Citizen Swimmer

For these swimmers, getting into the water is also a chance to change the world

Ian Thwaites/Level Water

Swimming isn’t always about serenity and escapism; it can also be activism – and outdoor swimmers don’t have to look far to find a cause. Focus is intensifying on how to achieve equal access to swimming lessons and reduce drownings; how to address critical issues with inland and marine pollution; and how to open up swimming spaces to normalise swimming outdoors. Here we profile some swimmers for whom the medium is the message.

Peter Hancock

Peter Hancock, aquatic ecologist

In my third year at university, I had to select units to specialise in. I’ve always been interested in rivers, lakes and the sea, so I picked units in aquatic ecology and limnology. During field trips, while my colleagues swept nets along the edge, or stood on the bank collecting water samples and making observations, I was the student in the water, watching caddisfly larvae clear their nets of drifting food, or searching along banks for hidden fish and eels.   And I’ve been that student ever since- through PhD and Postdoctoral studies and into a career as an aquatic ecologist. It’s been a great! Over the past 20 years, work has taken me to places all around Australia and New Zealand and has given me the opportunity to swim (and dive) in places that are otherwise off-limits to people. What keeps me fascinated is that there are so many different underwater habitats in the freshwater and marine realms. Rivers, lakes, estuaries, wetlands, coral reefs, rocky shorelines- each has its own unique ecological community that changes with season, water level, or some other variable in the water. There’s always something new to see. I feel incredibly lucky to have a job that complements my swimming, and a hobby that complements my work.  


Imogen Radford

Imogen Radford, OSS Inland Access group

I rediscovered outdoor swimming by reading Waterlog, so I knew about problems accessing rivers and lakes. But I wasn’t expecting to find quite so many access restrictions or unnecessary and unhelpful No Swimming signs and media messages. So I got involved in the OSS Inland Access Group. I advise campaigners around the country and talk with local and national landowners and authorities to address misunderstandings of liability and the risks of swimming so that they can open up their inland waters for people to enjoy this healthy and low impact activity.

I like finding new places or revisiting favourite spots for a dip, and I like seeing people enjoying the water at places they have traditionally swum (and some new locations). There are too few places where people can access water and demand is high, so concerns arise about overcrowding and negative impacts. Swimming is relatively low risk, but generations have lost knowledge as they have been driven out of the rivers or been made unwelcome in many swim spots. So it is important to address fears about water quality and legality, and to spread simple messages about safe and responsible swimming and water play, like OSS top 10 tips for summer swimming. I want more people to be able to swim, to access more places, to do so safely, and to respect the places they go to enjoy the water. I want to see a reversal of the exclusion and disconnection of people from nature and our inland waters.


Rebecca Ward on riverfly watch

“Riverflies have long been referred to as the ‘canary of the rivers’ because of this extraordinary ability to detect minute changes in the hydrosphere. Anglers and citizen science groups make up the important network of samplers who measure riverfly numbers on a monthly basis.”

Rebecca Ward, riverfly monitor

British anglers have long understood the correlation between the numbers of riverflies in the annual hatch – usually in late Spring – and the quantity of catch in the subsequent fishing season. We know that at the larval stage, riverflies are hyper-sensitive to fluctuations in water quality, habitat diversity, water level and flow rate of their immediate environment. Riverflies have long been referred to as the ‘canary of the rivers’ because of this extraordinary ability to detect minute changes in the hydrosphere.

The Riverfly Partnership was formed in 2004 to bring together all related parties with an interest in the health and conservation of freshwater habitats. It’s now one of the largest networks of its kind, collecting data from scientists, conservationists, water course managers and government agencies.

In terms of boots on the ground, anglers and citizen science groups make up the important network of samplers who measure riverfly numbers on a monthly basis. The guardians of the data, namely academics, ensure longevity of the data, meaning scientists and ecologists can analyse and identify trends over time.  It’s the job of the Wildlife Trusts who work hard, primarily funded by charitable donations, restoring habitats, educating the public and linking farmers to conservation initiatives.

As a naturalist and recreational water user, I feel strongly that wild water should be fit for our native wildlife first and foremost. Once humans remove rubbish and physical pollutants, in correct quantities, with a stable habitat, native plants and aquatic life are capable of maintaining their own equilibrium; that equilibrium in part, is the maintenance of clean water. If we look after them, the engine which keeps inland water clean, we ensure clean rivers feed clean seas.


Credit: Frank Awuah

Ed Accura, co-founder of the Black Swimming Association

I was born in the UK, but when I was around 7 or 8 years old my Ghanaian parents took me to live in Kumasi, Ghana, for school. A friend in my class had a pool party, and my mum said there was no point in me going – I couldn’t swim, I should focus on my books. When I grew up and returned to the UK, it was very clear to me that I couldn’t swim. It’s easy to hide behind the stereotype ‘I’m black’. That started as an excuse, but at some point I began to believe it. After my daughter was born, my wife insisted she went to swimming lessons. Ironically, I was the one taking her there every Saturday. 

In 2018 we went on holiday to Barbados with friends. Everyone was swimming; I was bored. While there, I wrote a song called ‘Blacks Can’t Swim’, and put it out on itunes and YouTube. I got a message from Alex from Swim in Nature offering to teach me to swim – she said they’d been aware of the problem but as a white organisation they didn’t want to start that conversation. Then the idea for the film developed – A Film Called Blacks Can’t Swim – the response to that was crazy. Then we started the podcast In The Deep End, where celebrities talk about their swimming experience – every black person has a story about swimming, whether they can swim or not. 95% of black adults in the UK can’t swim. 80% of black children can’t swim. 

The Black Swimming Association emerged out of discussions in July 2019 between me, Alice Dearing (Team GB open water swimmer), Seren Jones (a journalist) and Danielle Obe (businesswoman and inventor of waterproof headscarves). Now we have partnerships with Swim England, Swim Wales, Speedo, and the RLSS. The aim is to educate the black community on water safety,  lifesaving and drowning prevention – and to ensure everyone gets the chance to learn to swim. If one fewer black person dies as a result of this, I’ll have done my job. But if they also go on to become an Olympic swimmer? That’s good too.

Ian Thwaites/Level Water

Ian Thwaites, founder of Level Water

My parents met in a swimming pool: mum swam for the county and dad competed at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. My start in swimming was less auspicious – in an average swimming club, I was the slowest of nine boys my age (so that’s four in the “A” team, 4 in the “B” team … and me).  But persistence paid off, and by 17 I was racing amongst the top 30 boys in the country at the National Championships. I went on to swim front crawl and backstroke across eight different events at a National level, placing as high as sixth in the country. I was men’s captain at the University of Bath and Mark Foster’s training partner for a year. After serious competitive swimming, I branched out from the pool. I swam Masters competitions for a number of years and then discovered Triathlon and Open Water swimming. 

 It was in 2012 that I set up the UK’s main national swimming charity, Level Water, to give children with disabilities a great start in swimming. We teach children to swim and help them join group lessons, providing over 20,000 one-to-one lessons every year.  The charity has a close partnership with the OSS – through its events, the OSS has helped Level Water raise more than £1million in the last four years.

I discovered a different side to water after two major life events: having children of my own and breaking four vertebrae in a cycling accident. My fondest memories are now away from the pool and competition; freediving in Croatia, swimming around islands, racing sailing boats in the deep ocean, surfing (badly) and playing in the waves. Now I want for Level Water’s children what I want for my own: to fall in love with the water. To have this elusive element in their grasp and offer them deep, meaningful experiences with it. 

I discovered a different side to water after two major life events: having children of my own and breaking four vertebrae in a cycling accident. Now I want for Level Water’s children what I want for my own: to fall in love with the water.

Owen Hayman, OSS and Sheffield OUtdoor Plungers campaigner

Four years ago I created SOUP – Sheffield OUtdoor Plungers. Since then we’ve seen a large and noticeable culture shift in reservoir swimming across Sheffield and the Peaks. Our lofty vision was threefold: First, to normalise free, informal outdoor swimming in places where it was once a novel or eccentric thing to do, if not illegal. Many of these spots are reservoirs. Second, not only to normalise swimming at these spots in the eyes of onlookers, but normalise it with ourselves too. Third, the long-term hope is to bring about legislative change that widens public access to water across England and Wales, to bring us in line with Scotland.

This is how we are making it happen. We  created SOUP Facebook group and Instagram to aggregate and grow a community. We foster a healthy culture by getting a few passionate key members to demonstrate the values you want to build the community on – inclusiveness, environmentalism, sharing, encouraging others etc. We put good, useful, helpful, insightful information front and centre. We arm people with the resources they need to join in and feel confident and be informed. This means using maps, lists, infographics, blogs, photos and videos, drawing on the knowledge and experience within the community. 

Rebels aren’t troublemakers; they break rules that should be broken. When our swimming is challenged, we state our case for improved access. We break the stigma upheld by secretive swimming at sites with ‘No Swimming’ signs – our swimming is open and public, because we have nothing to hide or be ashamed of. We use public social media to sprinkle our rebel swimming antics into the public consciousness. Public support is now growing and growing, from what was a hostile situation when we started.

owen hayman Owen Hayman

Rebels aren’t troublemakers; they break the rules that need to be broken. Our swimming is open and public, because we have nothing to be ashamed of.