Free swimming: The OSS goes to Parliament

Owen Smith MP on the partnership between the OSS and the All-Party Parliamentary-Group on Swimming

Dominick Tyler

Campaigners for inland access dream of the day when “swimming forbidden” signs are replaced with helpful information boards, entry ladders and perhaps a changing hut or two. This Summer, Oli Pitt of the OSS and Owen Smith MP of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Swimming began a fresh round of meetings with the custodians and owners of our waterways to discuss opening up access in reservoirs and rivers. In the first of our updates on the campaign, Owen Smith MP finds that the early signs are promising.

In the long, scorching summer of 1923, when the mercury topped out at 34.4 degrees, the hot and bothered British took refuge in one or other of the 600+ outdoor swimming clubs that graced the banks of our rivers and lakes, lochs and tarns. Alas, in our recent spell of record-breaking temperatures, apart from those lucky enough to live near the Hampstead Ponds, Henleaze pool, or the famous Fairleigh Club-on-Frome, such bankside respite was just a distant dream.

However, many of us do still dream of reviving those days of reverie and blissful bathing and the APPG on Swimming has recently teamed up with the Outdoor Swimming Society, the modern custodian of Britain’s lost traditions of dipping and diving, to explore how we might safely bring them back.

Our inspiration for this plan to restore the ‘river-clubs’ is not just a question of restoring our own past, but also of emulating the present in so many countries across Europe. The tradition of swimming in beautiful inland waterways, of lakeside beaches and riverbank changing huts, hasn’t been lost in Portugal or Poland, Sweden or Spain. There, a more liberal culture of personal responsibility and public access has allowed the pleasures of traditional, outdoor swimming to persist, whereas, in Britain, private ownership and public risk aversion have combined to limit dipping opportunities and appetite alike.

The secret to rebuilding a tradition that would benefit so many parts of Britain where swimming opportunities are limited is to forge a new partnership with the current guardians of our waterways: the landlords, riparian owners and water companies that control our rivers and reservoirs

Owen Smith swimming at Llyn y Fan Fach in the Western Black Mountains

“The secret to rebuilding a tradition is to forge a new partnership with the current guardians of our waterways: the landlords, riparian owners and water companies that control our rivers and reservoirs”

Oliver Pitt of the OSS and I started that process this summer. We met with the water companies to explain the extent of the revival of interest in outdoor, open-water swimming, to explore how the reluctance to allow swimming in their waterways might be overcome, and to make the case for restoring rivers fit to swim in once again.  

We recognise that the obstacles to achieving these goals are significant. Fears about owners’ liabilities are legitimate and the risks to inexperienced or ill-prepared swimmers are real (if sometimes overblown). At the same time, damaging abstraction or polluting sewage disposal and run-off has been shamefully built into the very business model of our water management. Allaying such fears and unwinding such practices will take time and effort.

But there is a clear and growing demand among Britain’s surge of swimmers and there are encouraging signs in our conversations that some water companies are ready to listen and respond. Already, Anglian Water, advised by the OSS, has opened up its bathing beach at Rutland for the fifth year in succession. While some of the biggest companies have been highly resistant to discussions in the past, our renewed dialogue with them has been really positive, with a new willingness to explore how access might be extended to formerly forbidden waters.

The health and wellbeing benefits of this increased access to our inland waterways are surely unarguable. All of us who regularly swim in our mountain lake or lowland meander know that feeling of emerging reborn, our aches and cares quite literally washed away, if only for a few precious moments. Everyone should have a chance to experience that. Everyone should have an opportunity to enjoy the simple pleasure of soaking themselves in nature.

That’s the dream of the Outdoor Swimming Society and its many members like me. We want to spread the joy of swimming safely under open skies, and with it the physical and mental wellbeing of immersing yourself in our waterways, and taking some greater measure of responsibility for their health. Our campaign to increase access to our inland waterways will keep this dream at its heart and we hope to keep the community informed of progress and successes in the months ahead. Perhaps the next time the thermometer hits 30c, we might have a few more outdoor swimming clubs at which to enjoy it!

  • Owen Smith is the swimming MP for Pontypridd, home of the National Lido of Wales, and Co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Swimming.