesn’t exactly encourage amateurs like myself to give naturism a shot, a feeling that would no doubt be amplified if I were a young woman. “I thought I wouldn’t care because I’ve done life modelling before but I still felt exposed,” Issy told me after our visit. “People were looking at me sexually in a way that posh hipsters at a drawing class don’t.”
So what to conclude? My night at Rio’s was far from a night in hell, but I don’t leave as a full convert to the church of naturism either. But you never know, maybe its siren call will one day strike again.
Rio’s, 239-241 Kentish Town Rd, Kentish Town, London NW5 2JT, more info here
Some names have been changed. Sam Grossman is currently doing an MA in journalism at City University. Follow him on Twitter @_samgrossman